Laurence Harvey was a vulgar, insecure chancer but he was funny and honest about his many faults, says his friend David Ambrose
The 100th anniversary of Dirk Bogarde’s birth earlier this year was celebrated with a front-page story in The Oldie.
It’s a safe bet that no comparable tributes will be paid to Laurence Harvey when his 100th anniversary comes up in seven years’ time – born in 1928, he died in 1973, aged only 45. Yet in the only film they worked on together, 1965’s Darling, Harvey got top billing.
Throughout the fifties, they were level pegging as the two leading men of British cinema. But neither was an international star, which was something they both hankered after. Dirk took his shot at the end of the decade, going to Hollywood to make Song Without End (1960), a lavish, big-budget and saccharine biopic of Franz Liszt – which sank without trace.
Larry, meanwhile, had been in the drab surroundings of a Yorkshire mill town, making a modest little picture called Room at the Top (1959), based on the 1957 novel by John Braine. Against all expectations, it became a worldwide phenomenon, shooting Larry into the stratosphere. While Dirk returned to Britain, co-starring with the likes of James Robertson Justice in a fourth sequel to 1954’s Doctor in the House, Larry was sharing star billing with John Wayne, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda.
Nonetheless, ten years later, Dirk was one of the most-respected screen actors in the world. And Larry, as they say in Hollywood, couldn’t get arrested.
So what happened?
I knew and worked with them both. I had great admiration for Dirk but had, rather perversely, huge affection for Larry. I say ‘perversely’ because the general opinion of him was summed up by the actor Robert Stephens in his autobiography: ‘An appalling human being, and even more unforgivably an appalling actor.’
I suspect Larry would have ruefully entered a plea of guilty on both charges.
His obituary in the New York Times described him as ‘a fastidious connoisseur of antiques, food and wine. His baronial manner, cheeky wit and upper-class British accent gave the impression that he was of aristocratic birth. But Mr Harvey, whose real name was Larushka Mischa Skikne, was born in Joniškis, Lithuania, of Jewish parents.’
Noël Coward once said of him, ‘Larry likes to pretend his parents were Lithuanian peasants, but we all know the truth is that his mother was Gladys Cooper and his father a Ruritanian prince.’
When he was six, the family emigrated to Johannesburg. Dirt poor, Larry grew up on the streets as a barely educated delinquent. At 14, he ran away and joined the army, lying about his age. He saw active duty in Italy, winding up at the end of the war as a sergeant in an entertainment unit outside Cairo.
Somehow, he wangled an army grant – as he would wangle most things in his short life – to get him to London. There, one way or another, he got into RADA, but stayed only three months – just long enough to knock the edges off his thick South African accent. Larry wasn’t interested in learning to act. All he wanted was to be a movie star.
To that end, he used anyone he came across who might get him a few rungs up the ladder. One of the first was Hermione Baddeley, a blowsy, well-known and well-connected actress who was 23 years his senior. After living with her for several years, he dumped her to marry Margaret Leighton – theatrical aristocracy, and only seven years his senior.
She divorced him after four years. She was by then a gibbering wreck because he was openly having an affair with Joan Cohn – the rich widow, 17 years Harvey’s senior, of the Hollywood mogul Harry Cohn, who created Columbia Pictures.
There were rumours he was gay and all these older women were just a front, but it wasn’t true. All the same, he all but admitted to me that he’d had a relationship with James Woolf, a gay film producer who had steered him successfully into some decent films in the fifties, and finally into Room at the Top. The plain fact was that Larry would have had sex with a porcupine if it would have furthered his career.
When I first knew him in early 1968, he was living with the beautiful, 27-year-old Vogue model Paulene Stone. Later that year, they had a daughter, Domino – whereupon Larry, true to form, upped sticks and flew to Hollywood, where he married his old flame Joan Cohn.
