My forte's comedy, really

Finding the fun in being the bad guy

Published: Mar 08 2016, 01:01:am

Friday, April 6, 1973.

FILMGOERS REMEMBER HIM AS the Tempter of Christ, as a torturer of Charlton Heston and as a villain thwarted by James Bond. His name is Donald Pleasence and, despite his reputation for evil, in less than a year he has established himself as the best thing to happen to Canadian films since the CFDC. [Canadian Film Development Corporation]
    In two films, director Bill Fruet's award-winning Wedding in White (1972) and Gerald Potterton's just-premiered The Rainbow Boys, the 53-year-old performer demonstrates for film audiences what theatre-goers in London and New York have known for more than a decade: Donald Pleasence is an extraordinarily fine actor.
    Pleasence the villain is the product of Hollywood typecasting. "I personally think that my forte is comedy, really," he told me in an interview. "I always feel like a funny actor. Always have done.
    "When I was younger, and when I first began to make some sort of name for myself, I was always playing comedy. Suddenly somebody discovered that I was kind of sinister sometimes — I played some part or other — and then they started talking about my 'hypnotic' eyes. Before you know where you are, you've been channelled into that, and put in someone's filing cabinet as the man with the curious eyes and the sinister quality."
    A committed and conscientious performer, he feels lighthearted affection for his evil alter egos. "It's a shame to take the money to play a villain, as a matter of fact. It's very easy for me.
     "It's far more easy than trying to do something like Logan in The Rainbow Boys.
    "To be an outright villain on a fairly superficial basis, which is the kind of villains required of you in most kinds of movies, is not very difficult. Say you're playing something like Blofeld (James Bond's adversary in 1967's You Only Live Twice). Well, you've got everything going for you.
    "You've got your own volcano, and you've got James Bond at your mercy. They give you a marvellous pussycat to stroke, and what do you have to do? Just look him straight in the eye, speak with a funny accent and not blink too often. Then everybody says 'what an incredibly sinister man with those funny eyes'."
    If Pleasence had followed family tradition, he'd never have menaced James Bond. Born shortly after the First World War, he was the son and the grandson of railroaders. His father was a stationmaster in the north of England and his brother, with whom he played at being a player as a child, is today [1973] a British Railways station manager.
    Right from the beginning, Pleasence made up his mind to be an actor. "I tried to get into the Royal Academy, and I was accepted," he said.
    "I was offered a scholarship, but couldn't afford to live in London because my parents were really quite poor. And so for two years I actually did work on the railways, at my father's station in Yorkshire."
    The lure of the theatre persisted, and when an assistant stage manager's job — "I got about $4 a week" — opened up on Jersey in the Channel Islands, Pleasence leapt at it. With a break for service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, he's been a theatre professional ever since.
    Talking of the war years recalls his character Blyth, the forger who works himself blind preparing documents for the men who'll take part in The Great Escape. Pleasence actually was shot down and served time as a German prisoner of war. "But," he said, referring to the men portrayed in the 1963 film, "I wasn't brave like those people."
    One sign of his professionalism, and the seriousness with which he approaches his art, is his deliberately dividing time between stage and screen work. "I do one for them, and one for me," he says of his films.
    "But I'm not supposed to say which is for them and which is for me," he cautions with mock formality. "I believe in the old adage: 'don't knock the product.'
    "I do things for myself in the theatre, mostly," he adds.  
One instance where the elements of self, stage and film came together was in an unorthodox 1963 production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, an example of almost pure dedication on the part of a handful of talented British performers.  
    "We made it ourselves," Pleasence said. "We co-produced it; that is myself, Harold Pinter, Robert Shaw, Alan Bates, Michael Burkett who produced it, and Clive Donner who directed it. We have equal shares in it.
    "We financed it through private subscription in the way that you finance a play in the theatre. The reason this happened was that we were, at the very last moment, let down by a big American company who were going to put up all the money and handle the distribution.
    "When we had engaged a crew and rented a house to shoot in, they backed out. We had a dreadful conference in a pub down the road, and we said 'what are we going to do?' We had 60 people who were supposed to work for us for eight weeks.
    "It was pretty dreadful. Then the little script girl said 'well, I'll put up £500'. It was really a teary scene. Fortunately, we didn't take her money, but what we did was draft out a letter, which we sent to everybody we knew who had seen the play and who had liked it and who had money — a lot of money.
    "Well, we financed the film in about three days.
    "There was a big fog in London at the time, just about the last of the big pea-souper fogs, so that there was a hold up in the airplanes. We got our money, really, in Britain. We turned down something like $150,000 from America because they were too late. The letters didn't get to America because of the fog.
    "The financing of the film was ridiculous. We made it, finally, by not taking anything for ourselves at all. We didn't take a penny, no expenses, nothing. It came in at £28,000, or about $65, 000."
    Despite enthusiastic critical response, The Caretaker has not been widely seen. "It wasn't very well distributed here," Pleasence says, the sadness in his voice edged with a quiet anger. "I think our deal with the distributor ends quite soon, and I think we might then think about just sitting on it for a few years and making, hopefully, a big sale to American TV.
