In 2001 I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sheard, the prolific British character actor who, according to IMDb is credited with 179 different parts in film and television. According to the man himself the correct number of roles he took on was closer to 800 plus, which would be a remarkable number in a career that began in 1962 and ended rather abruptly in 2005 with his untimely death at the age of 67.
I remember the night we met very well. Myself and my erstwhile writing partner collected Michael in Essex and drove him to Southampton where he was catching a ferry back to the Isle of White, where he lived with his beloved wife, Ros. The ‘lift’ seemed a fair exchange for a three-hour interview. So we set off in my car with the three of us and a WH Smith purchased cassette recorder and two C90 tapes. By the time we dropped Michael in Hampshire we were congratulating ourselves on a job well done, and the expectant thrill of transcribing the interview prior to publishing it on The Web kept our spirits up as we than had to endure another two-hour journey back to East London. It was a few weeks before I realised that this was not going to end in the positive way I had envisaged.
My former partner offered to take one of the tapes (the later part of the interview) back to his native Liverpool and get it all typed up within the week. I never saw him or the second tape again. Whatever problems he had he never shared with me, and it’s now been over ten years since I last heard any word of him from other associates. His fate remains a mystery.
Then, four years ago, while packing up boxes as I was preparing to move house, I happened across the first tape. The one that I had kept. The first part of the interview, which had briefly appeared on The Web before being pulled when I realised it was not going to be complete, had been sitting there for around 17 years. Re-listening to it now and transcribing it again I think it still stands as a fairly decent interview and doesn’t appear to be incomplete. So here it is once again, 20 years on – not exactly the lost tape, but maybe the better half.
Of the few interviews I had conducted by 2001, when I spoke to Michael, he was by far the easiest person to talk to. You didn't actually interview him in the conventional way, you just asked him a question and then listened to him for the next hour or so. It was for this reason that he was in such demand at conventions all around the world. In fact we actually caught up with him at Stansted Airport as he was returning from one of these events. In spite of sporting a broken wrist, he remained as approachable and as friendly as we had always seen him in the past. We began by talking about his early days, growing up in his native Scotland, and how his father, a Minister of the Kirk, had given him his first taste of showbiz.
"My father used to put on little plays for the children of his parish and even though I was really far too young he still always found a little part for me, you know, being a waiter or a shop assistant or a road sweeper or something. I mean nothing to do with the play really, but he just used to write them in."
By the time Michael was thirteen he was already working in the theatre, backstage at Perth, but he was also heavily influenced by the cinema and can remember going nearly every day of its run, to see a film called The Wooden Horse, which told the tale of British POW's trying to escape from a German camp by tunnelling under a vaulting horse. Surprisingly, he wasn't pushed towards a life in the clergy like his father. "When you're a minister of the Kirk the Church of Scotland is very strict. But, okay, I was baptized, I think, but my father said, "look you're not going to be confirmed, you go and find out your own route to take." That route took Michael to England. "That was far-sightedness on my father's part. I had the opportunity of going to the drama school is Glasgow, and had I finished my schooling in Scotland, I probably would have done that, but I finished it off in England, took A levels instead of highers (which was the equivalent grade) and suddenly realized, yes, you know, I better stay down south -and I was lucky enough to be accepted for RADA."
As far as Michael can remember there was never any question as to what he was going to do with his future career and both his parents actively encouraged him. "They wanted me to get my A levels. They would have liked me to go to university, which of course I now have, because RADA is part of London University now, so they're no longer here but it was nice to realize their wish. But, no, I was too determined, I think, for any orders to be given."
But Michael found that he soon had no choice but to take orders when his period at RADA was interrupted by his National Service. "I was one of the very last to be called up. My number was 5050481 and 5050500, I think, was the very last one to be called up. John Fernwood, who was the principal of RADA at the time, quite rightly said, "If you're going to have to do National Service, it's probably better to do it in the middle." I wasn't the only one - so that you could leave RADA and go straight into the profession, rather than leave RADA and go into the - in my case into the RAF for 2 years. Had I not heeded his advice I would have missed it. But, yes, I did a year and then I did my two years in the RAF and then went back and did my final year."
Having finished his period at RADA Michael then landed his first acting job, which was?