Perhaps feeling a shred of remorse, though I wouldn’t bank on it, he decided to do the right thing by Paulene and the baby after all, setting them up in a fine house in Hampstead – at his rich wife’s expense. When Joan found out, she divorced him. Domino became a bounty-hunter and died of drugs at 35 in 2005. She was played by Keira Knightley in Domino (2005).
Finally, he married Paulene at the start of 1973, only to die 11 months later of stomach cancer, causing, I suspect, a number of people to murmur quietly to themselves, ‘So there is a god.’
As for the charge of being ‘an appalling actor’, it was a view nobody endorsed more willingly than Larry himself. I sat with him one evening on the terrace of a neo-Gothic palace outside Bucharest in Romania. He was filming a Roman epic, co-starring, among others, Orson Welles, Honor Blackman and Sylva Koscina. I had been flown out to rewrite a problematic script. It was my first major job as a young writer. For Larry, only 14 years older, it was close to his last major role.
He had just received the reviews of a film he’d made the previous year of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. They were bad for the film and, for Larry himself, they were vicious and humiliating.
I tried to cheer him up, pouring a couple of large vodkas. ‘They just hate you for being a movie star,’ I told him. ‘You’re not supposed to do Shakespeare.’
Larry groaned and sank deeper into his chair. ‘I’m not a big star,’ he said. ‘I never have been.’ Then, after a long pause, he added, ‘Thing is, though, if you’ve had any kind of Hollywood career, even a pissy little one like mine, you’ll always work somewhere. Road shows, dinner theatre, whatever – your name’s always worth a buck. You won’t starve.’
I felt he needed to speak the words aloud in order to believe them. I was looking at a man who knew his career was on the slide and the game was up. Revealed beneath the swagger and the posturing that went into the performance of being Laurence Harvey – the only real performance he had in him – was an insecure chancer pushing 40 and scared about his future.
Then, as if to reassure himself further, he told me he’d been offered a tour of My Fair Lady the previous year. ‘We started talking money, and I said, “Wait a f**king minute – that’s no more than you paid Mickey Rooney for that show he did last year. Don’t tell me I’m not worth more than Mickey f**kin’ Rooney!” ’
Then he was off, wringing his hands and pulling faces in a caricature of an ingratiating small-time producer. ‘No, no, Mr Harvey… Can I call you Laurence? … Larry, you’ve misunderstood me. We’re only talking here about what’s on the table. Let me explain about the concessions, the extras, the parts of the arrangement we don’t put on paper – you know what I’m saying?’
By dinner time, he’d cheered up somewhat. Orson and a couple of others had joined us. Larry was reminiscing about the good times, four years earlier, when he was playing in Camelot at London’s Drury Lane. As he often did when telling stories, he’d slipped into a kind of swear-laden mock-Cockney. One of his party pieces was an impersonation of Flora Robson (1902-84) on a film set, covering her ears and pleading, ‘Will you please stop using that word!’
Larry continued, saying, ‘We was off up to Buck House all the f**kin’ time. Princess Margaret loved a party. Course, they’re queer for horses, all them royals – Queen, Queen Mum, Margaret, Princess Anne. You’d go in those royal stables and there were all these rows of horses with lipstick marks all over their bums!’
Vulgarity notwithstanding, he could be extremely funny and often had people falling off their chairs with laughter. I asked him one day why he didn’t play more comedy.
His face fell as though I’d touched a sore point. ‘I’d like to,’ he said; ‘I’ve got a pile of scripts I’m trying to get off the ground. But nobody thinks I can do it. And you know what, maybe they’re right. Every time I get up in front of that f**king camera, I freeze up. I can feel it happening. The face tightens up, the voice, the whole bloody body goes rigid.’
It was an extraordinary confession for an actor to make. But when you reflect that his two most successful roles were as a hard-faced, ruthless social climber in Room at the Top and a brainwashed assassin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), it made sense.
But then Laurence Harvey never really was an actor. He was, for a short time, a movie star. His early death made the front page of just about every major newspaper in Europe and America – the best billing he’d had in years.
It would have bucked him up no end.