Guest Actor Biography
by Pete Stampede
The tall, raw-boned, craggy-faced Neil McCarthy was, unfortunately, largely seen as criminals, soldiers, convicts and the like in his screen career; and unfortunately so, as not only were there medical reasons for his physical appearance, but he could play sympathetic characters just as well, when given the chance. He was born in rural Lincolnshire on 26 July 1933, and would be called on to play sons of the soil quite a few times in later life; however, his father was a dentist, and McCarthy had been a schoolteacher before going into acting. David Quinlan's Illustrated Directory Of Film Character Actors mentioned that McCarthy, whose hobbies included studying foreign languages, was "the quiet type in real life"; this is confirmed by a first-hand source who remembers that in the 60's and 70's, McCarthy lived in Camberwell, in South London, and when seen in one of the local pubs there (the Fox on the Hill) was genuinely easy-going, quite unlike the "third villain from the left" roles he was so often cast in.
One of his first TV outings was in Who, Me? (BBC, 1955), a realistic (for the time) tale of the Liverpool police interrogating three villains; this could be viewed as a forerunner, or maybe even very early pilot, for Z Cars. McCarthy definitely appeared in that landmark series, towards the end of its run, in "The Man Who Killed Songbirds" (BBC, 1977); he very probably did earlier episodes, too, but as I've complained in other actor bios, it seems impossible to find a proper Z Cars episode guide anywhere. Still in the single play mode, McCarthy was in a live TV adaptation of Brendan Behan's prison-set The Quare Fella (A-R, 1958), directed by occasional Avengers director Peter Graham Scott, who claimed that he only acquired the television rights by cornering Behan in a pub, and "several hours into the entertainment" handing the playwright, in cash, twice the amount Associated-Rediffusion had ever paid to a playwright. Despite A-R's founder, Captain Brownrigg, and chums unexpectedly barging into the studios during the live transmission (as a result, two of the three cameras went dead and the actors had to cut the script by a minute), it collected fine reviews; Wilfrid Brambell, genuinely from Dublin but later a Cockney icon as the elder half of Steptoe And Son, led the cast.
McCarthy then did an episode of Echo Four Two, "Bag and Baggage" (A-R, 1961), the short-lived spin-off from another key 60's cop show, No Hiding Place; again, he was probably in the latter series at some stage too but I can't confirm this. His first film was The Whole Truth (1958), a mystery which saw British prodigals Stewart Granger and George Sanders returning from Hollywood; then he was one of many familiar menacing types, variously as villains and convicts, in Joseph Losey's hard-edged The Criminal (1960), starring Stanley Baker. Solo For Sparrow (1962), one of the Edgar Wallace B movies, was chiefly notable in that one of McCarthy's fellow minor villains, with a weird, dubbed-sounding Irish accent, was Michael Caine; then McCarthy was in prison again for The Pot Carriers (1962), again directed by Peter Graham Scott, with Dennis Price and Ronnie Fraser as fellow cons. Again with Caine and Baker, McCarthy had one of his most noteworthy (and certainly, often repeated) film roles in Zulu (1964), as one of the embattled Welsh soldiers at Rorke's Drift, in his case a private. Still in uniform, he was a sergeant in Sidney Lumet's intense military prison drama The Hill (1965), starring Sean Connery with excellent support from Ian Hendry, Roy Kinnear and Ossie Davis.
