David Hemmings

Flamboyant actor in films from 'Blow-Up' to 'Gladiator'
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The Independent Online

David Leslie Edward Hemmings, actor and director: born Guildford, Surrey 18 November 1941; married 1961 Jenny Lewis (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1964), 1969 Gayle Hunnicutt (one son; marriage dissolved 1974), 1976 Prudence J. de Casembroot (two sons; marriage dissolved 1997), 1998 Lucy Williams (two daughters); died Bucharest 3 December 2003.

The British actor David Hemmings first achieved international fame when he starred in 1966 in Michelangelo Antonioni's controversial thriller Blow-Up, which led to starring roles in such films as Barbarella and The Charge of the Light Brigade. Later he became a director and writer, but continued to act and in 2000 had a notable success as Cassius in the film Gladiator.

A man of small stature, with boyish good looks and soulful eyes, he had entered show business as a boy soprano, and played young Miles in Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw. Married to the first of four wives at the age of 19, he had a tempestuous private life which often overshadowed his career achievements, and his appearance underwent a drastic change in middle age, highlighted by his extravagant Denis Healey-type eyebrows.

Born in Guildford, Surrey, in 1941, Hemmings was the son of a biscuit salesman, a former big-band pianist who encouraged his son to take singing lessons. Hemmings made his stage début at the age of nine touring as a boy soprano with the English Opera Group. After his voice broke on stage while performing in Paris, he studied watercolour painting at the Epsom School of Art, having his first exhibition at the age of 15.

He made his screen début with a small role in the racetrack drama The Rainbow Jacket in 1954, the same year that he played the haunted Miles in the English Opera Group production of The Turn of the Screw. Invited by Britten to go with him to Florence and study to be a tenor, Hemmings declined in order to pursue an acting career. He had his first substantial screen role in a neat B movie, The Heart Within (1957), in which he played a 13-year-old who helps a West Indian falsely accused of murder and gets kidnapped when he finds out who the real killer is.

After an unsuccessful attempt to launch a night-club act as a singer, he returned to the screen in Some People (1962), a popular propagandist piece in which he was one of three delinquent members of a motorcycle gang who are reformed when they form a rock'n'roll band and take an interest in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme. Supporting roles in such films as Two Left Feet (1963) and The System (1964) followed, along with leading roles in the B-movie musicals Live It Up (1963) and Be My Guest (1965).

His screen career was prolific but unremarkable until he was chosen by Antonioni to play the leading role in Blow-Up. (First choice for the role had been Terence Stamp, but he and Antonioni did not get along.) As the chic fashion photographer who thinks he may have unwittingly captured a shot of a murder while shooting pictures in the park, he had a role that brought him international stardom. Considered extremely racy for its time, with frequent scenes of Hemmings romping with nude models (including Jane Birkin) plus a topless Vanessa Redgrave, the film had a mixed reception but received enormous publicity and, for many, it encapsulated the Sixties. (His co-star Sarah Miles later called the film "a typical example of the Emperor's new clothes".)

Hemmings would later have consistently to deny that he based his portrayal on David Bailey. "The person who gave me most advice about how I should operate in the studio was John Cowan (whose studio we shot the film in). And David Hamilton was also very influential. But it would be nice to say that there's a little bit of me in there, too, you know!" Regarding the film's plotline, Hemmings said, "At the time I didn't have a single solitary clue what it was all about, it was totally unintelligible, but I loved Antonioni as a director. He was volatile, tremendously difficult, very intense, but I loved him."

Hemmings next played the conniving Mordred in the film version of the musical Camelot (1967), then was given the key role of the idealistic Captain Nolan in Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Though it was not a success at the time, the film's reputation has grown over the years. Vanessa Redgrave, who again played Hemmings's lover, described it as "one of the best films ever made about the British empire and about the horrors of war".

In Roger Vadim's comic-strip space adventure Barbarella (1968), a showcase for Vadim's then wife Jane Fonda, Hemmings was Dildano, a revolutionary of the planet Lythium. In one of the film's most bizarre interludes, he and Fonda make love by taking pills and touching fingers. Few of the films Hemmings made during his years of stardom proved to be popular hits.

They included the stark war film A Long Day's Dying (1968), a tedious comedy about a brothel in Victorian England, The Best House in London (1969), an equally boring historical saga, Alfred the Great (1969), and two disappointing psychological thrillers, The Walking Stick (1970) and Fragment of Fear (1971). One of his best films was the unsettling thriller Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971), in which he played a new teacher at a boys' school who is informed by his class that they murdered his predecessor and that he would be advised to conform to their wishes. Hemmings was associate producer on the film, the excellent cast of which included Carolyn Seymour and Tony Haygarth.

By the time he made Juggernaut (1974) and the Dickens musical Mr Quilp (1975), Hemmings was playing supporting roles, albeit important ones. His fame by then rested less on his film work than his flamboyant private life. By the end of the "swinging Sixties", he had become a regular fixture in the tabloids for his lovers, who included Samantha Eggar and Tessa Dahl, his friendship with the Beatles, his roistering and drinking. He later criticised the media hype - "Everyone would have you believe that from the moment 1959 ended it was just incredible debauchery but that just isn't true" - but he swiftly added, "I had as much debauchery as anybody else."

In 1972 his first film as a director, Running Scared, received respectable reviews. Hemmings said, "I think it's a beautiful movie. It was seen by absolutely nobody." His most notable film as a director is Just a Gigolo (1979), starring David Bowie, and for which Hemmings lured Marlene Dietrich out of retirement. During the decade he also founded Hemdale, a film-financing company designed to help actors paying the 90 per cent super-tax imposed by the Wilson government.

In 1976 he starred on the London stage in the musical Jeeves, playing the urbane Bertie Wooster, but despite his engaging delivery of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Alan Ayckbourn songs, notably the climactic "Banjo Boy", the show was not a success. Moving to Malibu with his second wife, Gayle Hunnicutt, he spent over 20 years producing and directing for American television, including episodes of Magnum and Murder, She Wrote and a four year period directing The A-Team. "I directed 250 hours of episodic television," he said,

which is a hell of a lot. I didn't have time to act, though sometimes, if it was too expensive to fly another actor out to where we were filming, I would stick myself in front of the camera as it was cheaper.

In the 1980s, when he was married to his third wife, Prudence, his drinking became such a problem that he attended the Betty Ford Clinic. He returned to Britain in the mid-1990s and settled in Wiltshire with his fourth wife, Lucy.

He was cast in Gladiator when two of the film's assistant directors, who were old friends of his, suggested him for a role. His performance as the effeminate Cassius started a new acting career, and subsequent films included Last Orders (2001), in which he was one of a lifelong group of friends who travel to Margate to sprinkle the ashes of their former drinking buddy. His younger self in the film was played by his own son Nolan, the child of his marriage to Gayle Hunnicutt.

Other recent films included Mean Machine (2001, starring Vinnie Jones), as a prison governor, and Gangs of New York (2002), in which he played a 19th-century aristocrat. His description of the latter film's leading player Leonardo DiCaprio as "the only actor I have ever actively disliked", was evidence that he was still no stranger to controversy. His most recent appearance was in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), and at the time of his death he was filming a cameo role in the forthcoming Samantha's Child.

A year ago he said how much he was enjoying the revival of his acting career after so many years behind the camera. "At 60," he said, "I can be a different sort of actor. I can be fresh again - which I love."

Tom Vallance

Swinging Sixties film star David Hemmings dies at 62

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