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Simon MacCorkindale is convinced he would have become the Army’s youngest general. He feels his dogged determination, dashing looks and slavish adherence to discipline would have sent him hurtling up the ranks. Indeed, thanks to his father’s contacts, a glittering military career was once guaranteed; instead, he chose to become the nearly man of British cinema, a decision he puts down to an in-built self-destruct button which he presses whenever his life is running smoothly.
To the horror of his family, Simon put showbusiness before the Army, and his role opposite Mia Farrow in Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile in 1978 won him the Most Promising Film Actor award when he was 26. From there, anything seemed possible. Only now, years later, after disappearing from the movie actor radar, is he acting again, this time as Harry Harper, a dashing doctor in the BBC’s hospital drama, Casualty. He is expected to cause a stir with his character, who is married but has a penchant for sexy girls; a natural extension to the love-rat image from his TV heyday in the 1980s, when he played Greg Reardon in Falcon Crest.
Simon, 50, is, of course, excited about his new venture, which involves mostly living on his own in a flat in Bristol for three years during filming. His wife of 17 years, actress Susan George, once voted one of the sexiest women in the world and who dated Prince Charles and George Best, might wonder exactly what aspect he is looking forward to most.
‘One of the things about Casualty will be having an apartment of my own,’ says Simon. ‘It’ll give Susan and me a chance to have our own space, which I think is actually necessary because at the moment everything is too intense. We are forever finding it difficult to find quality time to ourselves. If we do grab moments, it’s always loaded; it’s always something about work, or it’s problem- driven, so as you wind down you’re winding up at the same time. It’s difficult.
‘Often we’re both trying to relax at different times. It’s that hard. I don’t often relax, but when I do I might watch a bit of telly. So I might want to watch football and Susie wants to watch something else. She will always go to sleep in the middle of a programme while the TV’s on and I tend to get wound up by it. By having a little space it will allow me to concentrate.’
Clearly Simon sometimes clashes fiercely with Susan. ‘Neither of us sulk. We have big rows. I’m the one with the short fuse. Susie is remarkably calm, although she will fight back. There are two chiefs but no Indians that’s the way we are. When we met, we had two very individual careers and we both knew what we wanted. I’m a control freak so it’s difficult to delegate and when I think of Susie, I have that image of the little terrier, with the head and the tail going, holding on to a bone that’s Susie through and through. But I’m the big dog who takes up the bone and carries it for however long is necessary.’
Whether Simon is about to press the self-destruct button again is anyone’s guess. Once, he was in what everyone assumed was the perfect marriage, with actress Fiona Fullerton, a union which raised his public profile. Together, they were hailed as the most perfect showbusiness couple the gorgeous English gent and the devoted, gamine wife. So it came as a shock to Fiona and to Simon’s family when he declared their five-year marriage was over and he left for Hollywood.
“There is a self-destruct button in me and I don’t know where it comes from every time it looks as if I’m getting comfortable, I go and throw it all in the air. It’s not a conscious thing. The image I’ve always had of myself is of a man leaping off the diving board without checking whether there is any water in the bottom. It means making hasty decisions.’
Yet it now emerges Simon wishes he had not left Fiona so soon. ‘I still consider it a failure, and it still bothers me,’ he admits for the first time. ‘My marriage to Fiona was a well-intentioned mistake but I should have seen it through longer. Instead I said to myself: “I don’t think this marriage is going anywhere and it’s better to get out now before we have the commitment of children.” I was married to Fiona when I was 24. She was in Angels at that time and I was just an up- and-comer. I cut and ran. There was an element of Hollywood beckoning, which was going to be harder to do still being married. When I felt it was going wrong, I made a quick jump off the diving board. I thought it through pretty deeply but for a short period of time. I was too quick to act, rationalise everything and make a quick decision. To be honest I’ve never fully reconciled it with Fiona, yet in reality I should have sorted it out.’
