STAGE CLASSIC IS BRINGING OUT THE MANIMAL IN SIMON
He was the English aristocrat of choice a decade before Colin Firth emerged from a lake to become a housewife heartthrob and Hollywood star.
Simon MacCorkindale played the upper-crust cad in some of the most popular American television series of the 1980s – from The Dukes of Hazzard and Hart To Hart to Dynasty and Falcon Crest.
Now he’s taking to the Nottingham stage as a devious author in the revival of psychological thriller Sleuth, alongside his Dynasty co-star and former TV Robin Hood Michael Praed.
Simon directed ex-Dallas actor Howard Keel in the role of mystery writer Andrew Wyke more than 20 years ago and admits he has long coveted the part himself.
“It’s a beautifully-written play full of rich dialogue and plenty of intrigue,” says the 55-year-old, who has recently quit his role as suave consultant Harry Harper in BBC1’s Casualty.
Anthony Shaffer’s play is a dark study of human conflict, jealousy and manipulation.
A tour of the English provinces is world away from the film sets of Hollywood but Simon insists he’s happiest on stage.
“I love the excitement of live theatre and being on the road gives me a chance to explore the country.
“It also means I can escape the rigours of everyday life. In between shows I lock myself away in a hotel room to read scripts, write letters and generally catch up with life.”
Not content with a career as an award-winning actor, director, writer and executive producer – he has his own production company which has developed a host of movies – Simon is also one of the UK’s leading breeders of Arabian horses.
Along with wife Susan George, the star of controversial 1970s film Straw Dogs, Simon runs a stud farm with more than 60 horses in Somerset.
“It was originally Susan’s passion and now it dominates our lives.
“When I am not on a film set or theatre stage I’m rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in on the farm.”
It was his role as killer Simon Doyle in the film Death on the Nile – alongside the likes of Bette Davis and David Niven – that launched his international career and he moved to Hollywood in the early 1980s to star in a string of TV and movie hits.
“I was only 25 when Death on the Nile was released but its success opened a lot of doors for me in America.”
As well as appearances in some of the most popular TV shows of the decade, he’s a member of an exclusive club: he was a victim of the big screen’s most popular big fish.
Jaws 3 may have taken a critical mauling but Simon’s proud of the film and his role as a British biologist who is snapped up as he attempts to feed a grenade to the killer shark.
“I do most of my own stunts but that was particularly frightening,” he recalls.
“I was at the bottom of a 70ft water tank and had to lose my breathing apparatus as part of the scene.
“I was relying on the film crew to look out for me, it was a big trust exercise.”
On American television he played a succession of well-bred bounders but the roles became less rewarding.
“It was my decision to establish myself as the archetypal English rotter – stroking my perfectly twirled moustache at the end of a show, explaining how I carried out my evil deed before being carted off by the police.
“Eventually, though, I wanted to try something different.”
An escape from the rigours of villainy came in the shape-shifting form of Dr Jonathan Chase.
Manimal was a cult series that ran for only eight episodes but is still screened around the world today.
Chase had the ability to transform into the animal of his choice – hawk, panther, dolphin, horse – as part of his crime-cracking exploits.
“As a concept it was really ahead of its time,” Simon insists.
“But the show was a victim of scheduling and its budget – it was the most expensive series in America at the time.
“It never realised its technical potential either. Special effects have really developed over the past 20 years and a show like Manimal now could be visually quite stunning.”
With the relaunch of The Bionic Woman and Knight Rider – along with films such as The Dukes of Hazzard and Starsky and Hutch – Simon believes Manimal could be ripe for reappraisal and revival.
And his experience on the business side of the industry would be invaluable if he chose to pursue the project.
“It’s something that has been on my mind for a while now,” he reveals. “But there would be rights to negotiate and plenty of other issues to address.
“Once the tour of Sleuth is over it is something I want to take a serious look at.”