Interview with Richard Johnson (Actor The Haunting, Radiator, Deadlier Than The Male)


Richard Johnson is one of Britain’s foremost actors of stage and screen. He began his career at RADA and toured with Sir John Gielgud’s Repertory Company before the start of the Second World War.

Following his film debut in 1959’s Never So Few, Johnson became contracted to MGM and it is with them that he made his biggest films including Robert Wise’s 1963 film, The Haunting; the 1966 film Khartoum starring Lord Laurence Oliver and Charlton Heston and two Bulldog Drummond films (Deadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do). The contract with MGM forced Johnson to decline a role that he was offered by director Terence Young, that of James Bond. The role would of course eventually go to Sir Sean Connery.

It was also during the 60s that Johnson became involved with Sir Peter Hall’s production of Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s less known plays. The production would go down in history as during the next year, 1959, Hall changed the company name to that of the Royal Shakespeare Company and asked Johnson to join him. Johnson played numerous roles for the RSC, one such role being Anthony which he discusses at the end of the interview.

Johnson would go onto star in such films as Zombi 2 , Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas. On television he has continued to be a charismatic and beloved presence appearing in such shows as Anglo Saxon Attitudes, Midsomer Murders, Waking the Dead, Silent Witness, Doc Martin and many other notable TV series.

Johnson has also contributed greatly to radio, his most famous role being that of Sir Philip Bin in BBC Radio Four’s award winning series Bleak Expectations.

Richard has recently finished filming Radiator, a film which will debut at this year’s Glasgow International Film Festival. The film sees Richard plays Leonard, a man who doesn’t seem to be able to come to terms with his age and how his life has changed. Richard has described it as “the best role of my career”. Read on to find out why:

Hello Richard, thank you for agreeing to this interview. To start off with, the film you are currently promoting is called Radiator, set to premier at the Glasgow International Film Festival. The film sees you take on the role of Leonard, a hoarder. The film was shot in the former home of director Tom Browne’s late parents, which remained untouched following their deaths. Did the fact that the location had such a personal resonance with the director help you at all get into character more?

Yes I do think it did. The actual location which was were the director’s father spent much time at the end of his life was filled with his brick a brac so the story is completely true in that respect. It is overlaid with this extraordinary dream like poetic thing that film can bring with it, the dream of life. There is one little sequence in it which very strongly illustrates that. They go out on the lake, the son and the old man and Tom (the director) said “That didn’t actually happen but I wish it had.” So it was a dream of what have might have been. He said “If only I had been more adequate as a son in helping my father in these more extreme moments of his life, I should have thought of something like that”. That is the power of a dream – it is fascinating.

I think the ending particularly shows that and I think it is important to get a resonance with the audience. I think there is a little part of audiences that feel, “Oh I’ve been watching this on the telly for years on end” and occasionally there is a drama that has some truth to it and when they see it and recognize it becomes something they treasure, like this film. And I’ve had so many people come up to me and say “I love this film because it was about me and my family”.

Leonard’s wife is his anchor and she left him with his son who’s thrown the cutlery at him and because of all this he’s on the edge. He’s determined that he’ll carry his dignity. I don’t know why these things are. I don’t know how to act; you just do it you see. Do it and do as little as possible. Let the audience do the work for you. I think, the moment we mentioned is one of the points that the audience do feel for Leonard and that he is afraid basically of dying and being alone. The approaching darkness, the feeling that you can’t fight any longer, the stuffing knocked out of you. I get moved by the film. I got moved by reading it, doing it and watching it. I don’t want to say it is because of any contribution I made to it, it was just there and I did it.

Perhaps one of your most famous films was the 1963 film The Haunting which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It is open to interpretation as to whether the house in the film is in fact haunted or not, but do you yourself believe that the house was haunted or that all spooky experience’s that occur in the film were simply in Eleanor’s mind and if so why?

Well I believed it in terms of the actor, yeah you have to. I think he believed in it, Doctor Markway. I learned a few things on that film in particular and about the difference between film acting and theatre acting. I was a theatre actor for years before I worked in the cinema. Then to be in the movies, you learn different things.

