Camp David

CAMP DAVID MARCH 2007: VLADEK SHEYBAL

By • Mar 1st, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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“JUST BE THE BITCH…DARLING.”

The Cinema has on occasion been rather wicked in unleashing upon an unsuspecting public a Pandora’s Box of dramatic personalities whose faces light up the silver screen like no other, creating impressions of altered states fraught with subtexts that might confound Freud himself. The Polish character actor Vladek Sheybal had just such a face, with a fascinating persona to match, leaving in his wake a gallery of dazzling performances that shall not be forgotten.

This delightfully decadent actor made his entrance into my life thanks to the artistry of that brilliant if not exceedingly eccentric English actor/director Lindsey Kemp. Lindsey was a true renaissance man with abilities in all aspects of theater and film, a perverse individual to be sure but a genius in all things outré and fantastic in the theater.

Lindsey had produced the infamous ZIGGY STARDUST SHOWS for David Bowie during his glam rock period, as well as acting in such cult films as THE WICKER MAN. Lindsey had created his own bizarre vision of Oscar Wilde’s SALOME, and staged it at the Roundhouse Theater on the Chalk Farm Rd in the outer regions of London.

Vladek was honored with special billing in this production and, not one to disappoint those people out there in the dark, his first entrance as Herod was spectacular. Glittering in gold lame and covered from head to toe in jewels and feathers, he succeeded in channeling both Wilde and Josephine Baker in his performance, with more than a nod to Genet.

The theater was filled with the fragrance of exotic incense. A combination of that with the Beardsley décor, lit in smoky blues and reds, left me feeling like two pipes in an opium den, in others words Oscar Wilde would have been in his element, appreciating this kind of yellow book ambience, not to mention some of the more attractive members of the cast.

I was visiting London at the time and the Roundhouse location was a bit out of the way, with the train as the only transportation back into town. When the performance ended, most of the cast, along with Lindsey, had a wine bar reception in the dressing rooms behind the stage area, and I was invited to join them for a drink and to meet the cast. Vladek was in his element as both teacher and star of the company. I made a point of telling him that I came all the way from Los Angeles to see this performance, as well as to meet with John Russell Taylor, my then-editor at “Films and Filming” in London. Vladek was genuinely moved and flattered with my sincerity, so we then went through more than one bottle of Champagne, chatting and laughing away for well over two hours. As the party was breaking up I realized that I had missed the last train to London for the night and the possibility of finding a taxi was almost non-existent at that hour. Vladek and one of the actors in the show named David Haughton offered to drive me back into town. Later the next day I received a call from Valdek inviting me out for dinner. We agreed on a time and place, and Vladek suggested coming by the hotel to collect me. During our conversation he asked how the hotel was treating me and I said considering I arrived without notice I was just happy to get a room, even if the bath was down the hall. I thought nothing more about confiding to Vladek about my tiny accommodation without a bath until I was on my way down to the lobby. As the elevator door opened I could hear the unmistakable voice of Vladek Sheybal yelling at the desk clerk as he hit the counter with a very ornate cane with a Dragon’s head made of gold.. “How dare you give my friend a room without a bath, what do you expect him to do, urinate in the sink??” Do you know who he is?? This is David Del Valle the famous columnist from America….within minutes I was back in my room packing my things for the move up to the seventh floor and my very own bathroom. David Del Valle would not be urinating in the sink tonight…thanks to that fabulous madman who decided to be my protector and confidant. His parting advice was always “if you act like a star, then people will treat you like a star.” Vladek lived by those words and most of the time it seemed to work for him, although I think it helps enormously if you look and sound like Vladek Sheybal..

Thus was the beginning of our friendship, which would include more than one trip across the pond for both of us in the years that followed.

Vladek Sheybal achieved world wide attention playing “Kronsteen”the chess master with ties to SPECTER in Ian Flemings FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Vladek was always grateful for the support he received from Sean Connery, who suggested Vladek to director Terence Young. Vladek loved working with Lotte Lenya: “She was a fantastic lady that I adored.” “You know of course I nearly said no altogether to James Bond, It was Sean calling me personally at home telling me ‘Look Vladek, Listen to me this is going to change the world. It’s a new series, James Bond, and if you take part in it you are in a cult thing.’ So I agreed to play the three scenes, including getting killed by Lotte’s lethal shoe. My first day of work, Sean Connery was standing by the doorstep of soundstage door and said “welcome to FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.’ What a sublime gesture and it made me feel like a star.”

“The only sour note during the filming was producer Harry Saltzman standing on-set trying to explain my part to me and how it should be played. This went on for the better part of two days until I had just taken all I was prepared to take from someone who knew nothing about acting on screen or in the theater.”

“At that time I felt confident enough to behave like a star, so I told Harry, of his “suggestions” regarding my acting, to allow Terence Young to do his job. Well Saltzman reminded me that he was the producer of the film and I said to him “Well you provided the money, but not the acting” and with that I walked off the set. Now Lotte backed me up totally, but still I went to my dressing room and took off my make-up and went home. Later that night Terence Young called and asked me to return to the film and swore that I would not see Harry Saltzman on-set again while I was working on FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.”

One of Vladek’s greatest mentor’s in films was Ken Russell, who first worked with him on his feature length television play THE DEBUSSY FILM (1965). “Ken had seen me in my breakthrough role in Andrzej Wajda’s KANAL (1957) and approached me in the BBC canteen one day and asked if I would appear in his DEBUSSY as a film director.
I suggested that I might accept if I could also play another role as well. At first Ken thought me very greedy and said ‘no,’ and then later let me have my way, and so Ollie Reed and I worked for six weeks day and night on that film. After that Ken and I were connected in some magical way because I worked for him several times afterwards on BILLON DOLLAR BRAIN (1967), WOMEN IN LOVE (1969), DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS (1970) and THE BOY FRIEND (1971), not to mention the unfinished MOLL FLANDERS (1989). (Vladek was not in THE MUSIC LOVERS as many filmographies state.) Years later it would be an elderly Ken Russell himself telling me about the last days of our friend, in the back lawn of the British Counsel General’s house in Hancock Park. By then, with his glory days well behind him, Ken Russell looked like a tired strawberry in a white wig.

Around 1984 I had made a few trips to London, always finding the time to visit Vladek at his comfortable digs on Farm House Rd (which had a pub conveniently on the corner) when he confided to me that he was planning to teach acting classes in Stanislavski in California. A few months later Vladek turned up at my flat in Beverly Hills to watch WOMEN IN LOVE on tape, as he had not seen it in years. He was more than pleased to see that I had in my archive several photos from his films with Ken Russell, and made a point of sending me many others from his then-busy career as a working actor.

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