Michael Craig On ... TryingDate: 17 March 2009
Actor Michael Craig has had a career spanning over 50 years and has worked with some legendary names and faces. Born Michael Gregson in 1928 he worked for several years on stage and screen in England and around the world, eventually settling in Australia with his actress wife Sue Walker. Craig is now set to return to the London stage in the UK premiere of the award-winning Trying which appears at the Finborough Theatre for a limited season from 17 March until 11 April. Trying is the partly autobiographical story of the internationally famous, cantankerous Judge Francis Biddle who, at age 81 and in failing health, is forced to take on a young and inexperienced secretary.
Your work has taken you around the world and introduced you to some very vibrant characters. Are there any memories that really stand out to you as special?
I’d say that the most impressive character I’ve met in the film business was Luchino Visconti for whom I made a film in 1964, and the three months I spent in Volterra and Rome while making the film Sandra are truly memorable. In the theatre my most vibrant character would have to be Peggy Ashcroft and in Television it would be a tossup between John Gielgud and Janet Sussman.
Have you ever been star-struck?
I don’t think I’ve ever been star-struck but I have been awestruck by star actors, most memorably I think by Paul Scofield with whom I worked in the late sixties.
Of all the leading ladies you have starred opposite, who is your favourite?
I don’t think it would be very polite to name my favourite leading lady, they’ve all been special in their own way. Maybe Judi Dench would top the list as one with whom one could have the most laughs, both on and off stage, actually Honor Blackman is pretty high on the fun list too.
You must have seen many changes in the film, television and theatre industries over your career. How does being an actor today compare to when you were beginning your career?
There have been enormous changes in the business in the 60 years I’ve been a part of it, some good, i.e. rehearsal pay, backstage conditions, and the ending of the “no play…no pay” provision in theatre contracts, some bad, i.e. vastly increased competition for jobs in all areas and the payment of over inflated salaries to the star actors leaving not much more than minimums for everyone else. Of course the major change has been the introduction of T.V. as the major player. It hardly existed when I started and of course when it became firmly established in the late fifties it pretty well ended local Rep Companies and Variety in the provinces. I’d say it is tougher to be an actor now than it was fifty years ago, not helped by the endless supply of young talent graduating from what seems to be an ever increasing number of Drama Schools and Colleges.
You have been living in Australia for several years now and are returning to perform in Trying. What has drawn you back to the UK?
I didn’t actually come back to the UK to do Trying, I came back to spend time with my family, children and grandchildren etc before I got too decrepit to make the trip. Trying was the last play I did in Australia where it was a great success and when I discovered it had never been produced in the UK, a group of interested parties, myself included, decided to try and mount a production which thanks to Finborough we’ve succeeded in doing. The play is a two hander, semi autobiographical, and addresses the ephemeral nature of fame and life in general.
Francis Biddle the former Judge and the character I play is in the last year of his life and trying to come to terms with his mortality and the fact that he has been forgotten. He was after all Solicitor General, and Attorney General under Franklin Roosevelt, and the Chief American Judge at the Nuremberg trials. He defended the Pennsylvania Coalminers in their fight for rights in the great depression of the thirties and in so doing alienated all his family and associates who accused him of being a traitor to his class and political allegiance. He also fought a losing battle against the Japanese internment in 1942 and now only fifteen years later he is nothing more than a tired old man trying to write his memoirs in the face of increasing ill health and functioning “somewhere between lucidity and senility.” To help in his endeavours he has hired a 25 year old secretary, Sarah, a feisty young lady from Saskatoon Saskatchewan in Canada. The play relates their relationship over the year. The author, Joanna McClelland Glass, was and is the Sarah in the story. It is funny and touching and I do relate to Biddle though I’m not sure we’d have got along. I do know I admire him and what he did and tried to do.
What is the best thing about being an actor?
The best thing about being an Actor would be the buzz you get from a satisfied full house at the end of a successful performance, and I guess the worst thing is the rejections you have to accept when going for a job you hoped to get.