Richard Johnson

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Richard Johnson Pencil Portrait
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Last Update : 19/6/15

Bulldog Drummond is a British fictional character, an imperial adventurer created by Herman Cyril McNeile, and the hero of a series of novels published from 1920 to 1954. Drummond has the appearance of an English gentleman, a man who fights hard, plays hard, lives clean and goes outside the law when he feels the ends justify the means.

It is widely believed that Ian Fleming was influenced by Drummond, when he sat down to write his first Bond novel Casino Royale.’ The series of original Bulldog Drummond films starred Ronald Colman in the title role. The series was discontinued in 1951, but following the success of the Bond movies, reappeared with Richard Johnson in the title role, in Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do’ (1969).

Johnson himself, was director Terence Young’s first choice for the role of James Bond 007 but the actor declined the part of cinema’s most famous super-spy. “I don’t think I would have wanted the contract. Sean (Connery) didn’t want the contract for seven years. He hated it eventually. And I would have liked it probably less than he did.”

Interviewed by Cinema Retro in 2008, which focuses on the 1960s and 70s, Johnson recalled his brief marriage to Kim Novak, and working with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson as a young actor in Hollywood. Poised for celluloid stardom himself in the late 1960s, his career fell back after the virtual collapse of the British film industry in the next decade.

“I was probably making around a £1m a year in today’s money,” he recounted. “I don’t have anything now but I’m still working. It keeps you young, healthy and going. I can play the grandfather in any film now.”

Johnson, was born in 1927 in Upminster, now a district of the London Borough of Havering. He attended Parkfield School and then went to school in Felstead. After he was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as an actor, he made ​​his professional stage debut in Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Opera House in Manchester. Thereafter, he would acquire more stage experience with John Gielgud’s acting troupe in London.

After his service in the Royal Navy from 1945 to 1948, he played successfully in London’s West End.
In 1951, he was in a small supporting role in The King’s Admiral next to Gregory Peck made ​​his screen debut. In a multi-part British television adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in 1952, he played Mr. Wickham.

From the 1970s he played historical figures such as Rembrandt in an eponymous film of 1971 and Mark Antony in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (1974). At the same time, he remained loyal over the years to the theatre, and appeared in numerous Shakespeare productions, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in both London and Stratford- upon- Avon. He portrayed Mark Antony on stage in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. He also appeared several times in television series – ‘Hart to Hart,’ ‘Magnum,’ ‘Murder, She Wrote’ and ‘Midsomer Murders.’ Johnson would serve as chairman of the United British Artists production company for eight years until 1990, thereafter refocussing on his acting career.

Other notable stage appearances in his varied career included his first major appearance in ‘The Lark,’ (1955) playing Warwick, one of his favourite parts, to Dorothy Tutin’s Joan of Arc. A few months later he was cast as Laertes in Peter Brook’s production of ‘Hamlet,’ starring Paul Scofield.

After two more West End productions, playing Jack Absolute in ‘The Rivals’ and Lord Plynlimmon in ‘Plaintiff in a Pretty Hat,’ he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. Among his roles were Orlando in ‘As You Like It,’ Mark Antony in ‘Julius Caesar,’ Leonatus in ‘Cymbeline’ and Ferdinand in ‘The Tempest,’ which transferred to Drury Lane in 1957. The following season he played Romeo and Sir Andrew Aguecheek as well as the title role in Pericles and Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ visiting Moscow and Leningrad as Romeo and Aguecheek.

In 1960 he was back in the West End as Margaret Leighton’s “worthy” second husband in John Mortimer’s ‘The Wrong Side of the Park,’ and rejoined the Stratford-upon-Avon company when it was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall’s direction at its new London base, the Aldwych. There, in 1961, he acted Hans in Jean Giraudoux’s ‘Ondine.’ He also gave one of his finest performances as Urbaine in John Whiting’s ‘The Devils,’ a study of 17th-century witchcraft directed by Peter Brook.

Throughout his long career, Johnson successfully maintained a low key private life, despite an obvious eye for the ladies. Married four times, and with a string of girlfriends, his most widely publicised nuptials was to the actress Kim Novak in 1965. The couple had met on the set of their film “The amorous adventures of Moll Flanders” the previous fall, and after a whirlwind romance, were married. The union was reportedly in trouble within a few months, and a final separation would incur after little more than a year. The couple reportedly remained friends throughout the years, and there is photographic evidence to support this assertion.Their marriage occurred at a time when Novak’s ‘star’ was waning – the period ’62-65’ had been characterised by a series of critical lashings and commercial film failures – and at the age of thirty two, her biological clock was ticking. An interview with her mother for the US documentary “In search of Kim Novak,” was sufficiently revealing to indicate where her sentiments lay. Suitably proud of her actress daughter, she nevertheless wanted her to forgo Hollywood in favour of marriage and children.

