|Victor Spinetti: Among The Beatles
The Group's Old Friend Tells Stories
from the Days of Beatlemania
by Siobhan Roberts
Victor Spinetti became known to the sixties
generation through his stand-out roles in three
Beatles' films. In this lively article he shares
some personal memories about his experiences
with the Fab Four.
Sir Paul McCartney rang up Victor Spinetti last May, at his house in Brighton, a short drive from London on England's south coast. "Are you going to be in?" asked Sir Paul. "Yup," said Spinetti. And Sir Paul said he would pop over for a visit. He arrived without the usual encumbrances of stardom. Without a driver or handlers. As Spinetti said, it was "just the man alone, looking for a parking spot like anyone else." They had some mineral water: "That's all people drink nowadays," explained Spinetti.
Victor Spinetti is a veteran British stage actor who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has also appeared in Dylan Thomas's Milk Under Wood with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Voyage of the Damned with Faye Dunaway, Return of the Pink Panther with Peter Sellers, and Under the Cherry Moon with Prince. But Spinetti is perhaps best known for his film appearances in three Beatles movies, A Hard Day's Night, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour.
"[Paul] calls me the man who makes the clouds disappear," Spinetti said. During their recent visit, Spinetti explained, "we talked about when we were here or there, and when we did this and when we did that. We talked about Linda and had a bit of a weep. We talked about John and had a bit of a weep. We talked about people who passed by and we both said, 'Well, we're still here.' "
Spinetti was discovered by the Beatles in 1963, when John Lennon and George Harrison saw him in Oh! What a Lovely War (for which he later won a Tony Award when the show hit Broadway). It was when John and George visited him in his dressing room after the show that they seconded him to appear in their first movie. "I fell in love with them," said Spinetti. And Spinetti and the Beatles became fast friends.
In fact, as Spinetti points out, the first official biography chronicling Beatlemania, written by Hunter Davies in 1968, mentioned that the Beatles, back then, had only three friends. "I was one of them," he noted. "I've been asked to do books on them, of course. But it's more fun to tell it..."
"The Beatles had seen a show I was in, Oh! What a Lovely War -- it caused a bit of sensation -- and George Harrison said, 'Oh, Vic. You've got to be in our film. If you're not in our film, me Mom won't come because she fancies you.' So I was cast in this Beatles film, A Hard Day's Night, then later Help! and Magical Mystery Tour.
"Beatlemania in Europe was amazing, but in New York it was something else altogether, people went mad, absolutely insane about the Beatles. On the first night on Broadway of Oh! What a Lovely War, which was a musical about the First World War, I came out on stage and a group of girls at the back screamed, 'Victor Spinetti, aaaaahhhhhhhh!' They were shouting things like, 'he's touched George!' I said to the cast, 'It's alright, there's a bit of a disturbance, hang on.'
" 'Listen my darlings,' I told the girls. 'This is a show about the First World War, but I'll tell you what, if you keep quiet during the show you can come down and sit in the first row afterwards and we'll do a 10-minute semester on the Beatles.' 'Thank you, thank you!' they squealed.
"You see, I know what it is like to hunger after knowing something about someone you really love, I mean adore passionately. When I was a kid, if somebody had said to me, 'I know Rita Hayworth,' I'd have said, 'Oh! What is she like?' Well it was the same thing for these kids. When I first met the Beatles, in fact, I was asked constantly, by everybody, 'What are they like?' Literally by everybody -- by Laurence Olivier: 'What are they like? What are they like? What are they like?'
"This is the story I used to tell: When we were in Austria filming, I contracted the flu. Each of the Beatles came to my hotel room in turn to visit me. The first person to arrive was George Harrison, who knocked on the door, came in and said, 'I've come to plump your pillows. Whenever anyone is ill in bed they have to have their pillows plumped.' So he plumped my pillows and then he left.
"Ringo came in next, sat down by the bed, picked up the hotel menu and said: 'Once upon a time there were three bears, mummy bear, daddy bear and baby bear...' And then he left.
"John Lennon came in -- remember, this is Austria -- came marching in, shouting 'Sieg Heil, Schweinehund! The doctors are here, they are coming to experiment upon you, Sieg Heil! Heil Hitler!' And he left.
"Finally, Paul McCartney opened the door and said, 'Is it catching?' I said 'yes' and he closed the door and I never saw him again.
"That's the story I told these girls. 'Oh, George plumped the pillows!' they cooed. They came to the show just to hear these Beatles stories at the end of the performance. Sold a lot of tickets that way. They used to come from Detroit, from Chicago, from Pittsburgh. They'd fly in to come to the matinee and then they would all sit down and we'd do this 10-minute semester on the Beatles. Then they'd be outside the stage door waiting: 'Oh, what did George say again, plumping? He plumped, he plumped!'
"Then, one afternoon, Warren Beatty was in my dressing room. He said, 'Victor, I've got a problem here. I hear there's a crowd of teenage girls at the stage door. You know, they're going to tear me apart.' Well, I didn't tell him that they were in fact Beatles fans. I just said, 'Oh, they'll be OK, don't worry.' So as we came up to the stage door, he was behind me, they all shrieked in unison, 'Victor Spinetti!' And they parted, leaving this astonished man. I can still see his face to this day.
