Guest Actor Biography
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Clive Revill

Mark, Dead Men Are Dangerous

by Pete Stampede

It's one of the great anomalies of show business that while some utterly nondescript performers become stars and remain so for years, Clive Revill, despite a splendid sense of comic timing and individualistic body language, and distinctive ear for accents while retaining a precise, perfectly weighted form of delivery, remains unknown to the general public. And this despite being immediately recognisable physically, with his reddish-ginger hair, Mr. Punch-like profile, and rounded shoulders adding to his bustling way of moving, and working in both Britain and Hollywood, in the latter half of his career actually living there. If nothing else, he has a place in this fan's heart as the only actor to have been a villain in both of my all-time favourite series, Columbo and an Avengers episode (okay, a new one, but still!). Although I agree with the high opinions expressed for this episode, he would actually have been better suited to the original series, as it coincided with his own period as a scene-stealing character actor in the comic mode, to which he would have been better suited (Shaffer in "Mission Highly Improbable" perhaps.

Usually assumed to be British, he is in fact from New Zealand, born in the capital Wellington in 1930 (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968, was one of the rare occasions on which he has actually played an Antipodean). Realising a life in accountancy was not for him, he came to Britain in 1950 to study at the Old Vic Theatre School. He seems to have started working almost immediately, no doubt helped by his ability to act older than his years; he actually made his professional stage debut on Broadway, in 1952, in Mr. Pickwick. Back in Britain, he was in repertory in Ipswich along with Paul Eddington. The earliest TV credit if his that I've been able to trace was the third of a fascinating sounding quartet of plays called The Makepeace Story (BBC, 1955) presented under the Sunday Night Theatre banner, and needless to say live: the four plays told the chronological story of a Northern textiles firm, and in the first, Patrick McGoohan, in what sounds like a tailor-made role, played the stubborn, rebellious founder Seth Makepeace. Each play had a different director, the segment with Revill, "Family Business", was directed by Tony Richardson, and while Revill had fifth billing, John Osborne, with whom Richardson would work so successfully on stage and film, was way down the cast list, and buried among the heading "Other parts played by" (a then-frequently used heading, on screen credits and in the Radio Times, covering small-part players, who were often little more than extras) was someone called Maggie Smith. Needless to say, this would have been live and it's highly unlikely that it still exists. Revill was also in The Adventures Of Robin Hood, "Too Many Earls" (ITC/Sapphire, 1956), while another live play was Twentieth Century Theatre, "The Elder Statesman" (BBC, 1960), with Vanessa Redgrave and the fine, forgotten Eric Portman.

Revill's first film appearance (possibly as an extra—I'm afraid the last time I saw it was over fifteen years ago!) was in The Drayton Case, an Edgar Lustgarten crime short, also with John LeMesurier. He could be spotted, unbilled, in Reach For The Sky (1956), as a male nurse who attends to Douglas Bader (Kenneth More) after he takes a walk across the ward on his tin legs. Again unbilled, but absolutely unmistakable in colour with his red hair, he was one of Gulley Jimson's (Alec Guinness) fellow artists who daub a soon to be demolished building in The Horse's Mouth (1958), possibly my favourite Guinness film. Revill's first credited film role, incorrectly listed as his first altogether by some sources, was in the title role of The Headless Ghost (1959), a daft B movie that he at least managed to provide some ghoulish enthusiasm for; director Peter Graham Scott was a not-too-hot helmer, IMHO, and that includes his Avengers episodes.

