Sir Christopher Lee on ORSON WELLES and MOBY DICK – Rehearsed
In honor of Sir John Falstaff....
Queen Elizabeth II of England has bestowed Knighthood honors on one of my very favorite actors, SIR CHRISTOPHER LEE, who is well known to Wellesnet readers for appearing in Orson Welles's never finished television movie Moby Dick-Rehearsed.
Lee was also was featured in Anthony Shaffer's The Wicker Man and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Of course, three years after appearing in Welles's Moby Dick, Lee became world famous as "Count Dracula," which ironically, Welles had played so well on the radio way back in 1938.
What I find especially interesting is how English actors have always embraced horror films. Throughout the seventies, English actors were never "afraid" to be in a horror picture. In fact all of the great acting Knights appeared in horror and fantasy films.
Most significantly, they include:
Sir Ralph Richardson
Started out way back in 1933 with The Ghoul opposite Boris Karloff, made Things to Come with Raymond Massey in 1936, Tales From the Crypt in 1971 with Peter Cushing, and played a Wizard in Dragonslayer. Greystoke, one of his final films brought him an Oscar nomination in 1984, but no Oscar.
Sir Laurence Olivier
Played Van Helsing in Dracula, taking over a role made far more famous by Peter Cushing in the 1958 version of Dracula. Ironically, Olivier used Peter Cushing in his film version of Hamlet, as Osiric, in 1948 and as Clarence in Richard III on stage at the Old Vic. Olivier also played Zeus in Ray Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans, a role he was ideal for, although by then he was getting on in years.
Sir John Gielgud
Gielgud acted with Christopher Lee in The Far Pavillions. However, long before that he was the Chief of Police in Frankenstein: The True Story and also appeared in a 1984 English TV movie of Frankenstein with David Warner as The Monster. He was also friends with Coral Browne, the wife of Vincent Price, and was set to act in the role Price eventually played in The Whales of August.
Sir Alec Guinness
Ironically, this great actor is best remembered in America for Star Wars, more than for his masterful Oscar-winning performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your book you say you worked with Orson Welles on a film version of MOBY DICK.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that's right. It was made for television, right after he did his stage version. I've no idea what happened to it. I don't think it was ever shown. Welles played Captain Ahab, Patrick McGoohan played Starbuck, the first mate, and I played Flask, the 2nd mate. Kenneth Williams played Elijah and Gordon Jackson played Ishmael. Joan Plowright, the present Lady Olivier, played the cabin boy. It was a version of his stage play, which I wasn't in, but it was mostly done in mime, drinking from non-existent cups, throwing non-existent harpoons. The notion was that of a play within a play, where the actors step in and out of their roles, in the story of MOBY DICK. I remember one of the first lines in the film. Orson came up to me and said, "If we touch land, Mr. Flask, for God's sake, no fornication!"
Orson was most encouraging, very helpful, appreciative and very, very funny. It's amazing we ever got any filming done, because most of the time Orson would be telling us stories about John Barrymore or Errol Flynn, people like that. He'd also talk all through your scenes, so of course they would have to be looped. We did MOBY DICK at two Theaters in London, The Hackney-Empire and The Scala. Another time, there was a scene where I had to say to Patrick McGoohan, "There's bad news from that ship," when The Pequod is approaching The Rachel. Suddenly, Orson's voice came from behind the camera, "There's bad news from that ship - mark my words." Well, I looked at Patrick, and Patrick looked at me, because we didn't quite know what was going on. We both wondered why Orson was repeating our lines. Then, on another occasion Orson came down the center aisle of the theater while the cast and crew were all waiting on the stage, turned to the cameraman and said "action," and the cameraman said, "Mr. Welles, I haven't got a set-up yet," and Orson said to him, "find one and surprise me."
Welles was one of the very few people in the history of the cinema to whom the word "genius" could appropriately be applied. He was a great, great filmmaker. I've seen his OTHELLO, and I've seen the other one, his Scottish play, the name of which I won't mention.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You mean MACBETH?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes. In British theatrical tradition, the unluckiest thing an actor can possibly do is to mention it, or quote from it, except when you are actually playing it. That's why we refer to it as "the Scottish play."
