Victor Spinetti: Actor best known for his comic turns in 'Help!' and 'A Hard Day's Night'
Wednesday 20 June 2012
Once asked by a young actor how he might make his way in the theatre, Victor Spinetti gave this advice: "Do everything from pantomime to Shakespeare, and learn the 3 Rs – redundancy, rejection, and resting." It was something he himself had done during a long and varied career, playing many roles and putting up with the spells of unemployment that are often the actor's lot.
He might have added that a sense of the absurd often comes in handy in the precarious world of acting, for he had this in spades, too. On receiving a Tony Award on Broadway for his part in the stage version of Oh! What a Lovely War, he was praised for his eloquent speech in what the audience took to be Italian, only to admit later that it had been in his own made-up version of Welsh, a language he did not speak, but with Italian cadences and appropriate gestures. As a comedian, he had an infectious grin and twinkling eyes even when trying to be serious. When Jane Fonda asked him how it was he could play both comedy and tragedy, he told her earnestly, "Well, you have to listen," to which she replied, "Pardon me?"
Victor Spinetti was born in Cwm, a steel-making village near Ebbw Vale, in 1933. His father was of Italian extraction and his mother Welsh. From one he inherited his hooded eyes and Roman nose and from the other a warm, vivacious personality that delighted in village gossip. The actor was fond of recalling how his grandfather had walked all the way from Italy to south Wales in search of a job in the steelworks. The Spinettis owned a chip shop and the family lived over it, happily enough and glad to be part of the close community, like so many people of Italian origin in the industrial valleys.
Even so, the father was interned as an "enemy alien" on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. As he was dragged downstairs by the police, his son recalled in his memoirs, "In that moment I was suddenly flung to the frontier with my passport not quite in order, and that feeling has remained with me for the rest of my life." He was later beaten up by two neighbours, an attack which left him deaf in one ear.
His parents could afford to send him to the fee-paying Monmouth School, where he played the clown, and later to Cardiff College of Music and Drama, and supported him while he earned a living as a waiter and factory hand.The actor was proud of his Welshupbringing and made frequent returns to the land of his birth, where he still has relatives. He always acknowledged that his love of acting had first been sparked by watching films in thelocal Coliseum, by the colourful characters he met in his parents' shop, especially their vivid way of speaking, by his membership of the local drama group and by his student days in Cardiff. His brother Henry Spinetti became a noted drummer.
He shot to prominence when he was given parts in three films starring the Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (1964), Help! (1965) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967). This was a great piece of good fortune for a young actor who was still to land any major roles. Spinetti explained it by recalling how George Harrison had told him: "You've got to be in all our films. If you're not, me Mam won't come to see them – she fancies you." If this was not praise enough, Paul McCartney referred to the actor as "the man who makes clouds disappear". The glamour of his association with the Beatles was slow to fade: while playing on Broadway in the 1980s he was mobbed in the street by adoring fans wanting to touch the actor who had had such close contact with the Fab Four.
Small parts in about 35 films followed this initial success. They included Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew, Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Becket, Voyage of the Damned, The Return of the Pink Panther and The Krays. If none of these fixed him in the popular view as a star of the large screen, they at least provided him with a living and the experience he always said was a necessary accoutrement of the working actor. During the 1970s he even appeared as a Mexican bandit in a series of television advertisements for McVities' Jaffa Cakes: for him, it was all in a day's work.
Between 1959 and 1965 he trod the boards as a straight actor with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East in such productions as Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (1959) and Oh! What a Lovely War (1963), in which he played the obnoxious Drill Sergeant. His West End and Broadway appearances included parts in Expresso Bongo, Candide, The Hostage, Peter Pan, Oliver!, Cat Among the Pigeons, The Odd Couple and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
One of his most challenging roles was as the principal male character in Jane Arden's radical feminist play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven, which playedto packed houses for six weeks at the Arts Lab on Drury Lane towards the end of 1969. He also tried his hand as a director: he adapted In His Own Write, a play based on John Lennon's book, which he directed for the National Theatre in 1968.
His acclaimed one-man show, A Very Private Diary, first staged at the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 and going on to the Sydney Opera House, featured hilarious accounts of his acquaintance with such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Brendan Behan, Sean Connery, Salvador Dali, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough and Laurence Olivier, and was reprised in 2008. The same delight in anecdote and theatrical gossip informs his memoirs, Victor Spinetti Up Front (2006), in which he wrote movingly about the death of his partner, Graham Cumow. In a later chat show he revealed to Michael Ball that Princess Margaret had been instrumental in securing the Censor's permission for some of the more controversial passages in the first run of Oh! What a Lovely War. A more sensitive side to his character is shown in his book of poems, Watchers along the Mall (1963).
Victor George Andrew Spinetti, actor, writer and director: born Cwm, Monmouthshire 2 September 1933; partner to Graham Cumow; died 18 June 2012.
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