Monday 13 June 2022

Careers Syndromes Part Six: Actors

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

One of the downsides of growing old is that you can follow someone’s career from promising young thing to “in all the musicals”. And then they come out the other side looking middle-aged and they’re presenting a show about dog grooming. Actually Sheridan Smith is wonderful and I predict she’ll have a long career as a character actor, but if you don’t think you’ll end up as Dame Sheridan, it’s good to have an exit strategy.

A character actor is brilliant in a well-written role – and ends up in appalling Hollywood “comedies” and “fantasies”.

An actor becomes famous in the UK for a standout performance in a niche movie. She moves to Hollywood thinking she’ll become a star. Instead she dissolves and is absorbed and nobody hears of her again. (Rachel Roberts, Carol White, David Rappoport) 

You outlive your peers and turn up at premieres in furs, diamonds and too much rouge. You appear on chat shows, and in documentaries about the great days of Hollywood/Broadway/The Old Vic/music halls. You tell outrageous lies about the past and your former colleagues. Your face is now nothing like the one you started out with.

You retire from the screen at your peak, become forgotten, become a cult, and ruin your reputation by appearing – shaky, forgetful and almost unrecognisable – as a vision in a Z-grade horror movie. Or else you never go away, but pull off a last appearance that is a career high: Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy. (He made several films after this, but Max Rose may be his swan song.)

I kept going for a while. I got an agent, went to a few miserable auditions. But six months later, my self-esteem at rock bottom, I felt that I had reached a fork in the road. (Imogen West-Knights, Guardian, 2022)

Really, he was destined to be on the margins of fame. (Jeff Chu, Does Jesus Really Love Me?)

X was one of those people, many — though not all — of whom are actors, who reckon that being born with exceptional good looks excuses them from all further effort in life. (Murder in the Title, Simon Brett)

During the filming of Casablanca, nobody could quite understand why the director, Michael Curtiz, kept deferring to S.Z. Sakall, a mere supporting actor [playing a waiter]. Eventually Curtiz explained: “You don’t understand. Back in Budapest and Vienna, Sakall was a big cabaret star, used to being feted, applauded, celebrated.” (Times 2017) 

Jay Underwood, who played the Human Torch in an early and forgotten version of The Fantastic Four, remembers that the picture generated some buzz during production. “Magazines were already wanting interviews,” he says wistfully. He’s now a pastor at a Baptist church in Northern California. ( Peter Tork taught for years after being a Monkee.) 

Avant-garde mime group Theatre de Complicité were cool in the 80s and are now doing children’s shows.

Burton and Taylor ended up as shadows of their former selves. (Drink, again.)

I started at the top of my career and worked down. (Orson Welles)

That parade had passed. (Mark Gatiss on Bond actors)

The circus had moved on, that’s showbiz. (Pierce Brosnan, paraphrase)

The looks had gorn. (Denholm Elliott)

Eke out the dregs of a career on afternoon TV. (Fortean Times)

Out in LA, Carly-May is drinking too much and watching her beauty-queen looks fade, clinging to the last remnants of a once-promising career as an actress. When she reads a shockingly familiar screenplay, she warily takes a role she knows is based on events from her own life. (Summary of Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell, on

Her career was over at 40 but she still wanted to be everybody's friend and always had a big smile for the cameras. (Carrie Fisher on her mother Debbie Reynolds)

I was in my prime, but when the 60s ended, I ended with it. (Terence Stamp. Fortunately for us he was wrong.)

Clifton Webb had to deal with the shock of seeing himself on screen after a long absence from Hollywood. Watching the first batch of rushes that included his first scene in the tub when he meets McPherson, Webb nearly had a heart attack: "When I saw myself sitting in the bathtub looking very much like Mohandas K. Gandhi... The first shock of seeing myself had a strange effect on me, psychologically, as it made me realise for the first time that I was no longer a dashing young juvenile, which I must have fancied myself being through the years in the theatre." Imdb (He is brilliant in Laura.) 

Mr Reed, whose subsequent career as a TV chat show drunk should not be allowed to overshadow his talent for playing menacing upper-middle-class charmers with secrets… (imdb commenter who also says Michael Winner ended up as a “boorish food critic”. Also see the critic who wrote that Athos in Three Musketeers was played by “good old paunch-faced Oliver Reed again”.)

Kathy Kitson’s only performance consisted of Kathy Kitson, her hair set that afternoon, walking elegantly round stages in waisted silk dresses, and speaking with brittle elocution whatever lines she thought appropriate to Kathy Kitson. This she had done endearingly in West End comedies during the fifties, popularly in the television sit com, Really, Darling? during the late sixties, and with decreasing éclat in decreasingly prestigious provincial theatres during the seventies and into the eighties. This performance she had finally brought, with the desperation of the last dodo, to The Message Is Murder at the Regent Theatre, Rugland Spa. (Murder in the Title by Simon Brett)

Noel Streatfeild, author of Ballet Shoes, wrote about an ageing matinee idol who will never return from the provinces, but still convinces people he is beautiful by behaving like a star.

I was only about 30 when I realised I didn’t need to keep up with the “new actresses”, who were always blonde, pretty and in their 20s. Because there’d be another batch along next year.

Nicky Clark decided to return to acting aged 50: “I had no idea how ludicrous a proposition that was.” She had two castings in five years and noticed that the actresses she had grown up with had vanished. (Other actresses realised they were now cast as the mothers of actors whose wives they used to play. Times June 2022)

The yoga-video-and-beauty-book phase of her career. (Times, 2010) 
Sad Dancing with the Stars diaries: What is Olivia Newton-John even doing here? (@Jezebel)
Bit of a shame Julian Clary has reached the Celebrity Big Brother stage. (‏@whiffytidings)

After Dr Who and Hamlet, David Tennant has reached the advert/nature documentary voiceover stage. David Walliams is voicing a cute dog in a movie (and writing children’s books). Robert Webb is narrating The House at Pooh Corner, and Lenny Henry is turning on the Christmas lights in Aldeburgh, 2012. Harry Hill has written a children’s book called Tim the Tiny Horse. Toyah Wilcox switched on the Herne Bay Xmas lights – she’s appearing there in panto. 

One of the strange quirks about celebrity in Britain is that it contains a very long half-life once its protagonists have reached, and passed, the peak of their fame. (They all “write” children’s books, says Ruining the field for real writers, says somebody else.)

According to the Times, “past-it British crumpet” run donkey sanctuaries and racing-whippet refuges. Silent movie actress Clara Bow lived on a ranch, Hitchcock heroine Tippi Hedren had an exotic menagerie, Brigitte Bardot set up an animal charity and Doris Day set up several. Josephine Baker adopted some children and worked for the Resistance in France in WWII. Celia Hammond went from modelling to running a cat sanctuary and campaigning against the fur trade. 

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