LP: DEATH ON THE NILE was your first feature film internationally, and you starred with other big names in the movie business, David Niven, Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, the list goes on and on. Do you have any particularity interesting thing about this that you’d like to share with us?
SM: Strictly speaking, I had, in fact appeared in a film called JUGGERNAUT, for United Artists much earlier than that. I mean, I really only flashed across the screen. I was cast in a rather nice little role for that, that when they changed directors, quite rightly so, the role got cut down to absolutely nothing. As it was I very disappointed, because obviously I wanted more lines on the screen.
I was lucky because a lot of people had the same fate with this change of director, and I, for some unknown reason, ended up with a credit on the screen, which most of the others didn’t get. I don’t know why to this day. So I actually claim it as a credit because my names on the end.
DEATH ON THE NILE, well, DEATH ON THE NILE obviously was an extraordinary experience. Thinking quickly as always, one never remembers anything – I do remember the very first day on that film. I worked with Mia Farrow and if you remember the film, there was the riding sequence in the very beginning in the little MG. Mia was incredibly nervous, about driving the car, about the first day’s work, and so I kind of ended up concentrating on making sure that Mia was happy and just looking after her all day. I eventually got home and went, “Brrrrrrrrr” (shivers terrified). I’d just done my first day on a major motion picture, with a major motion film star, and I never got nervous once! Until I got home – which was glorious because I went back the next day, and I never went through that whole period of kind of being terribly panicky in front of the camera or anything.
They also treated me, right from the beginning, as if I’d been in the business forever. No one ever thought, “now here’s the newcomer, let’s be nice to him” or “let’s make his life difficult”, or anything like that. I was always just one of them.
LP: You never got any tips from anybody?
SM: Later on – Bette Davis, in fact, was very supportive, spoke frequently and sort of suggested things and complimented me on things. It was really very wonderful to have that sort of support. But initially they were all surprised when I said this was my first major picture, which was nice because it meant that I never got any kind of pressure, trying to keep up with my peers. they treated me as if I was one of them, so it made me feel as if I was, which just relaxed me to the point where I could concentrate on the work that I was doing.
LP: What was it like to ride a camel?
SM: Well, camels are fun! Just don’t get bitten by one!
LP: Were you bitten?
SM: No! I had, in fact, ridden camels before, on JESUS OF NAZARETH, which I shot in Morocco and Tunisia for three months. I had ridden a camel, not on film, but on the beach, so I knew what to expect in Egypt. They’re funny things because you get onto them when they are sitting down and their back legs come up first. So the first thing that happens is you kinds of almost fly off the front! In fact, they are quite comfy, and they go very fast if you let them get away. It’s quite entertaining!
LP: In DEATH ON THE NILE you were quite convincing as a villain, the murderer, Simon Doyle. Do you enjoy playing the bad guy roles as well as god guy parts?
SM: Yes, in fact, in many ways bad guys are much more interesting than good guys anyway. One of the tragedies very often of a young so-called leading man, is that you tend to play roles that are very straight forward, and everybody else has got all the nice roles. And I even felt that with DEATH ON THE NILE, because although I play the bad guy, I’m only allowed to play the bad guy in the last scene. Up until that point you have to play what everything is expecting you to play. You know, he’s the husband, and he’s the nice guy, and he wouldn’t do anything to harm his wife.
You play all the innocence of that, so it’s only the last few scenes that were flashback scenes and the final denouncement with Poirot that you actually can play the bad guy. But I do enjoy doing that. It’s much more interesting than good guys for the most part.
LP: Have you tried comedy?
SM: I’ve played a lot of comedy, yes. I haven’t done much on film, except the kind of thing that’s coming up soon, which I think you’ll enjoy, which is the FALCON’S GOLD picture. It is much more of a tongue-in-cheek, Roger Moore-ish kind of hero, which I really like playing. That’s really much more me and it’s what I think I would like to be known for being.
LP: Now that you’ve mentioned FALCON’S GOLD, tell us a little bit about the movie and your character in the movie.
SM: Well, the movie is basically a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK rip-off (laughs). It’s not the same but it’s along those lines and it’s using that market. The character I play is not unlike the Harrison Ford kind of character. His name is Hank Richards, who was originally written as a Texan cowboy (laughs), and when they cast me we decided that that wouldn’t work. So when we got there I said, “Look, you’ve got to change the name of this guy, cause there is not an Englishman alive now or ever has been whose name is Hank!” It’s an American name.
