September 2, 1929 – Victor Spinetti:
“A lot of actors won’t do things because they say it is boring when you are always working. A lot of them won’t go on tour, a lot won’t do pantomime. I think you should do everything.”
Vittorio Giorgio Andre Spinetti was an outrageously talented Welsh actor who found fame and fortune as a friend and colleague of The Beatles; he had roles in three of their five films. He also worked with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Franco Zeffirelli‘s film version of William Shakespeare‘s comedy The Taming Of The Shrew (1967), plus he was in The Return Of The Pink Panther(1975), and Under The Cherry Moon (1986), directed by and starring Prince!
Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison visited him backstage after he had given a performance in Oh! What A Lovely War, an epic, rather peculiar musical playing in the West End in 1963. He played a nonsense-spouting drill sergeant, winning a Tony Award for his performance when the show moved to Broadway.
Oh! What a Lovely War was developed in a workshop by innovative director/producer Joan Littlewood, and with the cast, including Spinetti, receiving credit for the script. It was adapted to film by Richard Attenborough in his directorial debut, with a cast that includes Maggie Smith, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Laurence Olivier, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Ian Holm. Pretty much the entire cast was bisexual. The wrap party might have been a kick; the year was 1969!
The Beatles loved him so much in Oh, What A Lovely War! that they cast him without an audition for A Hard Day’s Night (1964).
By the way, A Hard Day’s Night was quite different than the Elvis Presley Rock n’ Roll musicals of the era. It is smart and irreverent, shot and edited by Richard Lester in an electrifying black-and-white, documentary style that seemed to chronicle one day in the lives of the band. The Beatles were naturals; bright and funny. Especially Starr, whose one-liners dismiss the very process of stardom the lads were undertaking. Ringo is asked at a press conference: “Are you a mod or a rocker?”. Ringo answers: “I’m a mocker”.
Legend has it that Harrison’s mother told the band that she refused to go and see the band’s films unless Spinetti was in them. Help! (1965) is the second collaboration of Lester, The Beatles, and Spinetti. Help! sees the band struggle to record their new album while trying to protect Starr from a sinister cult and a pair of mad scientists obsessed with obtaining one of his rings. The soundtrack was released as an album, also called Help!.
In 1967, Spinetti appeared on The Beatles record Christmas Time (Is Here Again)’, the recording. It features Spinetti in a tap-dancing duet with Starr.
I got some of the anecdotes from Up Front (2006), a witty memoir by Spinetti. I especially like this one:
“It’s like a séance, and there they all are, Noël and Marlene, Frank, Joan and Tennessee. Tenn came to see me in a play that was a disaster. ‘Victor,’ he said, ‘I’ll see you in anything. But don’t be in this again.'”
Spinetti was the eldest of six children, born in the mining village of Ebbw Vale in Wales. His father ran a fish and chip shop. The family lived above the shop. Because of his Italian heritage, his father was interned on the Isle of Man during World War II. Spinetti studied at the Cardiff School of Music and Drama (Anthony Hopkins is an alum) where he met his partner, the actor Graham Curnow. They shared a house and lived there as an openly gay couple from 1950 until 1997, when Curnow died.
Spinetti’s paid his dues playing in revues at variety theatres, US air force bases, and trade shows. He made his West End debut in Expresso Bongo (1958), a satirical musical about showbiz. Paul Scofield was the star in this satire on the entertainment industry, but Spinetti, playing multiple roles, attracted the most notice.
He was a major player in the swinging 1960s, living a lavish lifestyle and buying bespoke mod clothing, even when he could not pay all the bills. When he was broke, he “spanked old gentlemen for money”. Spinetti:
“My dear old mother told me that, if she’d known at the time, she would have come along and given me a hand!”
After Oh! What A Lovely War, he appeared in the West End in The Odd Couple (as Felix) in 1966; and as Fagin in Oliver! in 1983.
In 1968, at the invitation of critic Kenneth Tynan, he cowrote and directed John Lennon‘s zany, poetic In His Own Write at the National Theatre.
He appeared on Broadway in The Hostage (1969) and The Philanthropist (1970), and he also was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1990s.
He appeared in 30 films, including the third Beatles collaboration, Magical Mystery Tour (1967) for television, and Under Milk Wood (1972) with the Burtons again, as well as Peter O’Toole, and Voyage Of The Damned (1976) with Faye Dunaway, Lee Grant, Max von Sydow, James Mason, and Malcolm McDowell, but not Shelley Winters.
In the 1970s, he directed productions of Hair in Amsterdam and Rome, and Jesus Christ Superstar in Paris. In 1980, he toured in his tart one-man show, A Very Private Diary at fringe festivals.
Later film work included a nice small role in Peter Medak‘s gay themed The Krays (1990).
Spinetti was taken by cancer on McCartney’s birthday in June 2012. McCartney:
“Victor was a fine man, a great pal and a fantastic actor and someone I am proud to have known for many years. His irreverent wit and exuberant personality will remain in my memory forever. I will miss his loyal friendship as will all the others who were lucky enough to know and love the wonderful Mr. Spinetti.”
At a memorial service for Spinetti, attended by McCartney, British musical theatre star Michael Ball sang The Beatles song In My Life.
Spinetti and Curnow were a couple for 44 years.