Camp David

CAMP DAVID MAY 2009: AUBREY MORRIS

By • May 5th, 2009 •

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THE RANDY GNOME OF KING’S ROAD

Those of you that have been following my exploits on this website are probably aware of my endless fascination with British character actors, and it has been my good fortune over the years to have made the acquaintance of some of the most eccentric as well as the most talented in show business. However, once in a blue moon an actor you have admired from afar turns up in your life and, through a series of seemingly unrelated events, becomes your worst nightmare instead of a warm and fuzzy addition to your memoirs.

Such is the case with the incomparable Aubrey Morris, a staple in British television and films since the late 1950’s, Mr. Morris looks and sometimes acts a bit like Freddie Jones but never had the opportunities which placed Mr. Jones in the stratosphere of the elite in the acting profession. Aubrey Morris is perhaps best known for his perverse turn in Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE where he manages in just a few moments of screen time to be creepier than Keith Moon as the lascivious “Uncle Ernie” in TOMMY. As Mr.Deltoid the “guidance councilor” Aubrey’s body language and line readings indicate a more homoerotic subtext in guiding young Malcolm McDowell into the nearest bedside for a quickie.

While the Kubrick film may be his finest hour for most fans, I came to know him best from countless British television shows like THE AVENGERS, DANGER MAN, THE SAINT and RETURN OF THE SAINT. Aubrey was also in the legendary BBC production of COLD COMFORT FARM with the fantastic Alastair Sims. I really began to appreciate his work when he started to turn up in horror films during the late sixties/early seventies like THE NIGHT CALLER FROM OUTER SPACE, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and Tobe Hooper’s bloated vampire sci-fi epic LIFEFORCE.

A Clockwork Orange

Since I lived half of my life around Hollywood and its varied locations it is certainly not a surprise to find many of my favorite actors shopping and dining about the neighborhood. And it was on just such a night around mid 2003 that I spotted our Mr. Deltoid in the flesh, waiting in line for a prescription in the pharmacy section of PAVILLIONS, an all night market in West Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd. At first I thought about treating this encounter like a birdwatcher sans keeping a diary, with entries like “spotted Aubrey Morris in the pharmacy….hope whatever is wrong with him isn’t fatal.” My partner Chris Dietrich was with me that night and, knowing how much I enjoy these sightings, pushed me onward into making myself known (since we all know being shy is not one of my hang-ups). Chris then said the magic words: “Why don’t you do an interview for Films in Review? You know Roy would get a kick out of you running into him like this.” Now that I had a purpose I got up and went over to where he was standing and spoke to him. “Mr Morris?” “Yes…” he said, looking me up and down before speaking again. “Do we know each other?” Here he added a bit of that half-smile he had down pat from years of mugging for the cameras. “No we don’t, but I am a fan of your work and would like to interview you for Films in Review which is now on-line” and on and on I went for about ten minutes until they called him over to the counter for his order. By then we had exchanged phone numbers and I was expected to call and set up a meeting.

The following day I called and got his answering machine. We played phone tag for a day or so until I finally caught him at home. This first conversation I had with him was slightly uncomfortable because of what he managed to say within the first few seconds of chatting…. “Oh before we go on are you planning to bugger me?..I mean, it’s been so long since I’ve had a really good shag.” Well I mean thanks for sharing but are you high or what? I assumed he was putting me on, and since I only really knew him from his films I just took it for what I always chalk up to being British as well as eccentric, not to mention that Aubrey was, after all, Mr. Deltoid. I mean really.

In spite of the little alarms ringing in the back of my head, I invited him over for a drink at the guest house I was then renting in the hopelessly pretentious section of Beverly Hills you are so used to seeing on TV shows like 90210. I was not too concerned about the randy behavior of our Mr. Morris because I was not going to be alone with him. Chris would be there to make sure I wasn’t fucked to death by this oversexed gnome from across the pond.

