by debi lee mandel
Victor Spinetti appeared in all three Beatles movies and enjoyed lifelong friendships with "the lads." The candid, animated and oh so charming "6th Beatle" shares his experiences with the Fab Four, Beatlemania and the making of A Hard Day's Night. While humor is still apparently his trademark, Spinetti is a thoughtful man who also speaks many words of wisdom.
Spinetti was already an accomplished actor when two young musicians visited backstage after his Tony-winning performance in Oh, What a Lovely War! in 1964 and asked him to be in their movie. "Me mum would come to see it then," said George Harrison. The second admirer was John Lennon, and "their movie" was A Hard Day's Night.
Spinetti with (L-R) McCartney, Junkin & Rossington (courtesy Miramax)
You're in Chicago, digitallyOBSESSED's home town... Victor Spinetti:
Yes, I'm in Chicago! Last night, we went out with Studs Terkel to screen the DVD of A Hard Day's Night
at the Vic Theatre. dOc:
The previous night, you actually met up with Paul before his show. How was that? VS:
[imitating McCartney's voice] Hey Vic, give us a hug... Give us another hug...!' dOc:
Has it been awhile since you've seen him? I know you've been friends all through your lives. VS:
No, I saw him two months ago, at the house in Brighton. He came tea. dOc:
I'm sure that we all wish we could say that!
So, when you're in the States here... do people actually recognize you on the street? VS:
At another screening, I was outside the theater, this lady in New York came up to me and said, 'May I touch you? You're the closest I'm ever going to be to a Beatle.' dOc:
You've had that for forty years, haven't you? VS:
Been chased in the streets! In New York I was chased. That's only because I was doing the show, Oh! What a Lovely War
there. At the same time, A Hard Day's Night
was showing in the cinema.... I was the nearest one that anyone could get a hold of. dOc:
And do people still recognize you, do they still get that hit? VS:
Yes. Well, the nose is still the same.... dOc:
I was young, but am old enough to have been there for Beatlemania. I'm actually quite excited about... VS:
Oh well, listen my darling, I was excited, I AM excited... never been blasé about anything in my life. I've always been amazed... When I was working with the lads or working with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Wells... I'm still thinking: 'Shit, am I really here?'
You have done a couple of things with Richard Burton. One with Elizabeth Taylor. Was there a Welsh connection there? Or was that just happenstance? VS:
Richard was always very generous. Whenever you met him he always said,[in Burton's voice] 'You alright for money now, boy?' He knew what it's like as an actor. Sometimes you do well, sometimes you don't. One is usually cast by the directors of the movies or the producers. dOc:
Of course, but this was Dylan Thomas... VS:
Yes, right. So, of course, I had to be in that. But, the Beatles were different. They said, 'You've got to be in our film." But George Harrison said, 'You've got to be in all our films!' And when I asked why, he said, 'Well, if you're not in them me Mum won't come and see them—because she fancies you.' dOc:
[Laughs] When George came backstage to see you... when you were doing Oh! What a Lovely War
and asked you to be in the film, did you know who The Beatles were? VS:
Oh yeah. I was a big fan. I was the eldest of six kids. My youngest brother, Henry, when I was in A Hard Day's Night
, was so... impressed. He wanted to become a musician. dOc:
And did he? VS:
Eric Clapton's drummer for six years. He's since worked with Paul, he's worked with George, In fact, George Harrison told me when I was in New York for the Bangladesh concert... [in George's voice] 'Vic, your brother's the best drummer in the country.' That's my kid brother.
dOc: You were an accomplished actor when you first started working with The Beatles. Honestly, was it difficult to work around their inexperience?
VS: No, they were very professional. They knew their lines. They were very... The marvelous thing is, they weren't self-conscious. They were being themselves, which is very difficult.
dOc: They're so natural.
VS: That's it. Oh God... They weren't hidden. You didn't have to pass a test in order to have a conversation with them. Like in England, you start off saying, 'Have we met before?' They were being themselves. I mean, they ad-libbed all sorts of different lines. I don't know whatever happened to those outtakes.
dOc: Perhaps because this film was made thinking The Beatles might be a flash in the pan, things like that weren't saved?
VS: That's what they thought: 'How long could they last?'
dOc: But on the set with Richard Lester, did you all know you had something more important on your hands?
VS: No. But it was done with great joy.
dOc: In your role in AHDN, you're a part of the "over-thirty" generation. Did that bother you?
VS: George's mum fancied me.
dOc: And—DID your wife knit that sweater for you?
VS: That sweater was mine! Those lines were ad-libbed! Alun Owen didn't know I was going to wear that. I was on the set and I said to Dick, 'What do you think of this?' He said, 'Perfect.' It was given to me as a present by a very famous playwright called Peter Shaffer, who wrote Royal Hunt of the Sun and Amadeus. At that time, he had written The Private Ear/The Public Eye, one of his early plays. He said, 'You've got to be in this play', and he sent it to me, like an inducement, a little gift.
dOc: Peter's brother was a famous writer as well. Did you know him?
