October 1, 1928– Laurence Harvey was born Zvi Mosheh Hirsh Skikne in Joniškis, Lithuania. Thin, dry, Harvey was one of film history’s strangest success stories. He was never a major star, or even the subject of a cult following. His films were rarely hits & those that were seemed to achieve their popularity in spite of him. A cold, remote actor, he proved highly unsuited to the majority of the roles which came his way & his performances were often the subject of unanimous critical dismissal, even his fellow actors derided his abilities. Yet, Harvey had a career much longer & more prolific than many of his contemporaries.
His resumé includes one important classic. There are many milestone films that I have not gotten around to seeing. I have never caught Casablanca (1942) or Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). I have only first watched To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), The Women (1939) or Double Indemnity (1944) in the past half-decade (all 3 are now favorites). I don’t know why I get embarrassed, but as a film fan who has taken Film History & Film Theory classes, I had not seen one of the best films of all-time about an election, the original The Manchurian Candidate (1962), starring Harvey in his best role, until last spring while I was enjoying a little chemotherapy, but somehow I had managed to fit in Drive (2011) & Crazy, Stupid Love (2011) & Blue Valentine because Ryan Gosling appeared in them & was shirtless, plus I seemed to have caught all 4 films in the Scream series (1996-2011). Oh well, who needs the classics?
In his late teens, Harvey became involved with actor Hermione Baddeley, who was twice his age. He was married 3 times, in 1957 to actor Margaret Leighton, a woman of style, but old enough to be his mother, to Joan Perry Cohn in 1968, the very rich widow of movie mogul Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, & lastly, to Paulene Stone. Harvey had met Stone on the set of A Dandy In Aspic (1968) while he was still married to Cohn. He became a father for the first time when Stone gave birth to their daughter in 1969. Harvey divorced Cohn to marry Stone in 1972.
But shockingly, Harvey was actually bisexual. Not dabbling in assignations with guys, but very bisexual, it turns out. Franks Sinatra‘s assistant, George Jacobs, author of Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra (2001), recounts that Harvey often made passes at him while visiting Sinatra. According to Jacobs, Sinatra, who starred with Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, was aware of Harvey’s sexuality & he did not care. Sinatra joked:
“He has the 3 handicaps of being a homo, a Jew, & a Polack, so people should go easy on him.”
In his memoir Close Up: An Actor Telling Tales (2006), British actor John Frasier writes that Harvey was full time gay & that his longtime lover was his manager James Wolfe who had “discovered” Harvey in the 1950s.
Dame Judi Dench worked with Harvey in Shakespeare’s Henry V at The Old Vic in 1959. In her terrific memoir And Furthermore (2010), Dench tells of feeling flummoxed at how Harvey never actually would look at her during his speeches. Actor Joss Ackland who appeared with Dench & Harvey in Twelfth Night said:
“Americans seemed to think Harvey was some sort of great actor, which his colleagues certainly did not.”
In his autobiography Knight Errant (1995), actor Robert Stephens described Harvey:
“He was an appalling man & even more unforgivably, an appalling actor.”
Harvey was regularly dismissed by critics. He was often accused of being unprofessional, with cast & crew commenting on his chronic tardiness on the set.
Amazing really, Harvey received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for playing a conniving, ruthless, heartless social-climber (hardly a stretch) in Room At The Top (1959) with Simone Signoret & former beard Hermione Baddeley.
Darling (1965) was one of the first films to depict sympathetic gay characters, but on the set, the closets must have been full. Besides Harvey, the cast included the deeply closeted Dirk Bogarde, with both actors enjoying affairs with the director John Schlesinger, who was also having sex with cast member Roland Curram.
Harvey played a de-gayed Christopher Isherwood in the film version of I Am A Camera (1955), which was later reimagined as the stage & screen musical Cabaret.
Elizabeth Taylor had a thing for him while they were filming Butterfield 8 (1960). But, she also had significant crushes on Rock Hudson & Montgomery Clift & we know how that turned out. Most of Harvey’s leading ladies actresses are on record as saying they hated him, including: Shirley MacLaine, Barbara Stanwyck, & Kim Novak. Oddly, the 2 actors that had good things to say about Harvey were Sinatra & John Wayne, who personally chose him to star in The Alamo (1960).
His screen presence seemed to simply ooze arrogance, conceit, & snobbery, although he also came across as suave & sophisticated too. Harvey’s career brings an important lesson in it for all aspiring actors: It is entirely possible to have real success without managing to gain much audience interest or sympathy, & despite critical antipathy & overwhelming public apathy. Remember that, kids.
In 1963, Harvey built a famed modernistic 9200 sq. ft. house in Beverly Hills that was later the home of gay Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman who sold it to openly gay Max Mutchnick, the co-creator of Will & Grace. The house was next owned by Ellen Degeneres who sold it to Ryan Seacrest. Make of that what you will.
Harvey took a final bow in 1973, taken by liver cancer at just 45 years old after decades of heavy drinking. Domino Harvey was his openly gay, disarmingly beautiful daughter, who became a Beverly Hills socialite before launching a career as a model in NYC. She eventually became most famous as a professional bounty hunter. She died at an early age from a drug overdose. They are together in The Santa Barbara Cemetery.