Always a rather remote and distant figure from the tinsetown publicity machine, she was accustomed to seeking refuge in her two Californian based homes. Johnson was living in London, and the original intention had been to divide their time between the UK and the US. Novak would not work for the next three years, whilst Johnson would remain active. Perennially reticent about marriage – “It seems to destroy love, not enhance it,” Novak committed herself to a man less likely than most, to ever consider full time residency in the States.

Bearing all the hallmarks of an infatuation that would soon sour, the relationship should perhaps have remained little more than an ‘off-set’ dalliance. The ice cool blonde had spent the previous decade putting distance between herself and her industry; marriage therefore to a fellow actor appeared sheer folly. There wasn’t even sufficient time to generate pure acrimony, a reason perhaps for the continuing cordiality between the couple. In any event, Novak would marry veterinarian Robert Malloy in 1976 – a union that endures to this day – whilst Johnson’s life would remain more ‘colourful.’

In the 70’s he was involved in an ‘open’ relationship with the actress Françoise Pascal, a union that would bring him a son, Nicholas, in 1976. By her own admission, the only man prepared to have a long term relationship with her, his philandering perhaps encouraged her to emabark on a similar course of action. Eventually, she would lose a custody battle over the child, her escalating drug habit presumably a key determinant in her loss. A critically lauded stage actress, she has involved herself for many years in charity work, and is fondly remembered for her many television appearances in the 70’s. One can only surmise therefore, that her frank confessionals in the following link – extracted from her published memoirs – were financially motivated.

Second guessing the reason for her string of interludes with men who could never offer her emotional stability is at best, an inexact science. Suffice to say that a man’s predatory instincts are usually to blame. A woman truly in love with a man, can at best forgive one indiscretion – however painful the experience – particularly if there are mitigating circumstances, but repetition leads to a ‘hardening of the arteries’ and a cold heart. Johnson himself, never published his memoirs; in any event, being a man, it was unlikely he would have been able to recall much of anything to do with the women he had known. The thrill is in ‘the hunt,’ the finer details eventually blurring into a form of emotional opaqueness. For some men therefore, only the onset of advancing years can tame their ways.

Johnson died on 5 June 2015, aged 87, at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea, London, after a short illness. With a voice that sounded as if it was preserved in oak, and dark good looks straight out of a Bronte novel, it remains perplexing that the actor never became an A-list film star. However, the sixty year career which he carved out on stage and screen was probably far more interesting – and durable – than a life at the mercy of a big studio would have allowed.

During his lifetime, he also attempted to rejuvenate the British film industry, setting up the short-lived United British Artists with Glenda Jackson, Albert Finney and others. Among his successes as a producer was the gloomy, compelling Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) starring Maggie Smith. In later years, TV offered him his best chances and he spiced up several routine dramas with several piquant cameos – notably as Lord Mountbatten in the Charles and Camilla story, Whatever Love Means (2005).

Johnson rarely found himself on any awards lists (an exception was for his role in the 1992 TV adaptation of Angus Wilson’s Anglo Saxon Attitudes), but his presence was always welcome. He was part of that distinguished group of performers who made up the backbone of the British acting industry, and whose contribution, in a quiet sort of way, was invaluable.

Recommended listening

When Love Speaks (EMI Classics)

An album created in collaboration with EMI Classics that features over forty of Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems presented as both spoken word and set to music, with performers including international stars such as Annie Lennox, Rufus Wainwright, Barbara Bonney, Keb’Mo, Des’ree, John Potter, Bryan Ferry and Lady Smith Black Mambazo.

This unique composition produced by Michael Kamen features readings by a host of RADA’s most well – known graduates, including Richard Attenborough, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Kenneth Branagh, Fiona Shaw, Lord Attenborough, the late John Gielgud, Richard Briars, Diana Rigg and Imelda Staunton.

Johnson narrates ‘When My Love Swears That She Is Made of Truth’.

Bleak Expectations (BBC Radio) 2007-12

A sort of parody of all those Dickensian novels, with orphans, harsh public schools, inheritances, quirky characters with quirky names and so on, tracing the life story of Pip Bin, as he falls foul of his wicked guardian Mr Gently Benevolent and is sent to Britain’s toughest school, St. Bastard’s, presided over by Mr Hardthrasher.