VS: Yes. His brother, [Anthony Shaffer] wrote too. He wrote Sleuth and The Wicker Man. Tony met his wife on the set of The Wicker Man.
dOc: And George fell in love with Patti on the set of AHDN.
VS: John Junkin tells a wonderful story about that. He's with me at the moment. He played the roadie. He tells a marvelous story about George asking his advice about her. He said 'I like that girl, but, well, I don't like to ask her.' John said, 'Why not?' And George said, 'Well, you know she might think she'd have to come just because I'm a Beatle.' So, John says, 'Well ask her and if she doesn't, she doesn't and that's okay.' Anyway, they met later and she turned him down but went out to have a few drinks with John and then [George] tried again. He was very shy and charming and didn't expect this girl, after that, to go for him just because he was one of The Beatles.
They were very charming. Always. They never trashed a hotel room. Or drove a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool. That was kid's stuff.
dOc: Being a part of Beatlemania from the inside out, you're intertwined with them... How does it feel to be a part of something that goes on forever?
VS: To be with them was, well, okay, was a thrill, a pleasure, I was honored... Let's put it this way: In the middle of Beatlemania there was a still, small center, like the eye of a hurricane. Where they were would be such calm. There was good conversation, jokes, lots of love... I said to John once, 'What's your best lyric, John?' He said, [in John's voice] 'That's easy, Vic. All you need is love.'
I think if you want something, whatever you want, give it away, then you can keep it...' Can't keep anything if you don't give it away. If you want love, you have to give love. If you want joy, if you want warmth, if you want curiosity... if you want all these things, giving is the important thing. Give it away otherwise you can't keep it...
I said to John, 'Why are you going to India, John?'
'To find enlightenment...'
'You don't have to go anywhere, we're already here.'
It's true. We had talks like that. In England at that time, people said to me, 'What on earth do you talk about? I mean, they're longhaired wogs!' and I said, 'Well... we were talking the other night, John was talking about [in John's voice] the Freudian interpretation of dreams as opposed to the Jungian interpretation...'
dOc: [Laughs] You do a good John...
VS: Well, I saw a lot of him.
dOc: Were you friends until the end, then?
VS: Oh yes. I mean, not so close because he lived in New York then... but, I spoke to him just before... he was coming back to England. I was in New York and said, 'I'll see you at Christmas.' He was coming back to England for Christmas. He gave me a painting and when I heard he was murdered, I couldn't bear to look at it. There was a charity dinner and I said, 'Well there's this picture that John gave me... auction it for this charity.' So I gave instructions for them to pick it up and I put it in the garage but they never did. And ages later, I was rummaging about, you know... and there was this painting. It's back on the wall now. And I was just telling John Junkin today at breakfast that I'd been going through this drawer and I found this little piece of card. It said, 'I'll never forget Victor Spinetti. Love, John.' I had to stop for a good 20 minutes when I read that...
[After a long pause] And it had come with a big rubber elephant!
It was about 6' high! I gave it to a primary school, the elephant, but I kept this card and I still have that.
dOc: On a similarly sad subject, we've recently lost George. There's a benefit concert coming up in November... will you be participating?
VS: George was lovely. Ah, no. I'll be working.
dOc: Is this tour of yours taking you to California?
VS: Yes! Los Angeles. We're all catching the train! This I've never done before.
In fact, I sent a message to Paul saying 'Congratulations on your American tour' and he sent one back saying, 'Congratulations on your UK tour' with a huge bunch of flowers, which I brought to my sister, who said I shouldn't spend my money like that. And I said, 'They're from a rock god!' They came in handy, those flowers!
dOc: Back to AHDN . They find Ringo and the show goes on. There's literally, then, a Beatles concert that goes on, there's kids screaming—boys AND girls—and you're up there in the booth looking down on that. What is that like?
VS: Oddly enough, I really had to do it. Dick couldn't punch up the pictures, he couldn't get there—because of unruly elements in the audience—and so he's telling me on the cans, 'Push this button, pull that one.' So I'm actually, literally punching up the pictures.
dOc: So was that booth soundproof? How could you hear him with all that screaming?
VS: No, no, no! It wasn't! And they started screaming at 8 in the morning... [laughs].
dOc: Wilfrid Brambell was very well known in Britain then. Was he brought in to attract the older generation to the film, or to anchor the script with this idea of being Paul's grandfather?
VS: Wilfrid was very big in Steptoe and Son. An enormous star on television. But the head of United Artists wanted a grandmother, not a grandfather.
dOc: That would've changed everything!
VS: I know! Everyone disagreed, so they cut the grandmother. But he had wanted Margaret Rutherford.
dOc: Couldn't have exactly had the same kind of jokes about a 'clean old lady'!
VS: Noooo. [Brambell's] son on the show used to say, 'You're a dirty old man!' So that's why they called him a clean old man.
dOc: Ah! This was totally lost on the American public.
VS: [in voice] 'You're a dirty old man...'
dOc: So, you do all these wonderful voices. Would you do yours for me? There's a line you have in HELP!...
VS: 'With a ring like that I could—dare I say it?—rule the world!'