"At Perth Rep! That was pure coincidence and had nothing to do with the fact that I'd worked there as a child. I was an ASM for two productions and then they saw how brilliant I was - so they took me on the strength of it." Michael was in good company too because also starting out on the road to stardom at Perth was a young Canadian by the name of Donald Sutherland. "It was called A Rape of the Belt and I think I played Zeus and certainly Don was in it, but I don't remember that much more about it. I think that's about it as far as that's concerned. It's not an awfully good play." Donald Sutherland left Perth though because they did a production of Ghosts and he wanted to play Oswald - but the part went instead to Michael. "They gave it to me so he left in a huff and became a film star."
Michael felt quite at home though with the different paths that the two actors’ lives took.
"Life's too short to have regrets, really. I haven't turned a great deal down because I'm a working actor. But you know -one or two. I turned down the part of Lenin, at one stage, because all it was Lenin being marched down a corridor, thrown into a cell and he says something like "I'll show you," and I turned it down and Patrick Stewart played it and look where he is today. Not that I'd want to be in his shoes, I don't think."
It was whilst in Perth that Michael met his future wife Ros, but they decided to get married and live in London. "I went back to Perth for a few productions, she came up and joined me and then we came back to London and we've been, you know - well, near London ever since." Although Michael claimed that work wasn't easy to come by ("It's always hard to get your foot in the door") it should be noted that within the first year of moving to London he landed no less than 28 television roles. His first part was in Dixon of Dock Green followed by The Wild West Show (neither appearances are listed on IMDb) with Shani Wallis, who went on to play Nancy in Lionel Bart's Oscar winning movie, Oliver. "At that time it was easier. I didn't have an agent for quite some time, but if you were prepared and dogged enough you could write to the director's direct and it's rather like conventions, you do a convention, if you do it passingly well you get asked to other conventions. So it begins to snowball and so on. And then hopefully the same directors will use you again."
Michael obviously found the transition from theatre to television a smooth one. "It's a question of the large gesture or the small one. That really puts it in a nutshell. But if you have your wits about you - and anyway a director will always tell you if something is too big-you soon cotton on." Michael was quite happy that by the time he was making a name for himself in television a lot of the shows that had previously gone out live were now recorded. "Dixon was being recorded by then because there was the famous time when poor old Jack (Warner) dried and then everybody else (there were about half a dozen people on the set) dried and it was pretty hairy. I think it was Softly, Softly that went on for some time being directed live because the producer, David Rose, rather liked live television. I did a three-part Softly, Softly and the idea was that we recorded the second and the third and then we did the first one live, so it was around Christmas time and - I was talking to Frank Windsor about this just recently at the Film Institute Awards, - and we were in the second scene and he was interrogating me and the guy in the first scene always dried. The floor manager came over and he said "Look, we know he's going to dry, so just watch me and the moment I drop my arm, start the scene". That's quite a hairy thing to do, because you suddenly think, Christ, there are 10 million out there looking at me."
Regular parts were offered to Michael at that time, but he made a conscious decision not to get tied down to one particular role. "I played the desk sergeant in Softly for maybe half a dozen episodes or something and I was beginning to get uneasy because I was not ready for type-casting and so another job came up, because they never used to put you under - well, that sort of part anyway - they never used to put you on exclusive contracts. They used to just ring up and say, "Look, the part's come up again, do you want to play it?" And happily something else came up so I took that and the sergeant came up and somebody else played it - I don't know how long he played it for - but good luck to him, you know."
"I did play the patrol cop in Dixon for several episodes and then a chum of mine started to write for it. He said 'Oh, I've written you in', and I thought, 'Oh, God, here we go again.' But I played the patrol cop in several episodes and then I thought, 'No, this getting too like Softly, Softly.' I always remember, I was in the loo at the rehearsal block and the producer came in, stood next to me and said, "We're not bringing the patrol cop back, but what are you doing next week?" So I said, "Well, nothing at the moment". He said, 'Oh well, put your glasses and a cap on and come and play a cabbie in the last episode of the series'. It was like that then, it was great."
It was around that time that Michael made the first of many appearances in Doctor Who. By then the show was already a much-loved institution and I wondered if Michael was aware of that fact when he took the role of Rhos, the head of a space station's medical staff. "A lot of people ask this question with regard to Star Wars. "What did you think?" And well, I suppose Doctor Who too because I've worked with more Doctor Who's than any other actor. You knew it was popular. But it was just another job." This 'other job' spanned more than four decades and, at the time of this interview Michael was unsure that he had finished with it entirely. "There is talk of the possibility of me playing Doctor Who. Now, that is still very much down the line, but I was approached by an independent producer/director who has got his lawyers on the fact that there were only two Peter Cushing films made and there was an option for three. And if he, or his lawyers rather, can find who owns the rights now, they might have reverted back to the BBC for all anyone knows, there's a chance that I could play the Doctor".
