Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Roy Dotrice interview

Interview by Kris Gilpin

Working throughout London and on Broadway over the past three decades, British-born Roy Dotrice has graced the stage and screen with some of the greatest names in the business, including Sir Ralph Richardson, Peter O’Toole, Michael Redgrave and Albert Finney. He has been directed onstage by Lord Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1950s, Dotrice appeared in more than 40 productions in eight years. Currently he may be seen on our airwaves as Father to the love struck Vincent on the popular TV show BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

“I would hope that Father is a character of some integrity,” says the soft-spoken Dotrice. “He has to make decisions on behalf of the underground commune and make sure fair play is done down there. I suppose we have basically formed what could be termed a perfect commune, communism in its purest form, without all the corruptions that crept into it in some of the eastern countries. All decisions are made by committee and Father has to represent a sense of justice. It’s not easy, because he has a very wayward child in dear Vincent [Ron Perlman, the Beast], who is forever getting into scrapes above ground. And much as Father has grown to like and admire Catherine [Linda Hamilton, Beauty], he’s terrified of their relationship because it means Vincent is going above ground more and more, and if he gets caught he’ll either finish up behind bars or in a freak show of some kind. And there’s a danger the whole of the community down there would be placed in jeopardy because of this.”

Dotrice is asked to appear at many science fiction-fantasy conventions as a guest, and he says, “It’s amazing how many female fans can’t wait for Vincent and Catherine to hop into bed together. But if they do, it’s kind of the end of the series, really.”

“At the beginning of this season we exploited the character of Father much more. There were about five episodes in which Father had a much larger part.” One of the reasons for this is because one of the scripts, entitled “Ashes, Ashes,” was written by the actor himself. “I obviously wrote in a very good part for myself. I’d have been rather stupid if I hadn’t, and I was concerned with the impetus and flow of the show.” Some fans had written to the show, early this season, noting it had become a bit claustrophobic, with most of the action confined to the atmospheric underground caves. This was due to last year’s teamsters strike.

“We were not able to go out on location so we had to remain in our little tunnels down in Vernon, or as we affectionately – or perhaps disaffectionately – call it, ‘Vermin,’” he grins. “Some fans are writing, saying there’s too little of Father now, but it varies. Some weeks you get a big part, some weeks you get a small one. But you can’t complain so long as the character is interesting and there’s a kind of progression of character, so that each week one peels back another layer of that onion and shows another facet of the character. That’s all one can ask for.”

As Father, Dotrice himself hopes to go above ground more. For this reason he wrote another episode called “Suffer Little Children,” which was his way of “trying to convince the producers I might break from these bonds and go up top more. The fact I’m walking around in what a lot of people might term unusual clothes, on the streets of New York, would go totally unnoticed, I’m sure!”

The friendly and erudite actor is thrilled to be working with Ron Perlman who, as it turns out, is an old friend of his. “At the risk of sounding sycophantic, it’s quite wonderful, actually. He’s a perfectionist, constantly on the phone to the producers. God bless him, to uphold the standard we’re trying to achieve on the series. He’s the most generous actor I’ve ever worked with.” Dotrice and Perlman once shared the stage in Dallas in a play titled, ironically, DOWN AN ALLEY FILLED WITH CATS. “And now here we are again in a tunnel with at least one cat.”

Without their wives at the time, and not entirely happy with the play or its director, the two actors consoled each other in various local bars at night and became good friends. Soon after, Dotrice left London for Los Angeles and checked into a hotel to live. One morning he descended a flight of stairs to run into Perlman, who had been living in the same hotel for some time. “One day he phoned me up very excitedly,” Dotrice continues, “and said ‘It’s absolutely marvelous. I’ve landed the lead in this pilot called BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ve got some bad news for you: I’m playing your father!’ Ron is the most gentle man, and he can put his finger immediately on what’s wrong with a scene because he knows where his character is. He expresses himself awfully well and it’s a great pleasure working with him.”

In the first week of March, the same week BEAUTY switched to Monday nights on CBS, Dotrice guested on an episode of THE EQUALIZER, a show which stars his real life son-in-law, Edward Woodward. “It was only a four day shoot. I’d finished BEAUTY at 4 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, took the red eye flight out to New York, went straight out to the studio and started filming at 7 o’clock the following morning. It was great fun working with Edward. In the middle of the first take on the first day he stopped, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he’s forgotten his words,’ but he hadn’t at all. He suddenly said – because he has a computerized mind – ‘Do you realize it is precisely 30 years to the day since we’ve last worked together?!’” That was in the Arts Theatre in Moscow.