Do you know why I did that? They put a close-up on me at that time because The Beatles were so stoned, they were falling about, laughing. So Dick said, 'Put the camera on Victor, for crissakes!' So I had a nice closeup! And they were on the floor, rolling about...
dOc: Well, sure! The look in your eye when you say that... You're the epitome, there, of the mad scientist...
VS: Dick said 'You're not doing too much in this.' I said, 'Well you know, I did everything in A Hard Day's Night... I'm doing less in this one!' That's exactly—you put it very good—I tried to put it all in the eyes! Stark, barking mad...
dOc: Very subtly...
VS: Yes. And there they were in front of me on the floor, all rolling about, laughing....
dOc: You were in all three films, Magical Mystery Tour perhaps the most difficult. These boys changed tremendously in the space of those three years [1964-67]. Was it a growing up, a maturity, or was it...?
VS: I'll tell you what didn't change. They didn't 'leave home.' Let me put it this way: I am at home now, talking to you. I'm in Chicago, I'm from London, I live in Brighton of course—but I'm at home. And I am now tapping my forehead, because that's where I live. In here. This is where I was born, this is where'll die. This is my house, this is my home. My address—where my income tax comes...
...that's in Brighton.
So when the lads moved, they didn't leave home. They stayed there. I was talking to Paul the other night—it was not Paul McCartney the great superstar, it was [in Paul's voice] 'Hey Vic, how're ya?' I know a lot of people who have become big, big stars and God, have they 'moved house.' They're no longer behind the eyes... What they are when they look at you is the image of what they think they are. I rarely run into Ringo now that he lives in Monaco, but when I do—BIG hug, kisses, we don't care.
Others say,[in a patronizing tone] 'Are you working? Are you alright?' Michael Caine once said as a quote in the papers, as a witty remark... are you ready for this? He said: 'When you become rich and famous, you can no longer have dinner with friends who are not, because they only end up asking for things.' He thought that was clever. My friend Joan Littlewood, the great theater director that just died on Friday, said, 'Did he mean pepper and salt...?'
dOc: Now that's witty. So, then, the guys never changed...
VS: They didn't 'move home.' It's amazing. They went through all sorts of things, but still, they were the same [as they] started out.
dOc: It's true in that when we see Paul, he still seems the same, still as happy now as, say on The Ed Sullivan Show...
VS: He's still home. That, to me, is the secret to growing up.
dOc: They all went on to do so much in their lives for others, perhaps that's why then, and it's those things we'll remember them for, beyond the songs that made us scream....
VS: I told the lads that, besides their talent, what they have is what i call the Colgate Ring of Truth, because they don't look like liars. Absolutely honest.
dOc: Tell me about George.
VS: George, he was for connoisseurs. He gave me a present, which I will now give to you, about music. When I told him I couldn't get it together with Indian music, he told me you don't listen to it, you let it happen to you. Western music is mapped; it's all worked out. Indian music is a flow. Just let it happen. There's no 3/4 time....
He also said the only perfect thing in life is change.
dOc: 'All Things Must Pass.'
VS: Yes... he was just beautiful. And he's gone.
dOc: It's hard for all of us. I'm sure it's more difficult for you, knowing them personally. When John...
VS: The man who murdered John Lennon—remember the trial? No. There wasn't one. There is no news about him, if he's in solitary, where is he? We don't hear about him. I think anybody who assassinates a world-famous person should, in future, be called Mr. or Ms. X, so their name is eradicated... so their name is taken out of time.
dOc: That a very interest concept...
VS: So they remain unknown, and people forget them. Then they'll never kill people in order to become famous. Their name would be killed with the person they killed.
dOc: I'm pleased right now to realize I can't think of his name...
VS: Good. Like the guy who killed Gandhi, or Robert Kennedy. To say, okay, you do that, and you will disappear. We'll put you in jail, but your name will be rubbed out of the records.
dOc: Let's lobby for that! it's an excellent idea.
VS: So much for people having their names known. I think that's what we should do. Yes, let's lobby for that one! You know, George was afraid to go out for ages. And he had that lunatic come to his house! That's terrifying.
dOc: After a life of screaming crowds....
VS: I was with them once, and there was this great crowd out on the street, and I heard John say very quietly, 'Push Paul out first, he's the pretty one!'
It was always amazing. The whole thing about the Sixties, for me, was that for the first time the young spoke directly to the young, without any intermediary. And it hasn't happened since.
Victor Spinetti was born in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales in September 1933, the oldest of six children. He won a Tony Award for his role in the musical Oh, What a Lovely War! in 1964, the same year he appeared as the duressed TV director in A Hard Day's Night. He would go on to actually steal scenes from the lads as the mad scientist, Dr. Foot in Help! and played the role of an army sergeant in Magical Mystery Tour.
With John Lennon in 1969, Spinetti adapted Lennon's book, In His Own Write for the stage. Other noteable work includes roles in Becket, Under Milk Wood and Return of the Pink Panther.
His brother, Henry, has been drummer for the likes of Eric Clapton and Tina Turner.