So anyway, we came up with the idea that, in fact, his name was Archibald Chumbley Smythe, who had decided that Archibald Chumbley Smythe was not a good name to work under as an international journalist, which is what Hank is, and that he’d changed his name to Hank because it made him more international. This makes quite a nice little fun joke at the beginning of the film, and we get rid of it and I can then be Hank Richards, which such a good name and it works very nicely for the film.
The thing about Hank is he’s an opportunist. He’s tongue-in-cheek but he’s an action man. He’s very laid back most of the time, and when someone holds a gun at him he knows exactly what to do about it. So there’s a nice balance between the kind of Roger Moore/James Bond tongue-in-cheek, everything’s very easy and very dandy; and then the real action of when the fights happen. So that’s the nature of that character
Vi: Where was the location of the film?
SM: The location for FALCON’S GOLD was Mexico. We did it there for 6 weeks, and it’s due out on Showtime (cable TV) in December. I’m very please with it because it allows me to play the kind of character I want to play and demonstrate, which is kind of, in simple terms, an English Bert Reynolds, which really doesn’t exist. But I now know that it will be an ingredient that that I will put into the JAWS character, and for a little while now, when I get the chance I will play along the same lines so the American public can get to know me in this kind of feeling, and then I will go back to ding some more of the stronger acting roles, either on stage or wherever I get the chance. It’s important that they get to know me in a specific mold and I think I’ve now found the mold that I want them to know me for.
LP: SWORD & SORCERER was one of our very favorites, as Prince Mikah, a sword fighting hero, you had several action scenes. Did you learn fencing or sword fighting before the movie or did you train for it on the spot?
SM: Well, basically I have never really learned any of the skills I now have – formally. I have had fencing lessons after a fashion, with a friend who happened to be an erstwhile Olympic fencer, who gave me some lessons a couple times a week off and on for a while. But basically, all the fighting I learned by doing it on stage, in films, etc, working along with the stuntmen and learning as I go along. I have, fortunately, a quick facility to learn the moves in a fight. All those fights start on the day of the fight just a few hours before we do the. You learn a whole sequence and you do them right through, and then you go and do bits and pieces. So, all that was learned actually that day, in terms of actually what the strokes are. And I just know now how to fight, so I don’t really have to be taught what to do. The stuntmen will watch, and the stunt coordinator, and it it looks as though you are too far away or you are missing whatever, they’ll tell you to get a different angle and so on, to help you through.
Vi: It generally looks so real.
SM: That’s the skill of the pretend fight. If you work it down to the point where you know exactly what you are doing, where the camera angle is – so that if the camera angle is there – you punch someone and the hand goes across this way (demonstrates by throwing a punch across close to Lonna’s face), but it doesn’t look like this from the camera over there. And if the camera’s behind you and you want to hit someone, you actually go in – and stop short (more demonstrating with punches) and it’s up to the person reacting to go “Unnh”, (throws his head back as though punched) with their head, which is the skill.
Vi: The scene in the dungeon was very realistic looking, with you in chains, the makeup etc.
SM: Yes, I was hanging there off and on for about 3 days. A lot of that was slightly real, insofar as once I was up there chained in – I was chained in; I couldn’t get out. Richard Lynch really was pulling my head back and forwards, which, in fact, was a little rough. I would hope that most actors would be less rough than that, but Richard was a little rougher than one likes. So by the end of the day, one’s hair is virtually out of one’s head! But it looks fine on the movie and that’s all that really matters in the end.
Vi: And you got to play the straight man.
SM: I got to play the straight man, again, yes, very much the straight man.
LP: Violet and I write occasionally for fanzines, and so does Diana, hobby writing – you know. When Vi found out you were a writer, she said, “No wonder he has such good character development!”
SM: Well, I’m not so sure how good of a writer I am, but I do know that I’m very good at telling stories, in terms of directing, and in terms of acting. So i get a very clear line in my characters.
Sometimes I get caught up, like in SWORD & SORCERER, where I convince the director that we needed some extra stuff for exposition – which we played. It was wonderful and they all loved it, but when they finally got down to it they decided that it was an action film and the cut some of these expositional things.