[Above: Edward Woodward]

Dotrice has two actress daughters: Karen, who played the little girl in MARY POPPINS and is now married to actor Alex Hyde-White, and Michelle (Mrs. Woodward), who starred with Michael Crawford in a successful British comedy show called SOME MOTHERS HAVE ‘EM. “It was the only show ever to get higher ratings than the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day, though it wasn’t as funny,” Dotrice chuckles.

Roy Dotrice was born in 1923 on the tiny island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. His childhood was pleasurable; he had many friends and developed a lifelong love for fishing at an early age. “I adore fishing and have fished in every part of the world: South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, Canada – everywhere. What I adore about this country, and particularly California, is that it’s got everything. When I think of some of the dismal things one has to do in England in one’s spare time…”

He was very shy as a kid, hiding under his desk when the teacher called upon students to read Shakespeare in class. With never a thought of acting in those days, he truly came in contact with the profession the hard way over the next few years. He was 14 when the Germans invaded his island and, on the third night of their occupation, Dotrice and four other schoolboys pushed a small fishing boat out from underneath some German guards’ noses. Adrift at sea for three days, they finally arrived near Plymouth in England. A while later, he lied about his age and joined the Royal Air Force. “I told them I was 18,” he says. “Whether they believed me or not I don’t know but they were desperately short of men at that time.” He flew with the RAF for two years, was shot down and wound up floating around in a rubber dinghy -- again for three days. Thinking he was in Holland when he reached land because of the picturesque windmills and colorful fields, he knocked on the door of a quaint farmhouse and found himself face to face with a Nazi submarine commander. He spent the next three years as a young POW in prisoner of war camps in Germany, Poland and Lithuania. It was in those camps where he learned to play baseball and put on plays with his American counterparts in the stalags. Since he hadn’t yet begun to shave, he got roped into playing the female parts, his first being the Fairy Godmother in CINDERELLA. He was the only one in the “prison stock company” who hadn’t been an actor in civilian life. “I played Portia in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and lots of female parts, then eventually, thank God, graduated to male parts, and that whetted my appetite.”

After the war, through the Red Cross, Dotrice applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts – while touring “in a revue with a company of ex-POWs in a sort of potpourri of all the best items from the POW camps” entitled BACK HOME. These RADA scholarships had been provided by producer-director Sir Alexander Korda for ex-servicemen and women. With some time off in Manchester, Dotrice went to see the Manchester Repertory Company’s production of THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET. “The chap playing Browning -- and I owe him a vast debt -- was so diabolical, I thought, my God, if that’s a professional actor I can be as good as that without even going to RADA. And so I didn’t,” he recalls. The young actor turned down the three year scholarship which was offered to him.

From that moment on he became a professional actor, spending the following dozen years in repertory with Frank H. Fontesque’s Famous Players. “My contract was that I had to play the leading role -- a different part -- every week, it didn’t matter what it was,” says Dotrice. “I had to play them all, for the vast sum of something like seven or eight pounds a week in those days, playing all these terrible places all over England. But at least I gained valuable experience and a facility for playing character roles.” This served him well when he next went into the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing a “variety of parts, from Caliban to Julius Caesar and back again.”

During the RSC’s 1959 run of CORIOLANUS the actor formed a championship all-star baseball team which included Paul Robeson on first base, Sam Wanamaker on second, Laurence Olivier on third, Peter O’Toole on shortstop, Albert Finney as catcher and as the home plate umpire none other than Charles Laughton. “And when Captain Bligh said, ‘Strike three, you’re out!’ you didn’t argue, you went. We had a great time.”

They played the officers at the American Air Force bases in the area, who would “deck the whole place up, like a real ball park, with beer and hot dog stands. They’d all appear in real baseball gear. We didn’t have any of that. We used to come out onto the field in black tights and HAMLET blouses, wearing pumps, and I remember all the ladies saying, ‘Oh my God, never mind the baseball, just look at those legs!’” Out of 11 games, the actors won 10 and one was a draw.

