Denis Quilley: An Actor's LifeDate: 8 March 2004
Denis Quilley was nearing completion on his autobiography when he died, aged 75, in October 2003. Now published posthumously, Happiness Indeed recalls a host of colourful characters & anecdotes from more than 50 years in theatre.
FOREWORD by Sir Peter Hall
"The outside world often thinks of actors as self-obsessed creatures. But they are not – particularly in the theatre, where every performer is dependent on his fellows. Denis Quilley was a leading player who always cared for the team; a shining personality who always put the play before himself. We can take his great and versatile talent – as actor, singer and performer – as read; above all we must celebrate his kindness, his generosity (particularly to beginners) and his unfailing support of others in the cause of the profession he loved. He was a remarkable man."
In my first year at Bancroft's I saw some of the older boys (the grandly-named Bancroft's Players) in As You Like It, and the giant Shakespeare with his gorgeous language, earthy wit and humane philosophy, barged roughly and unstoppably into my life.
Rosalind was played by a boy who went on to be a professor of Oriental languages. Impossible at this distance to guess how good he was, but quite certainly his diction was clear and beautiful, he moved with grace, he was playfully and movingly feminine without being in the least effeminate. I think my enraptured response must have been very like that of the groundlings who first saw Rosalind played by a boy of much the same age at the Globe four hundred years ago. I was instantly overwhelmed, and determined to be part of this beautiful, uplifting and dangerous existence.
I joined the Bancroft's Players, and my first ever acting role was Sir Hugh Evans in the Merry Wives of Windsor. Our French teacher was a perky little Welshman called Ivor Jenkins, who was also a nimble performer on the double-bass and was often called upon when the school orchestra needed reinforcement in the nether regions. His accent was lilting and musical, his body language energetic and expansive, and I based my Hugh Evans firmly on him, to the great delight of my schoolmates who recognised him with gratifying ease.
At our French lesson the next day he said: 'Well, Quilley, I must admit you have got me down to a T.' My first rave review!
Success is crucial in the Big Apple. Or rather the perception of success - if you are not actually successful yourself you must associate with those who are, and if possible be seen doing so. I used not to believe the stories of guests at a Broadway first night leaving the after-show party when bad reviews started to arrive, but one night in Sardi's (the restaurant for theatre people) I was there when it happened.
The supper party was in full swing, the two stars were at a big table surrounded by friends and well-wishers, the champagne was flowing and everyone was having a great time. Then, at about 1am a man looked in at the door and held up one hand with the thumb and all four fingers pointing downwards. This meant five bad reviews. The atmosphere changed instantly; smiles disappeared, conversation became furtive and embarrassed, and very soon quite a lot of people finished their drinks and made their excuses and left. We stayed much longer than we had intended, just to show solidarity.
On a very different evening, a friend of a friend, who had never met us but had heard that we were in town and living nearby, invited us to his apartment to meet a few neighbours. It was a pleasant occasion; we all circulated, as one does, introducing ourselves and chatting cosily about the weather and how the neighbourhood was going down, and eventually I found myself talking to a man who said: 'I hear you're from London, England - what are you doing over here?'
'I'm in Irma la Douce at the Plymouth Theatre.'
'Uh-huh,' he said, and after a little more desultory conversation we drifted apart.
I met him again at a similar gathering two or three days later. As I came into the room he cried: 'Hey - I've heard of British reserve, but this is ridiculous. Why didn't you tell me you were the leading man for Christ's sake!' Then he took me by the elbow for a tour of the room, saying: 'Hey, folks, this is Denis Quilley, he's the leading man in Irma la Douce,' and all the time I was thinking: 'Whoa - slow down. You don't know me any better or like me any more than you did a couple of days ago - you've just seen my name above the title outside the theatre, that's all.' But hey, folks, I must admit it was very flattering.
My most enjoyable and dramatic moment of vicarious fame and success took place (rather appropriately) at the Opera. We were at the City Centre to see The Marriage of Figaro, and were standing in the crowded foyer looking hopefully around for somewhere that might offer a drink, and perhaps a little space - New York theatres, surprisingly, tend to be even less well equipped in these areas than their London counterparts. Suddenly, over on the far side of the foyer, I saw Leonard Bernstein. (This was just a couple of years after the London production of Candide, which of course he had seen and greatly praised.)
He was standing with his astrakhan-collared overcoat slung casually but elegantly over his shoulders, talking with two star-struck young men who hung adoringly on his every word. He turned in mid-flow to point out something on the wall above my head, and saw me. Our eyes met, recognition dawned and he sailed majestically across the room, the jam-packed crowd parting like the Red Sea before this charismatic, irresistible Moses; he opened his arms wide and with a dazzling smile cried, 'Denis! I don't believe it!' and engulfed me in a bear-hug and kissed me on both cheeks.
About five hundred sophisticated opera-loving New Yorkers, who had been learnedly discussing Mozart and da Ponte, were suddenly all hissing to each other like old ladies peeping round their net curtains, and saying: 'Who's that? Who's that being kissed by Lenny Bernstein?' And the little boy inside me was saying: 'Me, me, ME!' It was worth crossing the Atlantic for."
I was reminded of another lovely breakthrough moment back at the Globe in The Lady's Not for Burning, when John Gielgud sensed that, like many young actors, I was having trouble knowing what to do with my hands.
'Squilley, dear,' he said, 'try to think of your hands as two heavy weights hanging on strings at your sides, and then forget about them.' Abracadabra! An instant and permanent cure - no more hand problems! Plenty of other problems, but not with the hands.
Besides poisoning my wife, Stella, Philadelphia hosted the out-of-town opening of a musical called I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Its star was Elliott Gould, who had been one of the boys in Irma la Douce with me on Broadway, and was now opening in his first ever leading role. He was quite brilliant, and was very soon launched on a big career on stage and screen.
Playing opposite him, in the supporting role of Miss Marmelstein, was an unknown girl called Barbra Streisand. Not much of a singing voice, but a terrific acting performance and a personality that leapt out over the footlights. One of the producers threw an after-show party in his vast, luxurious apartment, and in the course of nosily poking our way around the various rooms (as one does) we stumbled upon the bathroom. It was enormous, of course, and absolutely everything in it was pink. The bath, the lavatory, the bidet, the walls, the floor, every one of the myriad pots of creams, lotions and unguents ranged along the shelves - all pink.
And there, holding one of the pink pots to her formidable nose, was this little bird-like nineteen-year- old Miss Marmelstein from Brooklyn taking a deep ecstatic sniff. She looked up at us, half amused, half guilty, and said: 'Isn't this divine? Isn't it just di-vine? I'm gonna have a bathroom just like this one day.' She's probably got about twenty of them by now.
Denis Quilley was last seen on stage, at the National Theatre, in spring 2003 in Anything Goes, for which he was posthumously nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Award. Throughout a career spanning six decades, the actor appeared regularly at the NT. The above is extracted from Happiness Indeed - An Actor's Life, just published by Oberon Books (hardback, £19.99). For a chance to WIN a copy, click here - competition ends 19 April 2004. To order a copy, visit the Oberon Books website.
The above is extracted from Happiness Indeed - An Actor's Life, just published by Oberon Books (hardback, £19.99). For a chance to WIN a copy, click here - competition ends 19 April 2004. To order a copy, visit the Oberon Books website.