    "It's never been shown on television here," he says. "It's a good film. It's an extraordinary film. It's been bought by the BBC for a few years now, and they've shown it on a program called World Cinema. But we've never shown it on American or Canadian television.
    "None of us have ever made a penny from it, but we're just about to repay the last bit of the backing to all those people who helped us make the film," he says, breaking into a grin. "All those starving actors like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter Sellers, Noel Coward and the others."
    Though The Caretaker ended up "a bitter disappointment," Pleasence continues to do projects for himself. He was in the throes of another "disappointment" when Toronto producer John Vidette knocked on his dressing room door and asked him to read Bill Fruet's Wedding in White screenplay.
    Pleasence had just closed a play on Broadway, an under-financed production of Robert Shaw's Wise Child, that folded after a lukewarm notice from New York Times critic Clive Barnes. Vidette, realizing that Fruet had written his script with Pleasence in mind, took advantage of the sudden opening in the actor's schedule.   
    After reading it, Pleasence took the part. And now, with two features behind him, he qualifies as a Canadian film veteran. "I think that you have a film industry here that is going to emerge as a very important one," he says.
    "If I have any criticism of it, it's mostly about organization. This is the kind of country where everybody wants to be a director, which is very healthy, but it makes it difficult to get people who can do the ordinary run-of-the-mill things in the kind of efficient way they're done in Britain and the U.S.
    "I think it's a shame, too. As I see it, Canada tends to be too self-involved as a country. The pity seems to be that you're making pictures here about Canada in Canada for Canadians to see.
    "I think you should be making pictures about anywhere in the world for the world to see."
    The year past has been a busy one for Pleasence. His Israeli-born wife Meira and their daughter Miranda have seen him work on no fewer than six films.
    Aside from his two Canadian pictures, he appeared in 1972s's Innocent Bystanders, a spy thriller with Stanley Baker, and three sci-fi horror projects: Death Line (1972), The Mutations [released in 1974] and From Beyond the Grave [also 1974], an anthology feature in the style of Asylum and Tales from the Crypt.
    Although an actor's future plans are always conditional, he looks forward to some stage work in the coming months. Projected are a King Lear, with Pleasence in the title role, at Stratford, Connecticut, and a possible season of new plays in London together with Robert Shaw.
    More film roles are likely as well, although he doesn't look forward to any particular one with the same enthusiasm. A villain or two, perhaps?
    "I would rather play a villain than a hero anytime," he says. "I can't understand heroes.
    "Who's a hero? I don't think people are particularly good. I think it's demonstrable that we're about the most outrageous species that's ever walked this earth — or crawled the earth. And, therefore, I'm quite happy to play villains . . .
    "But I'd rather just play funny people.
    "What I'd really like to do . . ." he says, then pauses to return to an earlier thought. "I do believe that there are bits in everybody which are looking for the heroic in the larger sense of the word, people who are looking for something extra-human," he says, softening his criticism of the human species.
    "In general, what I enjoy doing most is being some kind of common-man figure. I really like playing ordinary people. I think I'm a fairly ordinary-looking person."
    As he speaks, a toddler looks up at him from across the hotel suite's coffee table and, full of her own preoccupations, says "Daddee?"
    Donald Pleasence stops in mid-sentence, and calls Blofeld in from the wings. "I will not be dictated to by a 2½-year-old child," he tells his daughter. He says it with such firmness and conviction that it's obvious to everyone, including the child, that all the villains in his world fall victim to her charm.
*    *    *
OF COURSE YOU'VE SEEN Donald Pleasence in the movies. It's mostly been as the villain, though, so you may not remember his name. Some of his recent roles:
*    The Dark Hermit, otherwise known as Satan, who tempts Max von Sydow's Jesus in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told.
*    Dr. Michaels, the evil scientist who bad-mouths God and glares at Raquel Welch before being eaten by white blood corpuscles in 1966's Fantastic Voyage.
*    P
ère Louis, the French provincial curé who celebrates black masses and calls together the Council of 13 to sacrifice David Niven in Eye of the Devil (1966).
*    Ernst Stavro Blofeld, arch-enemy of James Bond, who first troubles 007 in 1967's You Only Live Twice.
*    Preacher Quint, the mad jayhawker, who tortures Charlton Heston's working cowboy Will Penny (1968).

    On the more sympathetic side, Pleasence is remembered as:
*    Colin Blyth, the prison camp forger who goes blind and has to be guided through 1963's The Great Escape by James Garner.
*    Oracle, the whiskey-inspired prophet who shares his visions of whiskey-laden wagons on The Hallelujah Trail (1965).
*    George, a masochistic husband terrorized by escaping bank robbers in director Roman Polanski's Cul de Sac (1966).    
*    General Kahlenberge, the "good German" who plots against Hitler in 1967's Night of the Generals.
*    Logan, the reluctant treasure hunter currently [1973] on view in The Rainbow Boys.

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Revisiting my interview with Donald Pleasence some 40 years later, my first reaction is amazement at the amount of space newspapers devoted to such features back then. I did a second interview with him just 16 months later (July 21, 1974) during the filming of director Daniel Mann's Vancouver-made feature Journey into Fear. Pleasence, who died in 1995 at the age of 75, worked steadily on stage, television and in the movies for more than half a century. I'll include more on his subsequent career when I post that second interview.

See also:  My review of director Gerald Potterton's The Rainbow Boys.