Of all those hundreds of plays, Dotrice has yet to perform his favorite Shakespeare role. “I was on stage with Charles Laughton, playing a very small part in his LEAR. He inspired me so much I decided that’s a part I must play. I’ve got to get that out of my system eventually. Laughton was extremely difficult, but wonderful, to work with. After months of research on LEAR, he was convinced Lear was a sun worshipper and, therefore, probably a Druid. Now, about 20 miles from Stratford-on-Avon there’s a Druid circle, rather like Stonehenge. That summer, whenever it rained, he’d be wandering around the grounds with this great gut of his hanging over a little pair of underpants – and nothing else – with this huge, long, white beard it had taken him two years to grow.”

What Laughton hadn’t realized was that the area was a tourist attraction, “and suddenly you’d get a busload of day trippers arriving who must’ve been astounded to see Charles Laughton lying there in his underpants in the piddling rain on a sacrificial stone in the midst of this Druid circle, doing ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks!’ But he was a wonderful man to know. I think I know what LEAR is about now, thanks to him.”

Dotrice cites the late, flamboyant Welsh actor Hugh Griffith as the one from whom he learned most about the craft. "He was a great actor, totally mad, wildly eccentric, with a marvelously lyrical voice. On stage I played Justice Shallow to his Falstaff and we had a wonderful professional battle every night to top each other and kill each other stone dead. Yet we adored each other and Hugh taught me so much about acting. No one knew how to steal scenes like Hugh Griffith. If I live to be a hundred I will never see a better Falstaff."

[Above: Hugh Griffith]

Dotrice actually holds the Guinness Book world record for the most peformances in a one man show, a staggering 1,700 performances spread out over an eight year period, in BRIEF LIVES. He says he wasn't a very disciplined actor until he started that show. "I was doing eight performances a week and on Sunday I'd stay in bed all day, just to recuperate." He portrayed John Aubrey, an Elizabethan chronicler, "the original gossip columnist, I suppose. The recording of his death said, 'A stranger died here, 1697.' Those were the two words I wanted to wipe away. That supplied the energy night after night, the idea that one was putting a man on the map who, for my money, ranks with John Evelyn as one of the greatest of the English diarists."

Eventually the actor worked his way onto the silver screen, with appearances in NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, THE HEROES OF TELEMARK, AMADEUS and TOMORROW. He even did a comedy remake of the Corsican Brothers with Cheech and Chong, which he talks about after a good, long laugh. "I absolutely loved it because it was wild and crazy. The limo would pick me up from my hotel in Paris and I'd go down on location and around 10 o'clock Cheech and Chong would arrive looking rather bleary and I'd say, 'For Christ's sake, what the hell are we filming today?' And they'd say, 'Well, I dunno, man. What do we got on the call sheet, man? Hey man! We got 700 extras, man! And we got a guillotine! Okay! We're gonna do an execution scene!' We never had a script. We had to ad lib the whole thing. It was wonderful. It taught me so much and made me so inventive -- at least I hope it did. The whole day was one perpetual giggle. They never overworked after the sun went down." The film also starred Dotrice's wife, Kay Newman, as the midwife. "We had the most super time. We still see Cheech occasionally and we're very close to Tommy [Chong]. The greatest sadness for me is that they've split up, because they were a totally original team."

Aside from some day tackling KING LEAR onstage, Roy Dotrice (who won an Emmy for a TV production of Pinter's THE CARETAKER) would "like to do more movies, because I've done very few movies. I concentrated on stage for so long. I wasn't available for film. It's strange, but in the eight years I did BRIEF LIVES -- 1,700 times -- I played to just over 3,000,000 people. Now in one night of television BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will play to about 12 or 14 million people. I've never been happier in my life. I adore this country, this town and my way of life because I think what I'm doing is very rare in television. The show's something of a success but it's also artistically worthwhile -- and this is important for me. We're dealing with moral values and ethics, not rubbish. I think for many years we've underestimated the intelligence of the average American audience. One one show we had poetry, Shakespeare and classical music, and they're lapping it up. Thank God I'm lucky enough to be in a show which is giving them that."

[Originally published in Drama-Logue, March 16-22, 1989]


Vicky said...

Thank you so much for this interview! I had heard from some friends who have been lucky to meet him at B&B conventions that he's a complete sweetheart, a gentleman, Now I see!


NYC Utopia said...

Many thanks indeed!

Gloria said...

Thank you for this post!

I found Dotrice's reminiscences about Laughton's "King Lear" very interesting.