Recommended viewing

The Haunting (1963)

80,000 suspects (1963)

British doctor Steven Monks (Richard Johnson) is practicing in the city of Bath, where a smallpox epidemic has broken out. If he has any hope of stemming the disease, he must locate and isolate its source, whilst contending with his failing marriage to nurse wife Julie (Claire Bloom). Outwardly serene, devoted to her husband, and infinitely practical – she suggests her husband take their long planned overseas holiday alone whilst she assists at the hospital – all is however not well, as she suspects him of being unfaithful with their friend’s wife, Ruth. The arrival of a deadly virus temporarily distracts them from their personal problems, as they attempt to prevent the illness from spreading. As events unfold, the two issues become more and more intertwined.

Since smallpox is such a highly contagious disease – transmission can occur during (1) face-to-face contact with an infected person, (2) through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects such as bedding or clothing, and (3) more worryingly (for the authorities in the film) through the air via aerosolized enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains – every effort is made to localise the contamination.

There’s genuine tension in the marriage, yet an underlying desire to work through their problems. However, with eleven early deaths, the couple are compelled to put aside their personal differences in order to combat the greater enemy. As events unfold, Monk receives an unexpected blow when the disease strikes closer to home than anticipated, and Julie is diagnosed as having contracted the virus.

The doctor himself is involved in a car crash on a foggy and snowbound night, an incident that leads to the sobering realisation that his former ‘dalliance’ has been habitually unfaithful to her husband Clifford (Michael Goodliffe), a close colleague of Monk’s. Meanwhile, the medical team gradually contain the outbreak until only one unidentified carrier remains, the very woman who has come between the Monks’ marriage.

Special effects were not required during filming – January 1963 was the coldest month of the 20th century with an average temperature of −2.1°C – but the snows had eventually melted by the time of the film’s August nationwide release………………..

The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965)

Danger Route (1967)

Johnson is Jonas Wilde, a world-weary killer working for the British secret service who ‘wants out’ of the spy game. Under the aegis of director Seth Holt, the film deconstructs the 007 genre with popourri of intrigue, deception and bad love. Whilst the film may lack the camp appeal and visual allure of ‘Deadlier Than the Male’ it nonetheless provides Johnson with a complex character that he effortlessly brings to life, whilst showcasing why the actor was a prime candidate to play Bond.

Jonas avoids hardware, surviving on his intuition and martial arts skills. He needs all his wits about him, as he encounters nefarious characters with false identities. There are rewards of course, for services to the crown. He has a small yet nicely decorated apartment, drives the obligatory sports car,and enjoys the company of a beautiful girlfriend.

Boasting some beautiful and talented co-stars, including Carol Lynley, Diana Dors, the stunning Barbara Bouchet as a seductive spy and Sylvia Syms, Johnson is manipulated by his boss (Harry Andrews), a relationship that sheds unflattering light on the secret service and the ways in which governments use their power to manipulate and control the agents who work for them.

There’s no obvious Cold War in Jonas’s world, and the final outcome is ambiguous. As Stem (Gordon Jackson) so aptly puts it: “It doesn’t matter what country you work for. If you’re not a member of the ruling class, you’re a sheep.”

Johnson would speak admiringly of his director for years to come, yet alcoholism would sadly blight his life; ‘Danger Route’ being the last film Seth Holt would complete before his untimely death at the age of 48.

Still widely unavailable on DVD, the film is worth a look on a rainy afternoon.

Deadlier than the male (1967)

Amid the welter of Bond spin-offs in the mid 60’s, there was at least Bulldog Drummond, a genuine detective fiction hero.

Richard Johnson (director Terence Young’s original preference to play James Bond) is Drummond, a Korean War veteran and suave insurance investigator, on the trail of a pair of sexy assassins (Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina) who kill for sport and profit. Drummond’s American nephew, Robert Drummond (Steve Carlson) becomes involved in the intrigue when he comes to visit.

It’s a brash and bold affair, awash with guest spots and top notch villainy – Nigel Green fresh from his despotic performance in ‘The Ipcress File’ – and fairly tootles along in part travelogue, part espionage tradition, despite the odd continuity gaffe. The film retains a sumptuous feel despite its limited budget, whilst Elke Sommer and Sylvia Koscina as a pair of female assassins, are reasons enough to ‘die with a smile.’