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Oh no, I've just mentioned it.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: You can say it, but I can't. In fact, in THE DRESSER, there's a scene where Albert Finney forgets what play he's in. He forgets he doing KING LEAR, and starts to quote some of the lines from the Scottish play, which causes Tom Courtenay, as the dresser, to have a bout of hysteria. The man on whom that part is based —"Sir" as he's called — the part played by Albert Finney, is supposed to be based on the late Sir Donald Wolfit. He was a remarkable actor, and when I was an actor in the beginning of my career, I worked in Wolfit's company. He took companies all around Britain during the war and after the war, and he was quite an extraordinary man. I have actually seen him say, in rehearsal to the electricians, "The spotlight goes HERE! …and don't move it!" All that sort of thing. In THE DRESSER, when Albert Finney comes off the stage, after everyone is trying to create the storm for KING LEAR, with the wind machine and noises you could hear for miles away, he says, "Where was the storm?"! Well, Wolfit was like that. He was either way up there, like that, or else (whispers) right down here. I introduced him to J.R.R. Tolkien, for which he was always eternally grateful. I gave him THE HOBBIT to read, and I've still got the letter he wrote to me, saying, "Thank you, dear Christopher, for showing me an enchanted world." I met Tolkien and I still think THE LORD OF THE RINGS is the greatest literary achievement in my lifetime. I also knew T. H. White who wrote THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. I like fantasy, too!
Here is Sir Christopher's account of working with Welles that appears in the first edition of his autobiography from 1977:
(In 1955) that slack time for the film business, my only way forward was through television.
...my television credits (were) not in the forefront of anybody's mind, even though Orson Welles had directed one, and Joseph Losey another. The first of (these) was called The Mirror and Makheim ...though so far as I had been able to see, the one made by Welles had not been made for showing on British screens.
This was a pity.
The Losey movie – credited to a certain John Dillion and produced by Carl Foreman – was shot at Walton-on-Thames, had the improbable title of The Adventures of Aggie and was not the kind of show an actor would mention in his showcase. The Mirror and Markheim was based on a pungent story by R. L. Stevenson but had pretty well passed out of the minds of all but Philip Saville, who was the lead, Arthur Lowe the murdered pawnbroker, and myself as the Visitant or Devil.
And while the Welles movie was undoubtedly a work of genius, nobody has seen it.
It was based on his Theatre production of Moby Dick–Rehearsed. (presented in London at the Duke of York’s Theater in 1955). The notion was of a play within a play, in which a repertory company step in and out of their roles in the story of Moby Dick. He shot it as a movie in three London theatres, notably the Hackney Empire, where in the evening we had to give way to the regular bill, led by Sid Milward and his Nitwits. Welles had taken a place near me in Belgravia, and since he wanted to be driven everywhere and would have taken a taxi to Land's End, I was deputed to drive him to and fro in a minuscule vehicle with my head touching the roof and his vast bulk under a heap of scripts threatening to burst the whole machine asunder.
He called us, as he'd probably called every other company he'd worked with, “the most talented company I ever worked with.” It actually included a number of talented newcomers like Joan Plowright and Kenneth Williams in small parts. Patrick McGoohan was the First mate, I played Mr Flask, the Navigator and Welles himself played Ahab – in Rome, all by himself, and presumably in close-up. We had a lot of mime to do, drinking from non-existent cups, flinging non-existent harpoons and staggering about the stage while he tilted the camera. It was a great challenge, but when I made an extra special effort, his booming voice would reach out to me in a chuckling irony, “There you go again, with that fi-i-i-ne brush!" And when all went well it was, “Print – with enthusiasm!”
As it was done for American Broadcasting Company, it caused no no ripple of recognition whenever I spoke about it to TV casting directors…
MOBY DICK - Rehearsed
ABC-TV movie - 1955
Welles appears to have shot about a week on this project, with most of the same actors who had appeared in the stage play that had just closed.
Probably due to lack of funds, the project was abandoned and no footage (or even stills) of it appear to have survived. Given Lee's remarks about Welles playing his role as Ahab in Rome in Close-up, it's fascinating to wonder if that is possibly what Welles intended in 1971, 16 years later, when he shot several of Capt. Ahab's monologues from the play in close-up.
These close-ups were shot in gorgeous color by Gary Graver, and it's quite possible Welles wanted to insert them into the black and white footage he had shot in 1955. Of course, this is sheer conjecture, but in 1971 it's very possible Welles still had the black and white footage in his possession, although since that time it certainly seems to have been lost.
Orson Welles reads scenes from MOBY DICK-Rehearsed on YouTube HERE.
The Actor Manager/Capt. Ahab/ Father Mapple: ORSON WELLES
Young Actor/Ishmael: GORDON JACKSON
Serious Actor/Starbuck: PATRICK McGOOHAN
Stage Manager/Flask: CHRISTOPHER LEE
Young Actress/Pip: JOAN PLOWRIGHT
Manager/Tashtego: JOSEPH CHELTON
Assist. Stage Manager/Bo'sun: JOHN GRAY
Middle-aged Actor/Stubb: WENSLEY PITHEY
Very Serious Actor/Elijah: KENNETH WILLIAMS
Experienced Actor/Peleg: JEFFERSON CLIFFORD