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Victor Spinetti

Victor Spinetti

Richard Burton called comedian, author, poet, and raconteur Victor Spinetti (b. Cwm, near Ebbw Vale, south Wales, 2 September 1929; d. 18 June 2012) “the most underrated actor in Britain.” Recognized in the United States principally as the only actor (besides the Beatles themselves) to appear in all three of the Beatles’ movies (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Magical Mystery Tour), Spinetti made more than 30 films in the UK (he didn’t keep a count), appeared in as many stage plays and musicals, and was in four productions on Broadway, winning a Tony Award® for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1965 for his performance in Oh What a Lovely War.

Vittorio Giorgio Andrea Spinetti was born and spent his earliest years in an apartment over his father’s fish-and-chips shop in the tiny mining and steel-works village of Cwm. The inhabitants were a mix of Welsh natives and immigrants from Poland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary who had found their way there in search of work; indeed Spinetti claimed that his grandfather, a poor farmer, had walked there from northern Italy to make enough money to buy a plough, and when he had done so, walked back home. His father and his father’s brother, born in Italy, came to Cwm to settle permanently, and both prospered. Spinetti’s mother was Welsh, one of nine siblings, so that Victor, as he grew up – and later in life –, was surrounded by many loving native cousins.

No good at sports or at cutting fish for the shop, Victor entertained himself by learning to read before he reached school age, and in grammar school he naturally became a kind of teacher’s assistant. But the opening of the Second World War turned his life upside down: “One day I’m Welsh, the next day I’m a spy.” His father was arrested in the middle of the night and sent with other British “aliens” to be interned on the Isle of Man. He was shunned and bullied by his schoolmates (“Italian bastard!”); one of his teachers even locked him out of the classroom. One day walking home he was attacked by two brothers who clubbed him on the side of the head with a brick, which resulted in permanent deafness in one ear.

Thereafter he was seen home from school by one teacher who showed him especial kindness, even to the extent of writing to the authorities and effecting his father’s release from internment and return to Cwm.

Victor’s academic accomplishments were always a source of friction between him and his father, who could not read English. Soon a happy solution was reached: he was sent to boarding school in Monmouth, where he thrived. With his classmates he developed a “Top Hat Act” and other entertainments with which they would raise money for Old Age Pensioners in town. He also developed a repertoire of accents and a reasonable facsimile of military bearing in the school’s Junior Training Corps. He qualified, at the end of school, for university at Oxford or Cambridge, but chose instead to fulfill the requirement for national service.

Spinetti was in basic army training for only ten weeks, during which time his partial deafness was discovered – he later ascertained that it was responsible for his garbled understanding of the commands of drill sergeants, and the fount of the brilliant gibberish he would spout later in Oh What a Lovely War and Magical Mystery Tour. But billeted under a damp blanket next to a dripping wet wall, he suffered a collapsed lung and pleural effusions. He spent a year in a tuberculosis hospital and was finally invalided out with a disability pension, two pounds ten shillings a week.

For a short time Victor managed a café next door to his father’s fish-and-chip shop, but the tension between father and son proved insufferable. Fortunately, a brand new Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama was opening in Cardiff, and each county in Wales was invited to send one of their own to attend it on scholarship. Spinetti was selected as the representative from Monmouthshire. While at the College, he created a new act, miming to sounds from a tape recorder, got an agent, and toured to hotels and clubs in the area. He also met Graham Curnow, a fellow student who was to become his life partner, sharing lodgings, if not always a bed, for 44 years.

When Graham won a scholarship to another college, and with the realization that things weren’t working out with his Cardiff manager, he took a train to London, where he hooked up with a hypnotist, a tenor in a smoking jacket, a piano-playing comic, and a couple of nude girls to tour the outlying music halls. Getting established in London, with his tape recorder and singing Al Jolson songs, was a struggle. One day in 1954, while he was working for an hourly wage at a lampshade factory, he got a call to join the cast of a touring company of South Pacific (which was out in Coventry at that particular moment). Spinetti soon inherited the role of Luther Billis, which won him many favorable notices. An added happy circumstance was that he became fast friends with another novice in the show, Sean Connery.