A Clockwork Orange - Reverse angle

Aubrey Morris arrived on time and since it was not easy to find the entrance to my part of the grounds unless you had been there before, I walked out to the front of the main house and walked him inside. I noticed that he was driving a new car and before I could comment further he explained that he needed a decent looking car to make the rounds of the casting offices, or for auditions. Aubrey is not unlike most of the actors I’ve met from England, like Michael Gough for example, who always refer to themselves as “jobbing actors,” which means these guys do not sit by the phone and wait for offers, they get out and make a difference.

Aubrey came in and immediately asked if we had any tea as he had a pill he needed to take…. I had been about to offer him a cocktail, so this changed the program ever so slightly as I had tea but no cream. Aubrey, always polite, explained that he was the kind of Englishman who always had his tea white, however he needed something to down his medication so he made an exception. Having survived our first obstacle, I then began to chat about his films. I had looked all day for some stills of him that I should have had in the archive and managed to find a really camp photo with his throat torn out from the Hammer film BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB. When I showed him the still he made such a fuss over it that I made a present of it to him on the spot. He then proceeded to tell about working with the director of BFMT, the late Selt Holt. “I was on set the day Selt had his fatal attack; in fact he collapsed in my arms. He got a severe case of the hic-cups which triggered his heart attack, and he died straight away.” Aubrey remembered being asked to arrive at the studio early one morning to choose a throat for his death scene. He was ushered into a make-up room that had an entire wall of torn throats to examine, as the entire cast except for the stunning Hammer queen, Valerie Leon, all die at one point or another by this gruesome means. “Jimmy Villars and I stayed drunk after Selt died, and so I never bothered to see the finished film at all.”

As we were in the midst of our interview Aubrey asked where the loo was and then took his leave…in a few moments he came back into the living room and nearly fell over. I asked what was wrong and he explained that he was diabetic and needed something sweet immediately, so Chris and I scrambled around the house, finally finding some of those little packets of sugar, which he ate at once. By this time he was looking really ill and both Chris and I felt he needed to rest, at which point he asked if one of us could drive him back home as he did not think it was safe for him to get behind the wheel feeling like he did. We decided that Chris would drive him back in his car and I would follow in mine to bring him back. We managed to get Aubrey into his car and then I followed them back to King’s Road in West Hollywood where Aubrey lived, in a complex of buildings that took up the entire block of King’s Road in the heart of boys town.

Aubrey insisted we come in until he felt himself again. At this point I was frightened that he was going to die at any moment as he was (2003) in his 70’s and not in the best shape as well. His place was at once comfortable and very much a bachelor pad, in so much as it was filled with books and scripts, with the basic clutter one accumulates having moved from another country. Hollywood never really feels like home for a lot of people in the first place.

Aubrey seemed to be coming around to his old self and began to act as host, showing us around his apt, giving both of us this weird little wink as he showed us his bedroom. I remember him remarking it was almost the largest room in the flat to have had so little in the way of activity…a line we just let slide away as I noticed he had a cabinet filled with video tapes. He quickly explained that these were his “show reels” and complete versions of some of his movies and tv appearances. I noticed one tape marked Suez 1956 and asked about it as I had no idea what is was. Aubrey took the tape out and said “Oh lets watch a bit of it, okay? I am very proud of this performance and if you are going to write about my work you will need to see this. I did this for the BBC in 1979 and I play Nikita Kruschev, complete with the Russian accent…in fact I learned some Russian for the part as you will see.” The tape was a bit dupey but I am very glad to have seen it because Aubrey was outstanding in it, with a cast that included Robert Stephens (who had just married Maggie Smith) and two Hammer stars – Michael Gough and Jennifer Daniels.

By now Aubrey was back in fine form, and as we finished watching his star turn as the leader of all the Russias, he asked if I would like to take anything back home to watch for the interview, so I chose his “show reel” which had his best bits from current shows like RED ROSES AND PETROL where he plays father Morton, and a cable horror film, SHE CREATURE (also known as the MERMAID CHONICLES), which I like very much.

One thing I began to notice was how almost all of Aubrey’s Hollywood performances were alike…..he had perfected the persona of an eccentric old sage with a love affair with the bottle, and seemed to play variations of it for most things he did in the states. Aubrey is not unlike my other actor friend Reggie Nalder in that he may not be right for most parts, but when he is there is simply no one else that van play it. Aubrey Morris has that quality in spades.

