Theatre in Wales

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Victor Spinetti

In Memory

Victor Spinetti , Stage and Film , June 30, 2012
In Memory by Victor Spinetti Vittorio (Victor) Giorgio Andrea Spinetti was born 2 September 1929 and died 18 June 2012.

Meic Stephens wrote the obituary for “The Independent”. In excerpt:

“Once asked by a young actor how he might make his way in the theatre, Victor Spinetti gave this advice: "Do everything from pantomime to Shakespeare, and learn the 3 Rs – redundancy, rejection, and resting." It was something he himself had done during a long and varied career, playing many roles and putting up with the spells of unemployment that are often the actor's lot.

“He might have added that a sense of the absurd often comes in handy in the precarious world of acting, for he had this in spades, too. On receiving a Tony Award on Broadway for his part in the stage version of Oh! What a Lovely War, he was praised for his eloquent speech in what the audience took to be Italian, only to admit later that it had been in his own made-up version of Welsh, a language he did not speak, but with Italian cadences and appropriate gestures.

"As a comedian, he had an infectious grin and twinkling eyes even when trying to be serious. When Jane Fonda asked him how it was he could play both comedy and tragedy, he told her earnestly, "Well, you have to listen," to which she replied, "Pardon me?"

“Victor Spinetti was born in Cwm, a steel-making village near Ebbw Vale, in 1933. His father was of Italian extraction and his mother Welsh. From one he inherited his hooded eyes and Roman nose and from the other a warm, vivacious personality that delighted in village gossip. The actor was fond of recalling how his grandfather had walked all the way from Italy to south Wales in search of a job in the steelworks. The Spinettis owned a chip shop and the family lived over it, happily enough and glad to be part of the close community, like so many people of Italian origin in the industrial valleys.

“Even so, the father was interned as an "enemy alien" on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. As he was dragged downstairs by the police, his son recalled in his memoirs, "In that moment I was suddenly flung to the frontier with my passport not quite in order, and that feeling has remained with me for the rest of my life." He was later beaten up by two neighbours, an attack which left him deaf in one ear.

“His parents could afford to send him to the fee-paying Monmouth School, where he played the clown, and later to Cardiff College of Music and Drama, and supported him while he earned a living as a waiter and factory hand...He always acknowledged that his love of acting had first been sparked by watching films in the local Coliseum, by the colourful characters he met in his parents' shop, especially their vivid way of speaking, by his membership of the local drama group and by his student days in Cardiff.

“He shot to prominence when he was given parts in three films starring the Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (1964), Help! (1965) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967). This was a great piece of good fortune for a young actor who was still to land any major roles..Small parts in about 35 films followed this initial success. They included Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew, Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Becket, Voyage of the Damned, The Return of the Pink Panther and The Krays.

“Between 1959 and 1965 he trod the boards as a straight actor with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East in such productions as Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (1959) and Oh! What a Lovely War (1963), in which he played the obnoxious Drill Sergeant. His West End and Broadway appearances included parts in Expresso Bongo, Candide, The Hostage, Peter Pan, Oliver!, Cat Among the Pigeons, The Odd Couple and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

“One of his most challenging roles was as the principal male character in Jane Arden's radical feminist play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven, which playedto packed houses for six weeks at the Arts Lab on Drury Lane towards the end of 1969. He also tried his hand as a director: he adapted In His Own Write, a play based on John Lennon's book, which he directed for the National Theatre in 1968.

“His acclaimed one-man show, A Very Private Diary, first staged at the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 and going on to the Sydney Opera House, featured hilarious accounts of his acquaintance with such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Brendan Behan, Sean Connery, Salvador Dali, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough and Laurence Olivier, and was reprised in 2008. The same delight in anecdote and theatrical gossip informs his memoirs, Victor Spinetti Up Front (2006), in which he wrote movingly about the death of his partner, Graham Cumow.”

I saw Victor Spinetti twice in the life, the occasions decades apart. The first was in a theatre queue in the Aldwych. The face was unique and famous from the Beatles films. On the street he was an extrovert, self-advertising persona, his dress the fur coat that features in the photograph. The second time was last year at the RWCMD on the day of commemoration for Richard Burton.

From the Dora Stoutzker Hall I wrote:

“Lastly, Victor Spinetti came on stage not just as a fellow actor and friend but as an early alumnus of the Royal College. A story from the set of “the Taming of the Shrew” contained razor sharp imitations of Zeffirelli, Michael Hordern and Cyril Cusack but ended on a Burton punch-line of hilarity. He had another story about a poem that he himself had written.

Spinetti was in truth an actor in performance, but it was one of unabashed exuberance. “Gleeful” was the word he chose, more than once, for Burton. It is a good word, and it occurred when he was interviewed earlier in the day on BBC Wales. It referred, of course, to Burton the social creature, the roisterer, the party animal.”

Photo credit George Elam/ Rex

Meic Stephens obituary in full at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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