It started when I was nine. Previously, I had spent the summer as Kirk Douglas, using my brother's new 'Dunlop Swingball' as a gladiator training device. Then I saw Redford in The Great Gatsby. After that, I told my mother I had grown out of togas and spent the rest of the holiday in tank tops and white cricket flannels, wondering when Daisy would come.
It seemed to me whatever it was that was needed to become an actor, Redford had it: a jaw clench here, a sideways-looking double-take there. Consequently, as the rest of my gang spent every spare moment perfecting their Kevin Keegan one-twos, I was left practising my Robert Redford door-frame lean and his right-eye quizzical squint.
However, despite being armed to the teeth with Redford's every gesture, it was only the chance of taking my first film role that really put a smile on my face. It was to play the young Jack Nicholson. And unwilling to miss out on a technicality, it wasn't long before I'd got that diabolic dropped-head eyebrow raise and the more tricky head back, bottom-lip suck into my system.
And yet, when it finally came to shooting the scene where I had to stand there as young Jack wielding an improbably large Magnum revolver - 'the most powerful handgun in the world' - I couldn't help but deliver the line, 'Tell me kid, you ever danced with the devil . . ?', with the cheek quivering, jaw clenching rasp of Clint Eastwood. Not that I got away with it. 'You didn't fool me,' one of the crew said afterwards, 'that was pure Richard Widmark.'
Since then, I've used a bit of Al Pacino's middle-distance stare, a little Dennis Price sideways sneer, some of Brando's mid- brow frown and the Woody Allen drop-jaw double-gulp more times than I care to mention.
This type of cinematic piracy is not uncommon: I was once asked by another actor if I'd like to try a little bit of his Ned Beatty. As Ned Beatty's a short, bald, fat guy, I told him I wasn't so sure. But, on closer inspection, it turned out he did a pretty useful line in comic asides.
So, when someone recently asked me: 'Why don't you just be yourself?' I looked at him with my old Redford right-eye quizzical squint as if to say here was someone who just hadn't got it. The last time I was myself must have been the day before I saw my first film. It was The Jungle Book, I was five, and for the next four days I refused to wear anything except a blackened-up mop-top wig and an old pair of red 'Mowgli' swimming trunks.
So be warned, watching actors can be a tricky business: you may never really know who you're looking at.
Hugo Blick writes regular reports on life as a working and resting actorReuse content