After that, it's not surprising that Revill's next few years were spent in the theatre. His West End debut came in 1958 as the barman/narrator in Irma La Douce (starring Keith Michell, another Antipodean everyone thinks is a Brit); he stayed with the production for its American tour, and ended up nabbing a Tony award. Again crisscrossing the Atlantic, he became the first "straight" actor to perform with the famous Gilbert and Sullivan company at Sadler's Wells, in his case playing Ko-Ko in The Mikado. Remaining in the musical vein, he took over from Ron Moody as Fagin in Lionel Bart's Oliver!, touring it around the US before its Broadway success in 1962, although Moody reclaimed the role for the film version (and another Antipodean, Barry Humphries, female impersonator and self-declared intellectual and genius, who had originally been playing the undertaker when the show opened, would later take over as Fagin too). During a mid-60's stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Revill's performance in The Jew Of Malta was described as "brilliant" by the notoriously hard to please Steven Berkoff. A rare (then) American TV credit was The Last Hangman (NBC, c. 1962), a play about three vengeful IRA men and a one-time comrade, who were respectively Noel Purcell, Finlay Currie, Revill and Ed Begley (good troupers all, but only the first was actually Irish, and it wouldn't be the only time Revill would be miscast as a Fenian by American TV).

He returned to films as a sergeant to Laurence Olivier's inspector in Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), then moved into a string of eye-catching character roles, in silly but high-profile films, that really should have resulted in his becoming better known. He had a double role, as Dirk Bogarde's craven Scottish assistant and a loony Sheikh, in Modesty Blaise (1966), uncharacteristically directed by Joseph Losey and a bit of a mess, although it looked like it was fun to make; the same could be said of so many films in this genre. Again he was a Scotland Yard man, hoping to nab Warren Beatty, in Kaleidoscope (1966), aptly described in the Time Out Film Guide as a product of "Hollywood-on-Thames." Next, he actually was in Hollywood, strictly visiting at this stage, to support fellow export Sean Connery in A Fine Madness (1966). The self-explanatory Italian Secret Service (1967) also lived up to its title, as it doesn't seem to have been shown anywhere outside Italy. The Double Man (1967) with Yul Brynner, and Fathom (1967), with Raquel Welch in the title role, Ronald Fraser, a disturbingly young Richard Briers, and Revill, as a Russian baddie with a goatee beard, who refers to himself in the third person (the Russian baddie that is, not the beard) followed in the same vein. In the middle of all this, there was a very quick return to Broadway, as a last-minute replacement for George Sanders in the title role of Sherry, an ill-fated musical version of The Man Who Came To Dinner. He went back to TV for a serial of Volpone (BBC, 1967) in the title role of the old skinflint, then did The Assassination Bureau (1968), with Diana Rigg, immediately post-Avengers, and one of her comparatively few films as a leading lady.

As we all know, one reason for The Avengers' popularity was that Diana and Patrick Macnee hit on a style of high comedy that worked for both of them; to use a very old-fashioned acting term, Patrick has a light touch. It could be that Diana's film career didn't really take off because she was teamed with leading men whose touches were about as light as a sledgehammer: Oliver Reed in Bureau, then George Lazenby. At least Bureau, the kind of film that constitutes a pleasant waste of an afternoon, had a characterful supporting cast, something comparable films today seem to have forgotten about: Revill, Telly Savalas, Philippe Noiret at the start of a brief English-language flirtation, Warren Mitchell, the splendid Beryl Reid (The Killing Of Sister George), Patrick Cargill, failed pop star Jess Conrad.

Probably my favourite performance of Revill's was in Billy Wilder's part-pastiche, part genuine article The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970), as an emissary from the Bolshoi Ballet who delicately explains to Holmes (Robert Stephens) that the prima ballerina wants him to father her child. Holmes talks his way out of it: Revill's delivery of the line, "You mean, Dr. Watson - he - is your glass of tea?!" is simply unforgettable. It's a superb cameo, really, showing his use of body language, expressive but controlled, making the most of little gestures, and even seeming dignified when opening a bottle of vodka with his teeth and spitting the cork out. He worked again for Wilder in Avanti! (1972) with Jack Lemmon, as a jack-of-all-trades Italian hotel manager; unfortunately, by now, Wilder was beginning to lose the ability to connect with a mass audience, and the film, adapted from a stage play and showing it, was not a success. If it had been, Revill's performance might have led to a whole string of character roles in the same vein; but the truth is, they don't make those kinds of films any more. Between the two, again working with big stars but not on their biggest projects, he supported Brigitte Bardot in Boulevard Du Rhum (1971), given the high-concept English-language title Rum Runner. The Legend Of Hell House (1973) in which he gave a straight, effectively underplayed performance in another remake of The Haunting, is well rated by horror fans, if obviously not as good as the original. Director John Hough cut his teeth on The Avengers, specifically Season Six; given how enjoyable some of those episodes were, especially "Super Secret Cypher Snatch", his film career was a big disappointment.