"The same thing happened to the Beatles, once. I was on a plane once with them. We landed in New York, just to refuel, that is all. We were not allowed off the plane. And suddenly an immigration officer got on the plane and said, 'Is there a Victor Spinetti here?' John said, 'They're deporting you, you bloody wop. Ellis Island awaits.'
" 'Yes, I am he,' I said. 'Would you come to the door of the plane, please,' the man said, 'and wave, because your fan club is at the airport.' The Beatles cried, 'His fan club!?' It was like that joke about the Pope. I'm standing next to the Beatles at the door of the plane, waving with the lads, and these people were shouting, 'Victor! Victor!'
"John said, 'Hey, Vic, we're really impressed, think we could join?' So I wrote to the lady who ran the club, and the Beatles and Brian Epstein all got a card saying they were members of the Official Victor Spinetti Fan Club of America.
"That was the thing about the Beatles, there was no aggrandizement there at all. The first shot of Help!, for example, could have been the last shot of the Beatles. We were in the Bahamas and Ringo had to dive into the sea off a yacht because crowds kept gathering on the beach. The director was hundreds of yards away on shore. His faint voice yelled, 'Action,' and Ringo dove in off this yacht and into the sea. It was freezing cold because it was quite far out and there were shark nets to make sure there were no sharks about.
"Then they got Ringo out again and he was shivering. He sat on the deck and they changed his clothes and got his hair dried. And then he had to do another take. The director yelled, 'Action,' Ringo dived off again, and got pulled out again. And then he said to me, 'Oh, Vic, do I have to do it again?' I said, 'Why?' 'Cause I can't swim,' he said. 'Why didn't you say so!?' 'Well,' he said, 'when you do a movie and the director shouts, 'Action!' you have to do it.' If he had drowned, that would have been the end of the Beatles -- in 1965. Of course, they did not do that shot again.
"Of all the Beatles, though, John was the one I saw the most during those years. We wrote a play together, In His Own Write. We were working on the play in London one day in my flat when he said to me, 'I'm cold. Let's go somewhere warm.' I thought he meant another room. Twenty minutes later a car came and we ended up in Africa, in Marrakesh.
"So we worked on the play there. But then John came down with the flu. I was giving him Beecham's powder, powder you put in water to take to feel better when you have the flu. Then the Stones turned up. I told John, 'I'll go down to the lobby and tell them you're not well.'
"When I got down there, Brian Jones was with them, and he was also sick, he had this terrible cold. I told Brian I had the very thing for him. I went back upstairs and I said to John, 'They're only here for 20 minutes. They've smashed the car, they've bought another one, and they're waiting for it to be delivered. And Brian's got a terrible cold.' And back down I went with a little packet of Beecham's and said, 'There you are, Brian.' He opened the packet and sniffed it. I said, 'No, darling, it's Beecham's powder.' He thought it was coke. John knew it was Beecham's.
"That's what was so extraordinary about the Beatles: They were so ordinary. There was no question of them wanting to keep up with anybody. They never trashed a hotel room or drove a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool. They kept it very simple.
"I remember I asked John once, of the 20 or so hits the Beatles had at the time, 'What do you think is your best lyric?' He said, 'That's easy, Vic, 'All you need is love.' "
Copyright © 2001-2002 Siobhan Roberts
About Victor Spinetti
Born to an Italian father and Welsh mother, actor/writer/director Victor Spinetti attended the College of Music and Drama at Cardiff. Following his debut at a 1953 concert party in Wales, Spinetti built up a solid reputation as a surefire laugh-getter in various theatrical revues and West End plays.
In 1964, he won a Tony Award for his interpretation of the Drill Sergeant Major (his favorite part) in the London/Broadway musical hit Oh, What a Lovely War! That same year, Spinetti made an auspicious film bow as the neurotic TV director in The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. Even funnier was his portrayal of mad scientist Doctor Foot ("With a ring like that I can--dare I say it?--rule the world...with the proper government grant") in the Fab Four's follow-up feature Help!
Spinetti's association with The Beatles extended to his theatrical work when, in 1969, he adapted and directed a stage version of John Lennon's book In His Own Write. Other films blessed with Spinetti's presence include Taming of the Shrew (1967), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Under The Cherry Moon (1986), and The Krays (1990).
In the Beginning (2000)
Julie and the Cadillacs (1999)
You Can't Do That! The Making of 'A Hard Day's Night' (1995)
Young Indiana Jones and the Attack of the Hawkmen (1995)
The Secret Garden (1994)
The Princess and the Goblin (1993)
Secrets (1992) TV Series
Romeo - Juliet (1990)
The Krays (1990)
The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank (1988)
Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
An Actor's Life for Me (1985) TV Series
Mistral's Daughter (1984) TV Series
Sweet Sixteen (1983) TV Series
Take My Wife (1979) TV Series
Casanova & Co. (1976)
Voyage of the Damned (1976)
Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done (1975)
The Great McGonagall (1974)
The Little Prince (1974)
The Return of the Pink Panther (1974)
Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973)
Under Milk Wood (1973)
The 500 Pound Jerk (1972)
Scacco alla mafia (1970)
Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)
Two in Clover (1969) TV Series
Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)
A Promise of Bed (1969)
The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968)
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
The Wild Affair (1966)
That Was the Week That Was (1964) TV Series
I Think They Call Him John (1964)
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
Sparrows Can't Sing (1963)
The Gentle Terror (1962)