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Wanted : dead or alive
Iain McAsh talks to Robert Powell
good looks make 27 year old Robert Powell a contender for the role of British
screen heart-throb. He first had female fans swooning in their thousands when
he appeared on their BBC screens as Toby Wren in ‘Doomwatch’. Now he seems set
to make an equal impact in the cinema, with two major roles at Shepperton with
less than a month’s breathing space between.
He recently completed a starring role in The Asphyx, a period horror thriller in which he plays the unwilling assistant and adopted son of an obsessed amateur photographer (Robert Stephens) whose macabre hobby is photographing the dead and dying in his search for immortality.
Powell is wise enough to know that appearing in films of this nature can often become the young actor’s passport to stardom, as they are seen by huge audiences. “I prefer to use the American term ‘Gothique’ rather than horror”, he says.
Currently, Powell is featured in another horror film, Asylum, which is directed by Roy Ward Baker from a screenplay by Robert (‘Psycho’) Bloch. The cast is headed by Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland and Herbert Lom, and Powell plays a young doctor who comes to work at the Dunsmoor Asylum and acts as the linking character for four separate stories.
Robert Powell was born in Salford and educated in Manchester. Although parental approval was hardly forthcoming at first (his father is a mechanical engineer and his elder brother is a scientist), Powell persevered with his acting ambitions. At Manchester University, he studied law for a while before it was discovered that acting was his true calling. “I tried to switch courses in mid-stream but they said that I couldn’t do that. The head of the University’s drama department told me that in his opinion I was wasting time reading law and should study drama instead. But my school subjects were wrong for entry into drama class; so I had to start all over again from scratch.”
After University, Powell wrote to repertory theatres all over the country and was eventually taken on by artistic director Peter Cheeseman to play a sixty-year-old spear-carrier in “King Lear” at Stoke-on-Trent. Acting and spells as assistant stage manager kept him fully occupied at Stoke for the next fourteen months. Since then, after the usual set-backs common to most young actors, his career has progressed and flourished, leading to substantial roles on television and in films. “I have no torches to carry”, he says, “so long as the part is good, and it will improve my career, I will play it.”
After experience with the Stoke rep, Powell headed for London, still without any definite contacts or prospects. He landed his first professionnal job at the Royal Court Theatre, playing a small part as well as under-studying in “Ubu Roi”. Then it was back to Stoke, after which he moved to Scaraborough’s Library Theatre. His first introduction to television was the following year, when he joined the crowd of unruly citizens in a production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.
Powell’s luck changed when he returned to London in 1968, and quickly obtained television parts and his first film playing a small role in the Stanley Baker crime thriller Robbery. Then came ten weeks of film work with Michael Caine in The Italian Job, a BBC Wednesday Play and top roles in TV serials, including “Sentimental Education” and the title part of Jude Fawley in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ for BBC2. It was hardly surprising that Powell was chosen for the sensitive role of Percy Bysshe Shelley, of the romantic profile, for a particularly lavish TV study directed by award-winner Aland Bridges, to celebrate the poet’s 150th anniversary.
“I got my big film chance with Secrets”, Robert Powell again got top billing when he spent four months on location in Warwick-shire playing the lead in David Hemming’s first film as director, Running Scared. Powell was personally selected by producer Gareth Wigan and Hemmings for the part of Tom Betancourt in the production of Gregory Mac Donald’s novel. “I played opposite David’s wife Gayle Hunnicutt.”, says Powell. “It was a fascinating film to do, a strange mixture of drama and love story.”
Powell’s fans thus have two important films in which to add to their appreciation of his earlier television work. “That was when the fan mail started flowing in. There were thousands of letters coming in from girls every week. The worst part was when they started sending in drawings and portraits of how they saw me. I answered every one of those letters personally, but I had to engage a secretary to cope with it all. It was very flattering, and I loved it. I started acting at a period when I didn’t think anyone would fall for my type of looks. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to pull the birds! So when it suddenly all started happening, it was marvelous. Quite fantastic. It was the same when I played the lead in “Hamlet” at Leeds. Some nights the stage-door was besieged by girls. But it’s beginning to ease off a bit now.”
Even in his appearance in The Asphyx, Powell is not allowed to survive unscathed. “I double-cross Robert Stephens”, he explains. “We manage to trap his Asphyx (the Spirit of Death) in a sarcophagus. Then I try to kill him but, of course, this is impossible. By the end of the story, he is griefpstricken and wants to die. But I have my revenge and make him immortal so that he will suffer forever. The scheme works, but I am the one who has to die to make it so.
“I even get strangled in the final reel of Asylum, but at least I have the satisfaction of having a part that goes right through the film!
“What I would really enjoy doing now is a cheerful role where I am still alive at the end of the script”, he concludes. “And it would be nice if somebody offered me a comedy.”
Source: Films illustrated, July 1972. Volume 2, number 13.
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