Back on TV, McCarthy was frequently on hand for the ITC series, beginning by snarling at Patrick McGoohan in Danger Man, "The Conspirators" (ATV/ITC, 1960), also with the ubiquitous Alfred Burke from "Dragonsfield," "The Mauritius Penny" and "The Girl from Auntie." Then, Man Of The World, "Portrait of a Girl" (ATV/ITC, 1962), also guesting Michael Goodliffe, followed by two opposing Roger Moore as Simon Templar, The Saint, "The Saint Steps In" (ATV/ITC, 1964), one of Annette André's many Saint episodes, and "The Chequered Flag" (1965), curiously written by Carry On scripter Norman Hudis. In a real contrast, McCarthy then did a sitcom pilot which didn't go to a series, Comedy Four, "Home Sweet Home" (Granada, 1963), a pre-Porridge effort set (yet again!) in prison. He was also in a couple of notable entries in Sydney Newman's The Wednesday Play; "The Confidence Course" (BBC, 1965), Dennis Potter's first work for TV (barring earlier sketches and documentaries), starring the writer's near-namesake Dennis Price as a smooth operator whose scam of the title is infiltrated by an idiot savant-type, tellingly named Hazlitt and played by, of all people, campy impressionist Stanley Baxter; and "The Bone Yard" (1966), Clive Exton's tale of police corruption, based (as Joe Orton's Loot, of which more later, was) on the real case of Inspector Challenor, a (shall we say) over-zealous policeman who was convicted for framing innocent people, and when he came to trial, was described as "quite mad". Nigel Davenport—seen in "The Danger Makers" and "Split!"—starred in this, and I believe McCarthy played a victim, in any case the play's original airdate was postponed because of Challenor's trial, and there were predictable squawks of protest from the dreaded Mary Whitehouse after it was shown.
Surprisingly perhaps, McCarthy was in a couple of film serials, shown in cinemas, by the twee outfit of the Children's Film Foundation, The Young Detectives (1963) and Project Z (1968). Then for grown-ups, he was in the WW2 shenanigans of Where Eagles Dare (1967), as one of Richard Burton's team of commandos, and predictably, messily killed off towards the end. At around this time, he was in a European film made in Britain, but - David Quinlan claims it was Sept Fois Femme/Woman Times Seven (1967), starring Shirley Maclaine and directed by Vittorio de Sica, while the IMDB lists it as Sette Volte Sette/Seven Times Seven (1968), with Terry-Thomas involved in a plot to rob the Royal Mint. As I haven't seen either, take your pick. Unquestionably, however, he was in the first series of Catweazle (LWT, 1970), wearing his best slightly bewildered expression as a kindly farmhand called Sam, working for landowner Charles Tingwell, whose son, nicknamed Carrot, befriends and shelters Geoffrey Bayldon ("Escape in Time") as Catweazle, the hirsute, twitchy, accidental time traveller. This is probably the role McCarthy is best remembered for (by those lucky enough to see the show at the time or in the 80's reruns), but to the disappointment of writer-creator Richard Carpenter, LWT management insisted on a different supporting cast and setting for the second season.
McCarthy's guest roles continued, though. Every episode of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) seemingly had to include a scene where Jeff Randall, the human half of the partnership, was thoroughly duffed up by the villains; and "The Man From Nowhere" (ATV/ITC, 1970) was no exception, with McCarthy, as a menacing chauffeur to fat conman Patrick Newell, beating up poor old Jeff (Mike Pratt) in a stable. McCarthy then had two tangles with Peter Wyngarde's charismatic playboy adventurer; Department S, "A Ticket to Nowhere", (ATV/ITC, 1969), involving missing aircraft and memory loss, with Anthony Ainley way down the cast, and the eponymous Jason King, "An Author In Search of Two Characters" (ATV/ITC, 1972), one of Dennis Spooner's gentle send-ups of the ITC action format, with Liz Fraser, Roy Kinnear, Sue Lloyd and Dudley Foster. He gave a really rather touching performance, somewhat reminiscent of Karloff's Monster, in Doctor Who, "The Mind of Evil" (BBC, 1971), as another convict, reduced to the level of an imbecile after being treated with a device that supposedly removes aggression from the mind—actually an alien parasite being harnessed by the Master (Roger Delgado). In some quite realistic scenes of a prison riot, McCarthy's character got to protect squealy assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning), before inevitably getting killed. The Doctor at this time was Jon Pertwee, who was friendly with McCarthy in real life, and recalled, in his posthumously published book of reminiscences I Am The Doctor, that McCarthy suffered from acromelagy, the disease that causes gigantism, but could play the piano quite beautifully, despite having hands like "bunches of bananas." He was in another Who adventure years later, "The Power of Kroll" (December 1978-79), set on a mining planet and also with Philip Madoc, although the latter was a bit disgruntled about this, later claiming that McCarthy's role was the one he had originally been contracted for himself.