Ultimately, it’s 1 hour 38 mins of pure hokum, suitably adorned with a breezy score by Malcolm Lockyerand and The Walker Bros’ title song; a shame therefore that the censor’s X rating would deny the movie its obvious appeal to a younger worldwide audience.

Anglo Saxon Attitudes (1992)

A television adaptation of Angus Wilson’s satirical novel, widely considered by many critics to be his best work.

The novel was subsequently made into a three-part television mini-series in 1992 by Thames Television subsidiary Euston Films. The screenplay was written by Andrew Davies and featured Richard Johnson in the role of Gerald Middleton. Tara FitzGerald played a major supporting role as the young Dollie and there was a cameo by a 16-year-old Kate Winslet and Daniel Craig as Gilbert. The film won the BAFTA award for best serial drama; Davies and Johnson also won awards from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and the Broadcasting Press Guild respectively.

Gerald Middleton (Richard Johnson) is a retired historian whose main achievement in life was uncovering an ancient pagan fertility figure. Middleton’s best friend claimed he planted the figure as a hoax, and now the distinguished scholar tries to ascertain the truth behind these claims.

A three part episodic drama, the production is greatly enhanced by Johnson’s central performance. A veteran of many British television series, he remains an actor capable of such subtle emotional nuance that he imbues the diffident, inscrutable professor he plays with genuine warmth and humour.

Slowly coming to realize how distant and cold he’s been to his estranged wife and children, he observes his children repeating some of his earlier mistakes in life, and evokes wave after wave of beautifully nuanced recognition, always with that stiff British upper lip, that history cannot be changed.

Breaking the code (1996)

The Robinsons (BBC Tv series) 2005

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

Radiator (2013)

Reviewing one of Johnson’s now rare screen appearances, Fionnuala Halligan, writing in “Screen Daily,” was suitably effusive about his performance.

‘In a powerful reminder of just what a great actor he is, Richard Johnson gives us a Leonard who is by turns tyrannical and petulant, irascible, sardonic, needy, funny, terrified – a fragile bully.’

Radiator is a small, tender, yet pleasingly acerbic film driven by an affecting lead performance from 87-year-old actor Richard Johnson – who should be an awards natural for those who can bear the darkly touching truthfulness of his performance.

Shot for a mere £145,000 in the Lake District and London,Radiator faces a distribution hurdle due to its no-frills filming style coupled with a subject matter of elderly, not-entirely-sympathetic parents. The fact that Eon’s Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli serve as executive producers may help (Rachel Weisz is also listed as an executive producer). This is a touching film, thoughtful, and often poetic, which deserves to be seen, even if it’s on a small scale. Radiator has a truthful, off-key ring, which is both a blessing and a curse, as it makes the film all the more poignant despite its cheery tone.

Radiator deals with an elderly, eccentric couple who live in a prison of their own clutter, and their relationship with their middle-aged son. More interestingly, it bounces off the walls of guilt and duty, and how we remember the past. The actor Tom Browne directed and wrote the screenplay, based largely on his own life experience – it was shot in his late parents’ claustrophobic home.

Daniel (a very watchable Daniel Cerqueira) is summoned from his job in London to his family’s Cumbrian squalor to help Maria (Gemma Jones), whose husband Leonard (Johnson) is refusing to move from the couch. We only know later on in the film that they are his parents – all three keep each other at arm’s length and soldier on hopelessly as mice and rats make ever-increasing claims on the house.

In a powerful reminder of just what a great actor he is, Richard Johnson (a matinee idol from the 1950s and star of the Bulldog Drummond films) gives us a Leonard who is by turns tyrannical and petulant, irascible, sardonic, needy, funny, terrified – a fragile bully. He hits all the notes in an understated performance which is also physically vulnerable and brave. Leonard’s relationship with Maria is a mystery to their son, as it always has been, and she alternates between wanting to escape and feeding her husband’s neediness. The downtrodden Daniel also wants to get away – in fact he does, at one stage, run away from home – but the guilt is over-whelming.

Radiator is quite a short feature, at 93 minutes, and a little stretched at times to even make that running length. But it’s well-observed – musical notes are held back to Schumann’s piano, and the camera takes some interesting, cramped, observational positions (in particular during a bathroom sequence). Small though it may be, at its heart are some of life’s great mysteries, which start with our parents’ relationship and end with the wonder – was it all really as we remember? So Radiator – which refers to a joke, not to the cold – is not so small in the end.