During this visit Aubrey kept looking for the scrapbook with all his reviews and photos, and simply could not remember where he had stored it, at one point phoning the manager’s office to see if any workmen had been in his apt while he was out. He did find two photos of himself from Robin Hardy’s now classic film THE WICKER MAN and insisted I take them and have them copied for the article I was to do, and I agreed, asking if I could make a print of one for him to autograph for me. At this point he seemed to be getting tired and we decided it was time for us to go. He had grown very nostalgic by now, reflecting about his mother who he told us lived to be in her 90’s, and how he missed telling her about his acting jobs, and how at the end he stood over her bed and held her hand, telling her as she was drifting away how much he loved her and would always be her little boy.

As he talked I could see that in spite of his age Aubrey Morris was just that – a little boy that never really grew up, much like James Barry’s creation Peter Pan. All this reflection made me feel very sad and it was time to take our leave. Aubrey walked out to the parking garage and apologized for frightening us so, and we left him by saying how much we enjoyed the time and felt like we were old friends even though we had just met.

The next day I received a call from Aubrey, and he sounded a bit off. And then he asked me the most extraordinary thing “When I began to clean up the place this morning I noticed one of my silver spoons was missing. Do you think your friend Chris nicked it?” I was so stunned that I said to him “You are kidding, aren’t you? I mean Chris does not steal and I can’t believe you saying this to me. We brought you home when you were ill and this is the way you behave?” Aubrey got very quiet and said, “Well, I’m just asking, and I can’t find my scrapbook either. You didn’t take that, did you?’ “Aubrey are you mad or what? If you remember, last night you couldn’t even find it, so how could I have taken it…besides you walked us to my car and we were in shorts. I mean think about what you are saying, will you?”

He finally just tried to change the subject, but I was really pissed off at the old poof for being so nuts, so I hung up on him. Afterwards he tried calling back and I simply decided that he was mad as they come and wanted nothing further to do with him. Also this was the end of 2003 and little did I know that Chris had less than a year to live and that I had more on my plate than to deal with a totally delusional, wildly out of control actor. Aubrey had told us the night before that for years he had a severe drinking problem and used to get really in-your-face when he had a bit too much. He remembered being on a tour with a group of very famous actors. They were traveling by train, and he got so out of it with Richard Burton or someone of that caliber that he was put off the train and woke up the next day without a clue where he was or what had happened.

This experience really spooked me, and I began asking around Hollywood about Aubrey. I soon discovered that he had a reputation for putting people off, and that it was affecting his ability to secure acting assignments. Apparently he mistook things for insults or sexual connections that simply were not there. He was fortunate to have in his corner actors like Patrick McGoohan who made it his business to see that Aubrey worked whenever he could find a project that had a small part for him. They went way back to what is perhaps the first film Morris ever did – THE QUARE FELLOW in 1962. Ian McShane also found work for Aubrey in his series DEADWOOD, and they too went way back in time. Ian had him on his English series LOVEJOY as well. During the time I knew him, Malcolm McDowell made a personal appearance at a screening of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Aubrey turned up and Malcolm made note of this and also found a part for his former acting partner.

After that phone call I began to remember other remarks Aubrey made that were strange, like his recollection of Patrick Stewart when they were filming LIFEFORCE in London. Aubrey told me that Patrick ran out of cash one night while they were in the middle of a night shoot and asked Aubrey if he could borrow 20 pounds, and he would return the money straight away. According to Aubrey, Patrick just forgot about it until one day Aubrey spotted him getting into a taxi and went over and asked if he could please have his money. Stewart was apparently so outraged at being asked in public to pay back a loan that he threw the pound note at Aubrey and drove off in a huff, and the two actors never spoke again. I mean, what an odd story to tell an interviewer, since it was meant to make Patrick Stewart look bad, especially now that Stewart is well known for the Star Trek series. (Aubrey also did his share of sci-fi with SPACE 1999 as well as the original Star Trek .)

After my last phone conversation with Aubrey I decided to simply drop the whole notion of interviewing him, even though if you look at the backlog of Camp David’s for 2003 you will see a column where I mentioned having met him, and was planning to share an exclusive interview in the near future. It has taken five years for me to return to this material and certainly not in the way either one of us would have expected.

The final confrontation came about because, by my not returning his call and such, he began going around Hollywood into memorabilia shops looking for his scapbook and asking if I had sold the two photos of him from THE WICKER MAN. I knew then that I would have to see him one more time in person and return his two original photos which were now back from the lab with the two additional copies for me which at the time I had wanted so he could autograph them for me. Now I could really care less.

I finally called him up and he was like a different person altogether… laughing and sounding as if he and I had just come from a dinner party or something. Anyway I suggested we meet across the way from his King’s Road apt in a corner coffee bar. I had his photos and I had planned to simply hand him the folder and say my goodbyes. When I arrived he was still at his place, so I went ahead and ordered a coffee, waiting for the Wicker man’s gatekeeper to turn up.

Aubrey Morris arrived in full flood wearing a fedora and a long scarf wrapped around his neck…..the movie star had landed. He came in with all eyes upon him, swept over to my table, and planted a huge kiss right on my mouth, then sat down, waving a waiter over to take his order. This was unlike anything I had encountered from him before, and as his coffee arrived he began to do our interview all over again by reminding me that we had never completed it and now here we go…

Aubrey started to sing a song from a show he did in the West End called ‘Expresso Bongo’ at the Saville threater in 1958. This was an entirely different show from the one Val Guest made into a film a couple of years later with Laurence Harvey. This ‘Expresso Bongo’ was very transgressive for it’s time, immoral, dark and sardonic, while the film version was cleaned up in order to be a Cliff Richard showcase. Paul Scofield had originated the role Harvey played in the film and was by all accounts stunning. Aubrey sang from memory a song called “Nausea,” and then informed me that Charles Gray (whom I expressed an interest in earlier when we discussed Hammer films) and he became lovers during the run, confiding that he was buggering good old Charles until doomsday. It seems Gray had the role Aubrey would have liked to play – the chic owner of the Diplomatique club. Charles even had a song – “The Dip is Dipping” – however it did not make it onto the soundtrack.

Aubrey was spellbinding in recalling the lost era of theater in London and a production that has since become legend. The film never came close to what he described as a landmark moment in theater history. The production is said to have inspired the classic Alexander Mackendrick film THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS.

Looking back, I wish the situation had been otherwise, and I could have really been friends with this man, since there is greatness in him. Long after all the petty remarks and crazy behavior is forgotten there will always be A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and dozens of cameos that dazzle the imagination, with the talent and humor that will always be Aubrey Morris.

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6 Responses »

  1. Another sterling column from the prolific Mr. Del Valle. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but came away glad that I had never met Aubrey Morris. David makes it all come alive with his wit and dry humor, not to mention outright vulgarity at times. Great article David! More, I want some more!

  2. Wonderful piece! A boatload of memories for us to enjoy with more I hope to come!

  3. David, I thoroughly enjoyed it….giggled a lot, too.
    You write beautifully.

  4. David….are you the David I make sandwiches for at Safeway? If so, wow, man, your fucken on top of it.

    Even if you’re not the same guy from safeway, I am amazed at how you connect your whole article (or essay, or whatever you wanna call it), it flows really well, you really have a voice.

  5. A wonderful article, very “gritty”.

    Indeed, luckily for the reader, you failed to leave out anything detrimental. If only ALL interviews with movie actors were like this, it would be clear to many, that they are just like anyone else; It surely is that spark of genius and overt, flamboyancy that compels us to forgive them for their overindulgence or apparent, eccentric rudeness.

    Having personally known Mr. Deltoid *cough* i mean Morris as a long time “acquaintance”, I can’t help but wonder if he would calmly sit back in his chair, squint at you suspiciously, with his trademarked one eye, evolve his one sided facial grin, and thereupon break out in a sinister and resounding “Draculian” cackle, or perhaps he would just put you over one of his knees, and give you a good spanking, which you obviously deserve 😀

  6. David- I enjoyed your article very much more so as I am one of Aubrey’s Nephews and therefore the silver tea spoon – scrapbook was exactly “spot on”

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