British film's victory lap

I'm taking it in my strides

Published: Aug 07 2014, 01:01:am

Tuesday, March 31, 1982.
SEVEN OSCAR NOMINATIONS? "It's all slightly unbelievable," says Chariots of Fire star Ben Cross. "But I'm taking it in my strides."
    Although the television cameras failed to pick him out of the celebrity audience gathered for Monday evening's [1982] Academy Award show, Cross was there applauding as his debut feature went on to collect four of the golden statuettes. (A  clip of Cross running was shown as screenwriter Colin Welland sprinted on stage to collect the best original screenplay honour.)
    "What you've done for the British film industry!" exulted Welland, holding his Oscar aloft. Minutes later, Chariots producer David Puttnam thanked all America for having "taken what is absolutely a Cinderella picture and awarded it this (the best picture Oscar) and come to see it in droves."
    For Cross, who trained from eight to ten hours a day to play athlete Harold Abrahams, the film's overseas success has been a happy surprise. During the production "I  didn't think of it going beyond the English shores. I mean, why should it sell in the States?"
    The story of the British track team at the 1924 Olympics, Chariots of Fire makes no compromises for the so-called "international" audience. "The subject is English," Cross said during our telephone interview.
    Last year, when the film was showcased in Toronto's Festival of Festivals, Cross appeared on its behalf. His departure was delayed when Festival filmgoers voted the picture a special popularity award, and he was asked to stay and accept it at the-festival's closing ceremonies.
    "My gast has never been so flabbered," Cross says. Upon reflection, though, "when you analyze it, what you have (in Chariots) is a Scot and a Jew against the English Establishment. In New York — to any ethnic filmgoer — that's going to talk to him."
    The 34-year-old actor recalls a recent incident in which a "Turkish-Cypriot taxi driver nearly crashed his cab when he realized there's Ben Cross in the back of it. I stepped out of the cab and met a friend of mine in a bar. There was a Japanese bartender who was equally ecstatic about the movie."
    Although director Hugh Hudson deliberately filled his Chariots cast with "total unknowns," Cross won't be unknown for much longer. The Paddington-born stage actor will soon be seen in two prestige North American television projects.
    In one, a made-for-TV movie called Coming Out of the Ice [1982],  he'll be seen as a Russian revolutionary general named Tuchachevsky. Based on a true story, the movie focuses on a young American, played by John (The Amateur) Savage, who escapes from a Soviet forced labour camp.
     In the other, a PBS special to be recorded in April, Cross plays "an American who left Nantucket at 13, became an actor in England, and who found fame and fortune playing Frankenstein's monster for five years. But, because he's mad, a syphilitic, and because he's odd, he comes back to Nantucket to die."
    Called Lydie Breeze, the vehicle is an original off-Broadway play in which Cross was recently featured. It was written by John Guare and directed by Louis Malle, both of whom were Oscar nominees this year for their contributions to the Canadian-produced film Atlantic City [1980].
    Cross, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, maintains a strong  commitment to the theatre. "Ideally," he says, "movies should subsidize your going and earning peanuts doing off-Broadway or fringe stuff in London."
    Last week, in Toronto, he received a scroll honouring Chariots of Fire as the most successful film ever premiered at that city's film festival. Monday night, he was in Los Angeles "to just sit there and rejoice in the [Academy Awards] proceedings."

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1982. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Not mentioned in the above interview was the fact that Cross's 1982 appearance in John Guare's off-Broadway play Lydie Breeze was the result of an historic accord between the U.S. union Actor' Equity, the League of New York Theatres and the British union Equity to allow British and U.S. actors unrestricted opportunities to work in both countries. It reversed a long-standing policy of exclusion, and led to regular exchange agreements for equivalent acting jobs between London and New York. Sadly, the PBS adaptation, preserving his performance in the play's title role, became one of the many unrealized projects in television's long history. In the years since our conversation, Cross has been a frequent flyer, working in virtually every country that welcomes filmmakers. He's made at least two visits to B.C., first in 1996 to co-star opposite Helen Shaver in an episode of television's Poltergeist: The Legacy called The Substitute, then again in 1997 for the sci-fi feature The Invader, with Sean Young. From his current home base in Sofia, he has helped make Bulgaria a major location for low-budget genre pictures, including such recent made-for-TV peplum as Spartacus (2004) and Hannibal (2006). On a recent visit to Hollywood he played Sarak, the father of Spock, in the 2009 Star Trek reboot.