LP: We were going to ask you about that. Did they cut a whole lot of your part out?
SM: Yeah, quiet a lot.
LP: What about the part when Alana and Mikah found out that Talon was their childhood friend.? Was there any kind of play on that?
SM: That scene was never played, no. I discovered it’s Talon at the same moment as everybody else does, right at the end when I just put the crown on my head. So we never had a chance to play that.
But the scenes that were really cut were: that one scene in the beginning when I first some in, just before Cromwell comes and captures me. There was a much bigger scene there with Alana, which established our relationship, which as it happens, the film very definitely needed. Because everybody got confused and thought that Alana was Talon’s sister, not mine and certainly that problem has been one that became a major issue. So that scene they cut, and they were wrong to have cut it.
It was also quite funny because I played it kind of very chauvinistic. I was almost as if she and I have been in partnership together to overthrow the kingdom, and as soon as we saw it was going to happen, she turned around and said, “Well, what are we going to do?”
And I said, “Well, I’m going to be king tomorrow.”
She said, “Well, what about me?”
And I said, “Well, you know, you’re going to fall in love, have a family. . . ”
I played the whole things very chauvinistic, which at the time would have been right, and it was funny and they loved it in rushes; but when they finally came down to playing it it was just too long for an action film like this, which I think is a mistake.
The dungeon scene was very heavily cut. Richard and I really flew in that scene! I shall never forget that one day, the first day on the movie for me, and I think, the first major day of work that they had done. At the end of the scene that Richard and I played, the crew just applauded – and that doesn’t happen very often. The crew will just normally go off doing other things, and getting on with their job; but they applauded, and they applauded almost every time we played the scene – and they talked about it for days, saying, “My God, that’s the best thing we’ve seen!”
Then they saw it in rushes and they came back saying, “It’s incredible, it’s so powerful!”, but again, they cut it down when they got into the thing because it was long. Notice, if you ever see the film again, that everything is very short, and those longer scenes got cut. There were only about four scenes that really worked of any length, and they were all one’s that i was in, because we spent time on them, and I helped re-write them knowing what the story should be.
It’s the kind of film that you have to have an understanding of the style, and on the whole, with all due respect, the Americans don’t understand this kind of slightly expansive style. They’re used to playing the very tongue-in-cheek throwaway stuff that the British can’t do. But this very stylized period film has to be bigger than life and they don’t understand. What happened was, when Richard and I really got going, and Richard does understand; when he and I got going, we had a scene that kind of jumped out of the film as being more right than the rest of it – so they got rid of it to balance the whole thing out, which is a shame in many ways, but it may have made the film in the end, more even.
Vi: If they had left the film at two hours and maybe explained more of the story. We saw it – countless times, and it just seemed too short somehow.
SM: That was one of the things – it was carelessly done in that respect. Stories are very often poorly told. One of the things we find nowadays with film, is the directors are making pretty pictures, and the special effects are so busy doing special effects, that they actually forget to tell the story. in the old days when there were no pictures of any consequence, where there were no special effects, in all those wonderful old 30’s and 40’s films – it’s the story that counts – it’s the story that sells.
Vi: It’s still the story for me!
SM: And it’s still the story for everybody. That’s why ET works so well. It basically isn’t any of the effects in that really; they all add to it. But the thing that makes ET work is just a simple story, that everybody can understand – and it’s all very clearly told. Spielberg is the ultimate story-teller at the moment.
LP: Were the working conditions on SWORD & SORCERER very difficult, as described in Fantastic Films?
SM: Yes, indeed there were considerable difficulties for everybody. I didn’t really ever suffer that badly, but I know a lot of times they did, and we did have a lot of accidents, including one man being killed, which was very tragic.
LP: Does any particular incident come to mind for you?
SM: I don’t know if anything really does – except for the fact that Richard Lynch nearly killed me 3 times with that scepter thing. We’d been up all night and Richard was getting very tired and very frenetic about things. So when we got into that action stuff, a couple of times he got this thing up quicker than I could get my hands up, and he was pulling – so in fact a bit on film is almost for real when I really try to stop myself – he got a little carried away.
Continued next issue