In the comedic genre, McCarthy was in one of the all time forgotten bits of TV, a one-shot called Cosmo And Thingy (LWT, 1972), set in prehistoric times, with Graham Stark, a longtime friend and collaborator of Peter Sellers, as Cosmo, a caveman trying to fly. McCarthy played the Chief, and this was shown once, after midnight, on a Sunday, and promptly forgotten; but it did exist, I honestly didn't make it up! Steptoe And Son Ride Again (1973), probably the best of the rather disappointing film spin-offs from one of the best ever sitcoms, featured McCarthy and Yootha Joyce among the earnest mourners planning a "right proper" Cockney funeral for Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell, again); unaware that, as part of a scam to collect on insurance by the Steptoes, the "dirty old man" may be in his coffin, but is very much alive... Following the end of STEPTOE on TV, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson next wrote a sitcom vehicle for Les Dawson, Dawson's Weekly, and McCarthy turned up in "Accident Prone" (YTV, 1975), set in hospital, as a fellow patient of the late, lugubrious Les. He then did an episode of Cilla's World Of Comedy, "Home and Away" (ATV, 1976), a sitcom anthology for screeching Merseybeat singer and host of Blind Date Cilla Black, set around the world of soccer. A Little Bit Of Wisdom (ATV, 1976) was the last attempt at a sitcom by the annoying Norman Wisdom (recently knighted for mysterious reasons) whose film career of soppy slapstick had fortunately finished by then; McCarthy was a regular as Wisdom's flatmate, and Richard Dacre's fawning biography of Wisdom, Trouble In Store, claims that all of this series has since been wiped, probably no great loss.
In the more serious vein on TV, McCarthy was in Lord Peter Wimsey, "The Nine Tailors" (BBC, 74), with Ian Carmichael perfectly cast as Dorothy L. Sayers' aristocratic sleuth; Who Pays The Ferryman? (BBC, 1977) as a Greek in one of several thriller serials, all set in the Mediterranean, from writer Michael J. Bird; Return Of The Saint, "The Debt Collectors" (ATV/ITC, 1978), also guest-starring Diane Keen, one of Gareth Hunt's co-stars in his notorious Nescafe commercials, and Anton Rodgers; and, again for Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, The Professionals, "It's Only A Beautiful Picture" (LWT/Avengers Mark 1, 1980), with CI5's main geezers Bodie and Doyle (Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw) infiltrating an outfit smuggling stolen works of art through customs. McCarthy was in the cast of Kenneth Williams' rare foray into stage directing, Joe Orton's Loot at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1980; as both of their published diaries show, Williams and Orton had known each other very well! Judging from a very brief clip in BBC2's Reputations programme on Williams, McCarthy played the corrupt Inspector Truscott, a role Williams had himself taken in the play's first, doomed production in the 60's (with Duncan Macrae). I also recall McCarthy turning up in an episode of Only When I Laugh (YTV, 1979-82), as a prisoner temporarily in hospital, who warns hypochondriac wimps Peter Bowles and James Bolam that if they don't help him escape, they'll "get leaned on."
McCarthy's film work continued, but while Side By Side (1975), was directed by Bruce Beresford, it was a rather weak comedy showcasing some tacky 70's rock bands, starring Barry Humphries (in male garb) and a sadly ill-looking Terry-Thomas; and though it was released to cinemas in Humphries' and Beresford's homeland of Australia, in Britain it was first shown on daytime TV. Fren The Red Deer (1976) was another children's matinee entry, while McCarthy wasn't even credited, as a sword-waving assassin dispatched early on, in a TV movie remake of The Thief Of Baghdad (1978), starring a bemused Peter Ustinov, and Roddy McDowall doing one of his enjoyably fey villains. Still in the fantasy genre, McCarthy was under (fairly) heavy make-up as the brutish Calibos in Clash Of The Titans (1981), with Laurence Olivier and other heavyweights playing second fiddle to Ray Harryhausen's creations; then he had a small role in Terry Gilliam's wonderful Time Bandits (1981), with David Rappaport and fellow dwarves stealing the show from John Cleese, Sean Connery and so on.
Several sources cite film credits from the late 80s and well into the 90s. However, Neil McCarthy died on 6 February 1985 from motor neuron disease at his home on the South Coast.
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