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|Picture of a Wilde baddy
Actor Robert Powell has tackled an amazingly diverse range of roles during his lengthy career. Here he talks to Sarah Clark about some of his career highlights.
Few actors could get away with playing the son of God in a film depicting the life of Christ and then go on to be a spoof detective opposite Jasper Carrott and still be taken seriously. But then few could claim to have had such a diversely successful career as Robert Powell.
And that is something the actor, who appears this month at Windsor Theatre Royal in Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray, says he is probably most proud of.
A long list of film and theatre credits spanning nearly 40 years includes cult classic The Italian Job, the 1978 remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Harlequin. Robert won two awards for his role in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, but admits he has problems remembering exactly what he has done when it comes to listing the highlights.
He says: "I had jobs I really enjoyed: 30 years ago I did Mahler for Ken Russell, and The Thirty-Nine Steps. I became an actor through a little confusion when I tried to swap courses at university. I was doing law and I wanted to swap to drama. I found it wasn't quite as straightforward as I thought and I had to take a year out before I could do it."
But he admits he never wanted to become a lawyer and took the subject through pressure from school. So instead he spent what was meant to be his year out working in a theatre and never returned to Manchester University.
He then landed parts in his first films, including his role as Yellow alongside Michael Caine in The Italian Job, one of the most popular heist movies of all time. "I think I had three lines," he laughs. "I don't think any of us had any idea it would be so popular. We had a tremendous time making it. The bunch of us were all over in Turin for a month, all expenses paid - we had a ball."
Probably his best known role was as Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth. "It was the hardest job, because it's impossible to play God," he says. "You can't win. The most you are going to achieve is to get away with it, but that's not a very good target for an actor. Acting is like climbing a mountain - you always set out to reach the summit. But with Jesus of Nazareth you knew from the start you were only going to be able to walk around the foothills."
But despite huge pressure not to upset anyone with his portrayal of the son of God he said: "Most people genuinely understood what the problem was."
Asked if he was given much help in how to play Jesus, he says: "No, I worked with the director Franco Zeffirelli but it was a question of trial and error trying to work out what actually worked on screen. The key was needing to supply a blank canvas to allow people's imaginations to do the rest. I had about 10,000 letters from people saying that's exactly how they imagined Jesus to be. I supplied the face, the voice and the figure, they did the rest."
And despite the huge number of screen credits he clocked up since 1977, I could not help but steer the conversation to the stark contrast with his more recent success in the hit TV series The Detectives, in which he played DC David Briggs opposite Jasper Carrott's DC Bob Louis.
He says: "Working with Jasper Carrott was great and we were great mates. I had a fantastic response to the show. There were a couple of people who said I'd done such classic parts as an actor that doing something so slapstick was wrong, but they were outweighed by the good response to it."
But he admits: "I'm not sure many actors make such leaps as that. I suppose if I was proud of anything it's that. I like doing it."
As for his return to theatreland with The Picture of Dorian Gray, which begins a national tour at Windsor this month, he says: "I enjoy theatre but its infinitely harder work, just the amount of energy you have to put into a show each night."
Powell will play Lord Henry in a show which combines Wilde's wit with a murder mystery.
Robert says: "Lord Henry is I suppose the man who corrupts Dorian Gray. He is the baddy, but Dorian doesn't think so and the audience will probably get wooed by him. The show will appeal to anybody, its got everything. It's very black and is a sort of horror story with many levels and colours."
Sarah Clark, ic Berkshire.co.uk, 14 August 2003
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