Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Peter Elliott, movie apeman

'I saw myself as Brando'
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The Independent Online

Peter Elliott, 49, is the actor and animal movement director who played Silverbeard, Tarzan's adopted father, in Greystoke. He also starred in and choreographed Gorillas in the Mist and Missing Link. He cast and directed the Vogons and other aliens in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and trained the actors currently playing animals in The Jungle Book at The UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, London, and Kensuke's Kingdom at The Old Rep, Birmingham.

I often used to walk home over the fields from my primary school in Tonwell, a small village in Hertfordshire. I was notorious for bringing home stray animals and birds with broken wings. My first job was in Broxbourne Zoo, when I was 12 or 13, cleaning out the animals. There was quite close contact with the animals and I used to stroke a lion through the bars of the cage. When I arrived on location for Missing Link, a film in which I was the only actor, they said, "Fantastic! We've found some lions! Get as close as you can!"

I got off to a bumpy start at the beginning of my second term at The Sele comprehensive in Hertford. A taxi used to collect us to take us to school and they used to cram in as many kids as they could. Once the car door came open and I fell out, but fortunately just outside a hospital. I was badly bruised and ended up with spinal meningitis. For a time I lost my eyesight and the use of my legs.

I did take drama very seriously. We did Joan Littlewood's Oh What a Lovely War! and I was John Proctor in The Crucible. I also did a play with the National Youth Theatre in London. It was called The Children's Crusade and I played an acrobatic Crusader, doing back-flips across the floor. This was my first acting in front of paying customers and I stayed for six weeks on my own in London. I was already quite athletic but academically I wasn't the best. I had started boxing when I was six and was boxing for England at the age of 12 or 13.

By the time I was doing my O-levels (I took five and got art, environmental studies and English) I was doing gymnastics and springboard diving. Also, when I was 15, my parents had gone back up to Yorkshire and I ended up living with their friends and in digs. The freedom was fantastic but it may well have affected my work.

At 16 I went to a further education college in Broxbourne. I was re-taking my O-levels and also doing a two-year drama course. The teacher's view was that everybody should go on to the Guildhall school of drama in London but I had different, more radical ideas. I saw myself as another Marlon Brando (who I worked with when I played a baboon-like mutant in The Island of Dr Moreau) and applied to East 15, which was then the only method acting school in England. I lied about my age and said I was 18 and they admitted me.

East 15 was fantastic. Out in Debden, Essex, it is a beautiful building set in its own grounds. It felt as if I was at the beginning of a journey. I was a very physical performer. I was interested in clowning, but not as in "funny clothes and white face" but as in character and clowning, like Mr Bean. I excelled in stage fighting, particularly in Elizabethan rapier and dagger.

I did my first "animal studies". I "did" a rat - I even bought a pet rat - and also a two-toed sloth, which was much more arduous than it sounds, as it spends most of its life hanging upside down and moves in slow motion, which is very difficult to do. After getting my diploma, I did some "TIE" (Theatre in Education) and went on to play a drunken acrobatic waiter in a cabaret in a tourists' pub.

Then I saw an advertisement for the film Greystoke. They were looking for apes.