I said to the director {Robert Wise}, “Is there anything I ought to know about film acting technique?” “Well, one or two things” he said. He said “Don’t blink too much,” because if you are in a close up and the audience can’t see anything other than your face and you’re blinking the audience is thinking “What’s he doing? I’m not listening to what he’s saying because I’m wondering why he’s blinking so much. Is he frightened or worked up or something?” The second was “If you are doing a scene with a fellow actor or actress who is off camera and you’re in close up, don’t look from eye to eye of your partner who is off camera” because the audience will ask “Why are his eyes swivelling about?” and he said “take one of his or her eyes and stick with it and if you need to, look down at their mouths” because it indicates that your listening to them. Then he said “Look back at that eye and concentrate on that eye”. He finished off with, “Apart from that Richard leave the technique to me. Just do what you would do”. And ever since I’ve been learning to do, what I would do as the character.

I think the film actors and the film acting that I like to watch is like that and it is pretty rare nowadays  because they’re doing piffling dramas on the telly most of them or things about Avatars or something, stuff that really doesn’t engage me at my time of life. I’ve seen all this sort of stuff sixty years ago anyway. They don’t grab me, you know? The ones that do grab me are the ones that are not telling too much or even telling me anything, just doing it and leaving me to find out what they’re feeling about it or what they feel about themselves because most people don’t display what they feel, their emotions they keep them to themselves.

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How do you think working on films like Radiator compares to working on something like Luci Fulci’s Zombi 2, because they are quite different films aren’t they?

Well, as a matter of fact, there are some similarities, as far as working is concerned. I mean I hate the class that operates in British and American films. The “stars” are separated from the crew and they all get grand hotels and super Winnebagos and get carted around as if they are some sort of god like person. I hate that, I just want to be part of the group doing something together.

The great attraction of making films in Italy was, and I did quite a lot of Italian films in the 60s, that is was la familia. We are family; we are a family of people making the films. We all got the same treatment. The technicians, the grips, whatever they all felt, they were absolutely part of the movie. The actor may be in front of the camera but whoever is behind the camera is just as important and that is absolutely right.

Lucio Fulci was an extraordinary character. He would say “Richard, what do we say, how do we do this”. We would talk together about lots of things. He would say “How do you say this in English” as the script was an appalling translation from the Italian. So I would re write and help and it was all part of the family enterprise. And this film was like that. Everyone who did the film did it because they thought it was a wonderful piece of writing and they all wanted to be part of it.

It was a wonderful experience. I won’t say Radiator compares in anyway plot wise with Zombi 2. For a while after it had been made I was rather proud of it because it had been banned. Banned! It was banned in Britain; we were not allowed to see it for some two or three years because it was thought to be too extreme that they couldn’t take it and so on. I remember thinking “I’m in a banned film!” I don’t want Radiator to be banned and I’m jolly sure that it won’t be, I’m sure it will be a success around the world and we are all working now as a team towards that.

Leonard is, in the way that he deals with his family, similar to Professor Gerald Middleton a character you played in 1993’s Anglo Saxon Attitudes. Do you think that the way Leonard deals with his family is in anyway better or worse than Middleton’s approach?

Neither of them is particularly satisfactory! Old age, there is a line in Radiator which expresses this, means you change but you don’t stop loving your family. And people do change as they become older, you know of the grumpy old man stereotype and all that. People become much more experienced because they’ve lived longer than most people and they’re more conscious of different aspects of life so they become more difficult, they laugh less.

There are similarities between the two, however Middleton is an extremist compared to Leonard in the way he deals with old age. And of course decay and age catches up with all of us. It is probably going to happen to me, to you and to our children. That is the way life is going, even more so now than before because we’re living longer. There will be a period when we are incontinent and our minds are not as efficient as they were. Those things are coming. So there are aspects of Radiator that are relevant to everybody’s life which is what people love about it.