Cementing his profile as the kind of actor you associate with 60's spy romps, Revill and several others in the same category (Donald Pleasence, Joss Ackland, John Vernon) had a kind of reunion, supporting Michael Caine as a Harry Palmer-ish agent in Don Siegel's The Black Windmill (1974); Revill was just about the only actor in this sea of familiar faces not to reach some kind of stardom. The same could be said for Disney's made-in-Britain One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975), with Peter Ustinov and Revill politically incorrectly cast as Chinese baddies, Helen Hayes, and such icons of British comedy as Max Wall, Derek Nimmo, Joan Sims and Bernard Bresslaw. During this period, Revill continued to appear in several specimens of that now sadly extinct species, the British TV single play: Platonov (BBC, 1971) with Rex Harrison in the title role, in the prestige strand Play Of The Month; Mill Hill (1972), a Thirty Minute Theatre by John Mortimer, with Peter Cook in a straight-ish part; The Piano Player (YTV, 1972) by forgotten master of naturalistic dialogue Alun Owen, as the vindictive pianist of the title; and Hopcraft Into Europe (YTV, 1973), again top-billed, in fact here billed over actors more famous than him (Arthur Lowe, Geraldine McEwan, Diana Quick). Guest roles in series included Jason King, "The Constance Missal" (ATV/ITC, 1972) and a couple of turns as a bandit loon called Rolf the Preacher in Arthur Of The Britons (HTV, 1972), a "realistic" look at the legend, in an older children's time slot, with much grunting and shouting. His last play, tellingly made on film rather than videotape (reflecting the current situation where nearly all dramas are on film and passed off as TV movies), was David Hare's Licking Hitler (BBC, 1978) as an ambitious politician, one of a competitive wartime propaganda unit.

"Dead Men Are Dangerous" gave rise to an opportunity that could have guaranteed his name and face becoming better known. As a result of his performance here, when Brian Clemens was putting together The Professionals, immediately after the end of The New Avengers, Revill was his first choice to play Cowley, the hard-headed boss of CI5. But, as Dave Matthews says in his Professionals site, "by this time Revill was off to the States, hoping to acquire fame and fortune in Hollywood (he never did)"; Gordon Jackson was cast, and made the part his own. Just for the record, as an indication of how Revill might have played the part, Clemens at this time saw Cowley as being from the North of England, the character understandably becoming Scottish once Jackson was aboard.

Revill had already done one or two children's specials on American TV, no doubt drawing on his musical background: once he'd relocated to the US, he quickly got on the treadmill of supports in mini-series, like the dreary Centennial (1978), TV movies (Charlie Chaplin to Tony Curtis' David O. Selznick in The Scarlett O'hara War (1980), under the Moviola banner) and guest roles in TV series. Undoubtedly, the most notable of these was Columbo, "The Conspirators" (NBC/Universal, 1978), as a Brendan Behan-type Irish poet whose fund-raising group, "American Friends for Northern Ireland", purportedly set up to aid the victims of terrorism, is in fact a front for the IRA. This subject was well worth airing, and hardly far from the truth; unfortunately, the script was full of cliches (Revill's character is Irish, so of course he drinks a lot, in fact he's incriminated by a whisky bottle at the scene of the crime), and Revill declares at one point that he's "a boy from the backstreets of Belfast" but his accent is more like the rural parts of Southern Ireland, while the American actors' accents were simply atrocious. A pity, because this, the last episode of the original series, found Peter Falk on top slow-reacting, arm-outstretching, smacking-himself-on-the-forehead- when-he-finds-the-vital-clue form; a sequence where he and Revill trade limericks while on a pub crawl was delightful. Due to the feature-length format, this was probably Revill's best role on American TV.

