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Do meet your heroes - Michael Simkins

Blog | By Michael Simkins | May 01, 2022

Robert Vaughn, a real hero

It was flamboyant American producer Allan Carr who once wrote, ‘Never meet your heroes, lest you discover they have feet of clay.’

His remark came after an encounter with Paul Newman, an actor Carr had long worshipped from afar, but who by the time of their meeting was just an old man in shell-suit bottoms, slippers and a jumper, who ‘wanted to go home’.

I learnt not to expect too much from your heroes at an early age. In the mid-1960s, Tesco opened their first supermarket in my home town of Brighton. Coco the Clown, then probably Britain’s most famous children’s entertainer (and certainly its most celebrated circus performer), was hired to open the premises. I joined a crocodile of overexcited children waiting to meet our hero.

When my turn came, far from meeting the warm, cuddly, anarchic funster of my imaginings, I found myself standing alongside a clapped-out and fabulously grumpy old geezer wearing a costume that smelled of wet dog. He pushed brusquely past me with barely a smile (even if one was permanently drawn on his face). I had nightmares for weeks.

A cricket-mad mate of mine never got over the shock of finding himself at the next urinal to South African bowler Clive Rice in the gents at Scratchwood services, only to be asked to go forth and procreate when he asked his champion for tips on how to improve his outswinger.

You can see how difficult it is for your heroes to maintain the public face. As Stephen Fry said, ‘It prevents me from ever showing annoyance at terrible service in a restaurant or tutting with annoyance in a supermarket queue.’

I’ve frequently decided against approaching those I’ve admired from afar – BBC foreign-affairs correspondent John Simpson at a Parisian café table and composer Tony Hatch in a London restaurant spring to mind – exactly because I don’t want to be disappointed.

As an actor, I’ve had various encounters with the great and the good, from Michael Caine and Albert Finney to Glenn Close and Meryl Streep. My most spine-tingling encounters have been with the actors most closely associated with my youth. Somehow there’s an air of unreality about meeting them; as if, for a brief minute, you’re stepping back via a virtual time machine to the young, wide-eyed child you once were but have almost forgotten ever existed.

Few encounters have matched the thrill of being introduced to the incomparable Leslie Phillips or, as occurred backstage at Wimbledon Theatre many years ago, to comedian Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies.

Once, while attending a summer party given by my agent for his clients, I found myself standing next to the dessert trolley with actor Frank Windsor. He was DS Watt in the long-running police series Z Cars (and, later, Softly Softly), when each week he and his boss DI Barlow waged war on the criminal fraternity of the fictional northern conurbation of Newtown.

My meeting with Windsor was all the more electrifying because of its unexpectedness. He asked me, ‘Would you like me to cut you a slice of Black Forest gâteau?’ I replied, with utmost sincerity, ‘I’d sooner you take me down the station for questioning.’

Occasionally our hero even surpasses our expectations. In 2004, my actress wife, Julia Deakin, was touring South Africa in the musical Mamma Mia! With time to kill in Johannesburg one day, she wrote a fan letter to Nelson Mandela to thank him for all the hope and inspiration he’d given, both to his country and to the world. She received not only an immediate response, but also an offer for her and her fellow ‘dynamos’ in the cast to have a half-hour meeting with him in his office. Afterwards, she told me dreamily, ‘It was like meeting Father Christmas. The handshake, the voice…’

A photo of the event still has pride of place on our mantelpiece.

People often ask me for my most memorable encounter. Arthur Miller? Victoria Wood? Len Hutton?

It happened in 2013. I wrote to theatrical impresario Bill Kenwright after hearing he was producing Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, starring Hollywood star Robert Vaughn. As a kid, I’d been obsessed with The Man from Uncle – with Vaughn as smooth, silver-tongued secret agent Napoleon Solo. I suppose you’d call my fixation a Napoleon complex.

Now, 50 years later, I might have the chance to work with my childhood hero.

Alas, my letter arrived three weeks too late. Kenwright had already cast the production – but still he invited me to the press night and the junket at the Waldorf Hotel. Towards the end of the evening, I saw him threading his way towards me.

‘Come on, son. Time to meet the big man,’ he said gently, and led me back across the floor to where my idol was finishing dessert. When Kenwright introduced me to Vaughn and then added how much he would have liked to have me in the cast, Vaughn wiped his mouth with his napkin, looked straight at me and replied without a pause, ‘Well, Michael, when I heard you weren’t, I nearly pulled out myself.’

Pure Solo. Pure class.