Instead, it was Fiona who, devastated, spoke out publicly, and complained that although Simon said he wanted a working wife to bring him stimulation, that he used to complain when she wasn’t around. Both were bom into Service families and had similar upbringings, moving around the world with their fathers to different bases. But Simon felt they weren’t compatible. He felt they were stifling each others’ careers and that as soon as they married, Fiona was squandering her talent. He also has such a marked streak of independence that he admits he isn’t the easiest of people to live with. ‘I can’t take four hours off to sit in front of a television set to be company for someone,’ he says.
His burning ambition took him to Hollywood to look for work. ‘I had to believe it was going to happen. I had had it all in England and furthermore, because I had left, Fiona was able to have an open field with the Press and, of course, she had to do it. But I never spoke to a soul. I was the bad guy.’
Simon and Fiona were married in 1976, before Death On The Nile made him famous. ‘Looking back I wasn’t ready,’ he admits. ‘I believed in the structure and sanctity of marriage but what I fell in love with was the residue of my upbringing. I fell in love with the idea of being a married, responsible person. 1 think that was part of it wanting my Mum and Dad to be pleased.’
Although Simon’s father Peter, an RAF group captain then station commander, had always been supportive, he was floored when his eldest son decided to become an actor. Simon may appear to have a stiff upper lip, but he looks vulnerable when he admits: ‘What I learnt afterwards was that my father was having a hell of a time for two years while I was going through drama school. I’d basically emasculated him. He’d groomed me for a military career and I had flung it up and said: “No, I don’t want to do that.” All Dad knew about showbusiness was homosexual actors, drugs, broken marriages and unreliability.’
A turning point came at the end of Simon’s first year at drama school when he appeared in a George Bernard Shaw play. His parents came to see him perform for the first time. The next night they came again. ‘That moment turned everything around completely,’ explains Simon, ‘because Dad came on my side. He never told me his worries but Mum did and I was then able to meet him head on and help him. So a few years later when I did a show with Sir John Mills, I made a point of introducing him to John and his wife Mary who have been married for so many years. That helped enormously to show my parents two pillars of society with their pillar-of-society marriage and made them more at ease.’
But their confidence was shattered when Simon’s marriage to Fiona broke up. They were supportive, but ‘very, very disappointed’, says Simon, and it took him a long time to come to terms with what he saw as a personal failure. Thankfully, he was able to fall back on his internal emotional support system: hard work. This kind of focus always served him well throughout his school days. Simon relished the structure offered by the discipline which came with the territory. He used it to his advantage. On the day he arrived as a boarder at Haileybury College, Hertfordshire, he admits: ‘I said to myself: “I want to be head boy.” I became head boy and the youngest prefect.
‘My father wanted me to go into the Army. I had wanted to follow him into the Air Force, but after my eyesight failed me I thought about the diplomatic corps. Being head boy was a logical part of that process. Without wanting to sound arrogant, I said to myself, as long as I keep my nose clean I could be the youngest general in the army. But at 18 I didn’t want to know what I’d be doing at 42 and saw a whole bunch of people in the Services who were unhappy and here was a kind of mirror. I didn’t want to go down that way.’
Simon found there were more parallels in the entertainment business and the military than he might have imagined, such as strict time- keeping, teamwork and being driven. In this way, his father was a huge inspiration. With his good looks and bullish manner Simon could give the impression of being haughty and arrogant. In fact, he is quietly humble, even insecure. He admits he is not the most talented actor around and was never comfortable as a leading man. In fact, at prep school he discovered a talent for writing and directing plays, producing Sleeping Beauty at the age of nine. ‘My ambition was not to be centre stage. I was never very extrovert and I knew I wouldn’t get into one of the big drama schools like RADA because I knew I wasn’t an actor. My mental brief was to learn how to act so I could direct. I wanted to be a control freak. I’m a serious grafter I won’t let go.’