Sadly, as Dave Matthews aptly commented, Revill's roles from the 80's onward have been if anything less impressive than in Britain, and increasingly marginal. He did land a series, a fantasy adventure called Wizards And Warriors (1983) as a wizard called Vector; it still has a cult following, especially on the Net, but only lasted for one season and doesn't seem to have even been shown in Britain (I've certainly never seen it myself). A sitcom for the Fox Network, The Preston Episodes (1995) was another short-runner. Film-wise, a pair of fairy stories filmed in Israel, under the auspices of the dreaded Cannon Group (head honcho Menachem Golan had been a classmate at the Old Vic Theatre School all those years before), The Emperor's New Clothes and Rumpelstiltskin (both 1987), seemed to go straight to video everywhere; and an adaptation of Crime And Punishment (1993), this time directed by Golan, didn't seem to get shown anywhere. Despite his versatility with accents, American TV seemed to view him as only capable of doing a British one, as shown by most of his guest roles: Murder, She Wrote, "Murder To a Jazz Beat" (1985) and "Curse of the Daanau" (1988); Russian just for once in Hart To Hart, "Harts On Their Toes" (1982); Guy of Gisburne in Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Qpid" (1991) a feeble Robin Hood pastiche; Babylon 5, "Born to the Purple" (1994); The Twilight Zone, "Personal Demons" (1985); and plenty of voicing on Batman: The Animated Series as Alfred the butler.

Occasional returns to Britain included Charlie Muffin (Euston Films/Thames, 1979), with David Hemmings as the shabby spy of the title, which Thames were very proud of at the time but never seems to get repeated; The Mikado and The Sorcerer (Brent Walker, 1981), back with the G&S, both part of a series intended for video and independently made, but eventually shown on BBC1; and for the big screen, Let Him Have It (1991) as Pierrepoint the hangman, with no dialogue until the very end, leading the unfortunate (since pardoned) Derek Bentley (Christopher Eccleston) to his doom. He was added to Mel Brooks' gallery of eccentrics for Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993), on screen for all of three seconds, and Dracula Dead And Loving It (1995), slightly more screen time as a vampire's victim: but it really was too late in both their careers as Brooks had definitely lost it, a shame as Revill would have fitted into The Producers, say, rather nicely.

He narrated and provided a voice for a long-running project of ace animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), originally titled The Thief And The Cobbler, but taken out of Williams' hands, completed by others and released as Arabian Knight (1995). Some sources claim that all the voices on Williams' soundtrack were replaced except Vincent Price, however Kenneth Williams (absolutely no relation!) and Donald Pleasence, who had both been on this soundtrack, are apparently credited on the finished version. I'm afraid I don't know whether Revill's contribution was one of the "old" or "new" voices (could have been either, really).

At least Revill's voice credits, even on such drek as Transformers - The Movie (1986), underline the sheer range of his career, having worked in just about every area of the entertainment industry, however marginal. He did the voice of a talking shrunken head (and even sang the theme song!) in The Boy With Two Heads (1974), a serial shown in cinemas, made by the dreaded (by most kids of my generation, anyway) Children's Film Foundation. He was in one of the many industrial training films, never intended to be publicly shown (although I know for a fact that some have been!) made by John Cleese's company, Video Arts: It'll Be O.K. On The Day (1975) was a rare example of one that Cleese didn't write or appear in (50's radio comedy writer, Denis Norden, did write it and adapted the title slightly for his long-running blooper compilation series, It'll Be All Right On The Night).

Revill would thrill trivia buffs with his appearance on the Star Wars: X-Wing Collector's CD-ROM as the voice of General Dodonna (perhaps appropriate, since he was the voice of Emperor Cos Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back). And his most recent work, the first time he's been widely seen by the British public in years, has been in a 1999 commercial for chocolate miniatures, exasperated by a goon at a job interview who proceeds to do all sorts of silly things after eating the chocs. The last line of the ad is Revill saying to his secretary "let's take another look at Mr. Price's C.V..." Even if the majority of his recent roles have been unworthy, Revill's own C.V. is well worth another look.

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Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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