Indeed, this was not the first time that Michael had been involved in a possible movie about the famous Time Lord. Back in the late 1970's Tom Baker, who was playing the lead in the television series, tried to get a film project off the ground. "Tom and I were sitting in the canteen one day and he said we ought to make a movie, a Doctor Who movie. So I said, "Yeah, why don't we get the punters to invest?" So I went down and saw a chum of mine who's a merchant banker and he said, "Yeah, float a PLC company and granddad can buy a couple of shares for the grandchild's birthday and etcetera - excellent idea." Then Tom said something on radio or television or something and the BBC were inundated with fivers. But - oh, golly, copyrights and also availability... availability principally. But, yeah, it's interesting because I'm just about to do a radio Sherlock Holmes as Doctor Watson, with Tom as Sherlock Holmes. And it is interesting because when that sort of fell through we picked up the threads and a chum of mine called Jack Holmes -who bless him, is no longer with us, wrote a very interesting pilot about this guy who stumbles on a murder and gets involved and then he buys a flat in Baker Street and suddenly you've got Sherlock Holmes again. Brilliant idea. But, like so many brilliant ideas it didn't happen. It takes so long to get these things and then you've got to get the distribution and so on and so forth. Which goes back to what I was saying. This is what it should be nowadays, you know, people getting up there and getting on and making their own shows. It's all fragmenting now, which is good. I think it's a very exciting time for the business, frankly."
A few years before this interview Michael had turned his hand to writing. "I'd always thought it would be nice to write a biography, but it wasn't until Summersdale (a UK book publisher) came to me and said, 'Look, we'd like a book about the business from a slightly different angle, from a working actor's point of view, and we think you're the one to do it because you've done so much', that I had to buckle down and off I went. The first 10 pages are always very difficult, but then you sort of get into the swing of it, and, you know, you get to the point when you almost resent the phone going. It's a lovely feeling." Michael's first book was entitled Yes, Mr. Bronson (after the schoolteacher character he played in Grange Hill. "Because Grange Hill played such a large part of my life, I devoted about 40 pages of the book to it." It became a best seller and was soon followed by Yes, Admiral, although that was not the intended title.
"Just as I took my character name for the title of the first book from Grange Hill so I wanted to take the character name from the Star Wars that I'd done for the second. So I wrote to George Lucas asking permission to call it Yes, Admiral Ozzel. My letter only got as far as one of his underlings, who was one of those 'more than my job's worth' types and I got back a letter saying that 'Lucas Films have a very large publishing list in place and we don't think it's appropriate that you should call your book Yes, Admiral Ozzel.' And they went on to say that 'You may say you played the part' and I thought, 'thanks very much' - but 'we don't think that you should make this the primary content of the book in addition to which do remember you signed an official secrets act of sorts and you will not divulge how much you were paid and - etc., etc.' So I wrote back to this guy and I said, 'Look, I was only on the film for a month so how on earth could I fill a whole book about Star Wars?'"
Once again Michael's book was well received leading one newspaper critic to liken Michael's writing style to sitting in the pub having a cosy chat. A third book, Yes, School's Out followed it. "This one is my gift back to the convention goers, the appreciators." As stated earlier Michael was quite prolific on the convention circuit. "And by God I've done some funny ones and heard some great stories. There's one in particular that happened during a Doctor Who convention where this guy bid in the charity auction on a roll that had been nibbled by Sophie Aldred and then signed by her. He paid a fortune for this, which people do at charity auctions. He then woke up in the middle of the night and felt peckish and ate it!"
Having appeared in over 43 movies and a staggering 800 television productions Michael Sheard was hardly ever out of work. I asked him if he had any unfulfilled ambitions. "In days gone by when I was, perhaps, a little bit more flippant, people used to ask me what is the ideal situation for an actor. I used to reply, "well, having some money in the bank, having a job starting in two week's time, and standing on the ninth tee of the golf course with a fairly good first nine behind you."
Published on December 11th, 2021. Written by Laurence Marcus (2001 & 2021) for Television Heaven.