Armed with his newspaper clippings, Spinetti landed a gig at the Irving Theatre – five shows a day at a strip club –, “the only theatre in London where the nudes can move.” After a rocky start, the variety show got good enough to send – without the nudes – to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where Spinetti earned a rave review – except that the reviewer used the wrong actor’s name in it. He soon righted that wrong, however, with a headline in the Sunday Times that read, “Laurence Olivier as The Entertainer at the Palace, Victor Spinetti as the Entertainer at the Irving.” Doors began to open, and Spinetti, in six different roles (a Fleet Street editor, a parson, a psychiatrist, a waiter), soon made his West End debut, sharing the bill with Paul Scofield in Wolf Mankowitz’s musical Expresso Bongo (1958). He was also in Bernstein’s Candide, but that show was not a success, and then he was right back at the Irving.

On Mankowitz’s recommendation, Spinetti auditioned for, and joined, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Stratford East; his first project there was another Mankowitz musical (thoroughly reshaped by Littlewood), Make Me an Offer (1959). He would work with Littlewood for six years, and she became, in Spinetti’s words, “my university:”

“At first, [Joan’s] style had been achieved by long periods of training but by the time of my audition, things had changed. The pressure on Joan to come up with new hits to make money to keep Stratford East going was immense. Rehearsal periods were devoted not so much to training as to taking raw material and fashioning pieces that were performable. This was achieved by getting the actors to play games and improvise, strictly supervised by Joan, of course, who then took the day’s work home at night and wrote it up for the next day.” (from his autobiography, Victor Spinetti up front …, 2006)

One day in 1960 Brendan Behan walked into the theatre and offered Spinetti the part of the IRA officer in his play The Hostage, headed for Broadway. In New York Spinetti met and performed for many legends – Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine, Carol Channing, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Rosalind Russell, Laurence Olivier. The play was a great success, and after 127 performances it headed out across the States on tour, but Joan Littlewood called Spinetti back to London from Chicago: he was needed as Tosher in the cast of Frank Norman and Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1960). Later that same year he played Brainworm in Littlewood’s production of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, a play that toured to Paris and won a prize, but without Spinetti, who could not get out of his nightclub act.

Perhaps the most stimulating and rewarding project of Spinetti’s years with Littlewood was Oh What a Lovely War, a musical constructed by the Theatre Workshop in 1963 upon the loose armature of a radio play, The Long Long Trail (1961) by Charles Chilton, itself inspired by Alan Clark’s book The Donkeys, a critique of British generalship during the First World War. The title of the show came from an old music hall song “Oh! It’s a Lovely War,” incorporated in the production. Spinetti’s particular contribution to the proceedings was the impersonation of his army drill sergeant whose commands were pure gobbledygook. (Littlewood begged him, “Don’t ever rehearse it.”) When the show traveled to Broadway it won him a Tony Award® for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. The show took other honors too; in Paris it shared the Théâtre des Nations prize with Peter Brook’s production of King Lear, and in the West End it won the Evening Standard Drama Award.

Spinetti was not prepared for his Tony®. “I won a Tony Award but when Carol Channing handed it to me, I knew immediately that I didn’t want to make one of those grisly acceptance speeches … I made it in Welsh. As I still don’t know a word of [Welsh], this was my usual gibberish. The audience was bowled over.” He was also given a Theatre World Award, but was not requested to make a speech on that occasion.

At the suggestion of the screenwriter of A Hard Day’s Night (1964), starring the Beatles, the producer and director of the film came to see Lovely War and hired Spinetti to play the exasperated television studio director in the mohair sweater. That sweater, out of Spinetti’s own cupboard, a hand-me-down from Peter Shaffer, is now, like the fur hat he wore in Help!, a collectible worth tens of thousands of dollars.

A Hard Day’s Night was of course a smash hit, and Spinetti became fast friends with “the lads.” John Lennon remarked upon the naturalness and ease of their relationship: “When Dick [Lester, the director] shouts action, the other actors jump up and become different people but you stay the same. Does that mean you’re as terrible as we are?”