Simon says he always felt rather apologetic about his handsome looks and felt it was luck which had won him good roles and a film industry award. It was at the age of 30, when he arrived in Hollywood, that he finally felt confident in his talent as an actor, then a director. But the first months there were spent wrestling with the trauma of his marriage break-up to Fiona. “There was a large hole and a lot of pain which I tried to get over by throwing myself into work. It was cathartic and became incredibly exciting through great directing opportunities in the theatre.’
He fell in love with actress Linda Pearl and they worked on several television and theatre productions together. But Simon hit a crunch time while he was directing her in the play A Doll’s House. She was captivated by the leading man while still in a relation- ship with Simon. ‘Linda is a great actress and a super girl, but she had one problem and that is she loved talent,’ explains Simon matter-of-factly. ‘So she loved me while I was helpful and directed her. Then the next “talent” came along. That hurt. That was tough. It went from bad to worse because he went on to do a film and I took his role in the play. Linda wanted me to play it like him and thought I’d messed up her performance. But I said: “I’m not going to copy him.'”
It was around this time that Simon’s friendship with Susan George deepened. They’d first met at a dinner function in 1977 and became good friends. It was Susan he turned to during his emotional turmoil with Linda. ‘Susie came to see the play and took me out to dinner and she commiserated with me. I was strung- out beyond belief through the work situation.’ Six months later, it was Simon’s turn to offer a shoulder for Susan to cry on when her relationship with her then manager Derek Webster ended.
There was no immediate passion between them, but through their friendship they recognised a meeting of minds. It wasn’t long after meeting that they set up their own company, Amy Productions.
‘Susie’s very driven,’ he says. ‘She’s hardworking. She had extraordinary maturity from a young age because of her background of having to support her parents. We became great mates. I never had a problem with the fact she was a super- star. I still am in some ways Mr George and I’ve never bothered about that.’
Today, apart from his role in Casualty, he is also in the process of setting up a new business, Anglo Films International, which is producing a string of Dick Francis TV thrillers, and establishing a stud farm at his and Susan’s Exmoor home, complete with 114 acres. But his contract with Casualty means that, over the next three years, he will be returning to the farm only on his days off.
In the past, there has been little respite for both Simon and Susan, from both work and domestic commitments. ‘When we lived in California we had more time. When we came back to England, we formed the film company and that caused an enormous amount of pressure. Four years later I went to Canada for work, then Susie’s sister came to live with us in 1987. Her dad died in 1992, then her mum came to live with us until she died in 2000. So we always had another member of the family with us which was absolutely the right thing to do but, of course, it put a strain on our relationship as there was always somebody in the house.’
Similarly, time and career commitments overshadowed plans to start a family. ‘Susie and 1 wanted to wait and have some time together, without paying too much attention to the biological clock, then that didn’t work in the way we wanted it to when we wanted to start a family. Then I was working away for three years. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want children. But it hasn’t happened and so I’m philosophical about it.’
Susan has credited Simon as being the rock in her life. He jokingly says she wouldn’t say that any more and there may be a hint of truth in that. ‘I think she finally thinks I’ve gone over the edge and I’m barking,’ he laughs. He admits that although he is protective of Susan when it comes to work issues, he is no longer romantic. ‘I think I used to be. Now I’ve got too much on my mind it just got pushed back. I’ve lost the plot slightly. It’s perfectly possible to get it back. But at the moment everything’s coming to a critical point and I can be pretty volatile.’
The one area in his life which seems to be progressing smoothly is his acting career which he is relishing after a long stint directing. Far from feeling his leading man days are over, Simon argues: ‘I made my career break at 25, but I knew the dashing leading man role would work against me at some point. There was also a sadness after Death On The Nile because I knew there wouldn’t be many more roles like it for me.
‘I don’t regret any of my decisions. When I came back from California in 1986 I decided to quit acting because I wanted to be in control and be responsible if something did or didn’t work out. Now I’ve that, I can use my experience to go back to acting. I am a slow bum and I’ve always felt my time as an actor and leading man is now.’