You’ve had a varied career on radio and in recent years have played Sir Philip Bin in BBC Radio Four’s Bleak Expectations. How did you first become involved with that series?

Oddly enough in my eighties I’ve had three absolutely wonderful parts. One was Sir Philip Bin in Bleak Expectations which we did for seven years and was loved by its audience. I loved the silliness of it and it was irresistible really.  We kept the same cast, exactly the same for seven years which is incredibly unusual because we all loved it so much. Nothing could stop us doing another series.

Then I did a tour of On Golden Pond, which though it was a very sentimental film, the play on which it was based was really much tougher and much more truthful. It was a wonderful part. That was a wonderful part in the theatre and this part in Radiator is I think probably the best I’ve ever done. I mean, I’m in my 80s! “So count your blessings, Richard”, that’s what my wife keeps saying. She says “What are you complaining about? You’re still working, you’re doing what you love” but I say “But not enough! They’re not queuing up to employ me like they used to. I want more, give me more”. I mean I know I’m not going to get it because very rarely do people write parts for old blokes in their dotage, not that I am of course. I ought to be I suppose.

Have you always felt the same way about acting?

I started being an actor when I was a child, became a professional actor when I left school because that is what I do. That makes me more alive and less aware of my insufficiencies, at least I can act I’m not much good at anything else. There is something about being an artist and being involved in the arts that is compelling, in my case enjoyable, mysterious thing that is so indefinable where it is how it operates. I feel that all the time when I’m working, I mean I’m out of control in an artistic sense because I’m just filled with this joy for my art. The great attraction in being in good films is that you are allowed to act as naturally as possible and it is something I enjoy very much.

In 1967 and 1969 you played Bulldog Drummond in Deadlier Than The Male and its sequel Some Girls Do. How do you think your version of Drummond compares to the previous interpretations of the character and also to the film versions of Bond?

I’ve no idea really; I think that Deadlier Than The Male was fun while Some Girls Do was frightful. Deadlier Than The Male was great, I saw a restored version of it not long ago and it still looks like a kind of fantasy piece that we went for. I looked quite smart I thought. We were conscious of what we were up to, that is was a silly fantasy. We had a sense of humour about it and understood that it needed that.

It was interesting being the twenty second and last Bulldog Drummond. It had been a long movie tradition and when it was offered to me I thought “Why not?” And it was then all about fun for me in terms of parts. It was great being young, being rich and having fun and being a movie star. I thought I’d rather be a rich young man than be a rich old man and I was probably right actually.


You have appeared in many comedies on TV and in the theatre, what attracts you to them?

I love comedy. Well actually, I love humour and I love the idea of life being so silly. Shakespeare does that very well. All the great tragedies are imbued with humour throughout and in the most extraordinary circumstances. For instance, I played Anthony in Anthony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. When he kills himself it is marvellously tragic and comic. His servant won’t kill him and kills himself so he is left with this sword and he wants to die. So he plunges the sword into his belly and writhes around on the floor and he says “Not dead! Not dead!” It is just so brilliant. It has lead up to this point and he can’t bloody well kill himself! They carry him off so he can die in her arms. It is just those extraordinary lengths that people go to in life and in some ways they are very funny. So I don’t look back with any sense of “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that” to any of the films I’ve been in really. I had a good time, I enjoyed it. I would have liked to have had more wonderful parts but I wasn’t cut out to be a movie star in that way, I wasn’t like Humphrey Bogart in so much as playing a lead part for the rest of my life.

Aside from promoting Radiator, what other projects have you go lined up for the future?

I’ve done a film called The Man Who Knew Infinity with Jeremy Irons, that I presume will be out in the autumn of this year. Otherwise I’m dedicating this year to Radiator, to making Radiator available to as many people as possible.

With thanks to Richard Johnson, the Glasgow International Film Festival and Matthew Crowe.





One response to “Interview with Richard Johnson (Actor The Haunting, Radiator, Deadlier Than The Male)

  1. Pingback: – Men Among Monsters: Remembering Christopher Lee & Richard Johsnon·

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