“You’ve got to be in all our films,” George Harrison said seven months later as they were beginning to work on Help! (1965). “If you’re not in them, me Mum won’t come and see them because she fancies you.” Spinetti was cast in Help! as a mad doctor employed to cut a ring off Ringo’s finger, but the filming (in the Bahamas and in Austria) was not the joyous occasion their first project had been. “The spirit of invention … had gone. Tiredness and sullenness permeated the shoot.”

That did not mean that Help! was any less of a success, or that it did not give Spinetti’s career another powerful boost. He was invited back to the U.S. to star opposite Julie Harris in a musical, Skyscraper, and when he left the show’s tryouts in Detroit, returned to Broadway for the third time in a French farce, La Grosse Valise (1965). This was a dismal flop at seven performances, freeing Spinetti in 1966 for a long West End run as Oscar in The Odd Couple, opposite Jack Klugman’s Felix.

In 1967 Spinetti was in Rome, filming The Taming of the Shrew with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who gave him coaching in makeup for the cameras). The Burtons were co-producers of the film as well as the stars; Franco Zeffirelli directed and Spinetti played Hortensio. (The credits acknowledged thanks to William Shakespeare, “without whom they would have been at a loss for words.”) Later in the year Spinetti reprised his gibberish-spouting drill sergeant in the Beatles’ hour-long TV special, Magical Mystery Tour.

At the suggestion of American playwright Adrienne Kennedy, Spinetti and John Lennon undertook to transfer Lennon’s published writings (In His Own Write, A Spaniard in the Works) to the living stage. In His Own Write, the play, with Spinetti as director, opened at the Old Vic in June 1968, and although it was a success, the overriding sensation of the event was the appearance of John and Yoko Ono together for the first time in public.

In subsequent years, Victor Spinetti would return from time to time to burlesque, encountering the threat, “You’ll never work in the West End again,” as a matter of course. But everything he did, he did well: a series of television advertisements (early 1970s) for Jaffa Cakes, dressed as a Middle-Eastern biscuit thief on a bicycle; a bit opposite Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) in The Return of the Pink Panther (1974), as the hotel clerk who is asked for “a rheum”; a brilliant turn as “the greatest of all Restoration fops,” Lord Foppington, in John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (written 1696) with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1995. As late as 2005 he was lauded for his “luminously sympathetic” performance as Albert Einstein in a new play in Earl’s Court, Albert’s Boy.

Other movies in Spinetti’s unenumerated list were Becket (1964), Start the Revolution without Me (1970), Under Milk Wood (1972) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Voyage of the Damned (1976), Under the Cherry Moon (1986), and The Krays (1990). On the boards he appeared in Cat among the Pigeons (1969), The Philanthropist (1971) on Broadway for 64 performances, Jim Davidson’s Dick Whittington (1980), and his own one-man, autobiographical A Very Private Diary (from 1989), with which he would tour for much of the rest of his life. Spinetti also starred as King Herod in the 20th Anniversary London production of Jesus Christ Superstar (1992), and as Friar Tuck (spoonerized) in Jim Davidson’s priapic farce, Boobs in the Wood (video, 1999).

Spinetti also directed musicals: Jesus Christ Superstar in Amsterdam and Paris, and Hair in Rome. His many television appearances on British TV included Take My Wife, and the sitcoms Two in Clover and An Actor’s Life For Me. He voiced arch-villain Texas Pete in the popular animated TV series SuperTed (1982–84) and King of the Rats in the children’s program Tales of the Tooth Fairies – The Stolen Present (1992). From 1999 to 2002 he played Max, the “man of a thousand faces,” in Harry and the Wrinklies.

In 1999 Spinetti was made an honorary Fellow of Cardiff’s College of Music and Drama, his alma mater. His memoir, Victor Spinetti … up front, chock full of surprising anecdotes and gossip about fellow stars, even members of the nobility, was published in 2006. (Although he is not so lavish with information about himself, he comes across as modest, generous, cheerful, and wise as well as nutty.)

Spinetti was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February 2011, after collapsing on stage and suffering a spinal fracture. The tumor was discovered only by chance. He died in hospital in Monmouth sixteen months later, at 82.

– Lucy E. Cross

Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection