Taylor, Burton, Hepburn, Clift: What were they really like? This man knows
1950s matinee idol Gary Raymond recalls the highs and lows of his career, and the stars he worked with
In Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, the ancient impresario Dimitri Weissman is surveying the carcass of an old 42nd Street theatre after the war, surrounded by some of his former showgirls. He declares that it’s “a final chance to glamourise the old days ... and lie about ourselves a little”.
Audiences who come to see Dominic Cooke’s heartbreakingly good revival at London’s National Theatre may not recognise the name of the actor offering this invitation. Gary Raymond wears his history quietly but, like one of Weisman’s chorines, he’s seen it all. In the 1950s he toured Europe with John Gielgud and sang in Peter Brook’s thrillingly sleazy musical, Irma la Douce. He fought stop-motion monsters in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), dodged crockery hurled by Sophia Loren in The Millionairess (1960) and charged around Spain in El Cid (1961), a historical epic that also functioned as a mechanism for its producer, Samuel Bronston (a nephew of Leon Trotsky), to funnel Francoist money into Swiss bank accounts.
In 1959, he starred opposite Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in Tony Richardson’s film Look Back in Anger as Cliff, the decent one caught in the crossfire of a volatile marriage.
We’re ensconced in a dressing room in the National Theatre containing a bright-orange daybed and an uncomfortable-looking chair. He sits on the chair, possibly to avoid looking like a man undergoing psychoanalysis in 1970s Czechoslovakia. Despite this, I do my best to regress him. I ask Raymond whether Jimmy Porter, the acerbic hero of Look Back in Anger, seems as attractive today as he was in the late 1950s. “I’m not sure he did seem attractive,” he says. “Then, he seemed just a man who was vicious about everything. But now one has a great deal of sympathy with him. Osborne’s use of words is incredible, isn’t it? They’re like swords.”
What about his co-star? “Richard Burton talked about money,” he volunteers. “He said that he could get as much pleasure out of reading a company’s books as a script, but I don’t think that was quite true.” He remembers meeting him at the offices of Associated British Pictures before filming began on Look Back in Anger. “He was the last one to arrive and he came in in a yellow cashmere sweater, no shirt, tanned and glowing. Pretty amazing.”
Raymond sounds dazzled. In 1959, his career was catching light. His first film part – as Charles Stuart in the Civil War swashbuckler The Moonraker (1958) – had brought his glossy, slightly asymmetrical good looks to the attention of the bosses at Elstree studios. “I honestly had no sense that I was [handsome] ... truly. I accept that I was now.” Tabloids were soon running stories about his promise. Was he an ambitious young man? “It’s a question one thinks about,” he says, distantly. “I don’t really know what it means, but I think that Burton knew what it meant.”
The greatest loss
Gary Barrymore Raymond was born in Brixton in 1935, 20 minutes after his twin brother, Robin. Their father, Bob Raymond, was a light comedian and dancer. Their mother, Paddy Lee, was one of CB Cochran’s Young Ladies – the British equivalent of the Follies. Gary doesn’t remember her. She died of tuberculosis when he was nine months old. Now he treasures the few images of her in his possession: a faded photograph from a rehearsal in Leeds, an advert for Vicks VapoRub for which she posed with his older brother.
“I never talked to my father about her, or he to us about her, if you see what I mean. It was the great loss of his life.”
After his wife’s death, Bob Raymond left his boys in the care of others. Gary saw little of him until his teenage years, but remembers watching his act in theatres long deconsecrated. The Camberwell Palace. Collins Music Hall on Islington Green, now a branch of Waterstones. “I went down to see him in his dressing room there,” he recalls. “It was like a dungeon.”
Its dankness was no discouragement. In 1955, after graduating from Rada, Gary toured Europe with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Gielgud played Lear one night, Benedick the next, with Peggy Ashcroft as his Cordelia and his Beatrice. At that moment, Gielgud was still braving out a scandal. Two years before, he had been arrested for soliciting in a Chelsea lavatory. Gary remembers how it scandalised his fellow Rada students. “Some were saying he had no right to do it, he had a position in the theatre and he should have kept himself very careful. When I met him, though, he seemed divine.”
But the real locus of gossip on Gary’s immense CV is Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), a lurid Tennessee Williams melodrama filmed for Columbia Pictures at Shepperton. It stars Katharine Hepburn as a southern matriarch mourning a son who has been literally devoured by the boys she sent to him for sex – a fact that she intends to suppress by forcing her niece (Elizabeth Taylor) to submit to a lobotomy. The surgeon was played by Montgomery Clift, one year after the car smash that nearly claimed his life (Liz Taylor saved him by jumping into the wreck and pulling several dislodged teeth from his throat).
Gary was cast as Taylor’s handsome but despicable brother, George. The film is a thick soup of Freudian horrors. “Hepburn knew everything that the film was about, no question,” reflects Gary. “I’m not sure Elizabeth Taylor did. She had just married Eddie Fisher then, and when she wasn’t on the set she was in her room.”
The film’s male lead made a stronger impression. “Monty Clift had this extraordinary presence,” he recalls. “Not dynamic in any way, but you just wanted to nurture him. Tennessee Williams wrote about ‘the charm of the defeated’, and Monty Clift had it absolutely.”
Unfortunately, the director, Joseph L Mankiewicz, was immune to that charm. Clift, struggling with alcohol, amphetamines and the after-effects of the accident, struggled with his lines. “Mankiewicz bullied him,” says Gary. “You know battered baby syndrome?” Clift, he says, was like an infant whose distress stirred anger rather than love. The director’s conduct so appalled Hepburn that, once her last shot was in the can, she spat in his face.
In 1965, Gary took his family (he has been married to fellow actor Delena Kidd for 58 years) to Los Angeles. His third child, the actress Emily Raymond, was born there, while her father played St Peter to Max von Sydow’s Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). (He remembers his co-star’s call to cancel a dinner engagement: “Sorry – I am just about to mount the cross.”) This was the point at which a steelier actor would have stayed in LA, lunched for his life and secured a foothold in Hollywood. “But nobody came rushing up saying: ‘Would you do this film for us?’ or anything like that, and it was over and we came home.”
Home, it must be said, to almost constant employment, particularly on glossy series such as The Saint, Jason King and The Persuaders! In those years his father made a living doing extra work on the same series, and also became a regular stooge for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, on which he can be spotted having his teeth drilled by Terry Jones, eating in a canteen dressed as an Inuit, or looming over Mount Everest in clown make-up.
His son has now surpassed him in durability. As Dimitri Weissman in Follies, he’ll be performing eight shows a week at the National Theatre. Is he, I ask, regarded as the father of the cast? “They treat me like an old person who needs to be cared for. I’m not sure I’m happy to be cared for. But that’s it, you know. I’m old.”
Does he have any unfulfilled ambitions? “I had thousands, yes, but they’re passed. At 83, there aren’t many ambitions you could have. I’m not strong enough to do Lear. My ambition is to be offered work and be able to take it. That’s it.”
From my position on the orange couch, I compliment him on his modesty. “Modesty,” he repeats. “Is that a virtue?”
– © The Daily Telegraph