FROM The Colbys to Casualty, actor Maxwell Caulfield is a versatile chap. Now he’s Singin’ in the Rain in Edinburgh, as Janet Christie finds out
It’s the trimmed grey moustache that does it. Maxwell Caulfield, who was all baby-faced biker in 1982’s Grease 2 and playboy businessman in The Colbys is today sporting facial hair that lends him a distinct air of gravitas. Sitting in his dressing room at the Sunderland Empire, preparing to go onstage in Singin’ in the Rain, he relaxes back into his chair, stretches out his long legs and reflects on his career and where it might take him next.
Now 54, he’s playing JR Simpson in the rain-lashed musical set in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies. He’s the studio boss who must learn to adapt from silent film and jettison some of his more squeaky-voiced talent along the way. It’s more of a character role than an all-singing, all-dancing one, but Caulfield is clearly enjoying being part of an old-fashioned feel good musical of the kind audiences don’t get to see much of any more. When the 12,000 gallons of water floods the stage, Caulfield is one of the most enthusiastic, kicking out with glee to soak audiences in the front three rows.
“The frustrating part is not to sing and dance this time,” he says. “I’m the character guy in this particular production, but I’m happy to be in support of such a talented group of people. My career has been really good, I’ve done my share, but I wouldn’t say I’m 100 per cent satisfied. I have spent too much time spinning my wheels in the woods and could have been honing my craft a lot better.”
Like his studio boss character, Caulfield himself has always been versatile, turning his talents to film, soap, musicals and theatre. He has done everything from Joe Orton plays to Grease 2, The Colbys and Emmerdale, and professes to be happy as long as he’s working. However, his career may not have quite taken the path he envisaged at the age of 21 when he was chosen to star in Grease 2 opposite Michelle Pfeiffer. He was tipped to be the next big thing, but unlike its predecessor, the film bombed at the box office.
“It’s a more popular film now, a bit of a cult, and I’m delighted for its success, but it’s been a long process – not for the film to be acclaimed, because it doesn’t deserve that, but for it to find its audience. To some degree, without whingeing, that is the story of my film career; the films I have been involved with got tied up and weren’t released.”
One that was released was The Real Blonde with Matthew Modine and Daryl Hannah. “I played myself in that one, an egotistical soap opera actor with a thing for blonde women. I don’t know why they thought of me for that part! It opened the Sundance Film Festival. Then there was Empire Records – that crashed and burned, but as a film it’s cute,” he says.
Caulfield has tasted his share of success though, particularly in theatre. It was his Theatre World Award-winning performance in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane on Broadway that got him his movie break in Grease 2 in the first place.
“The best parts I have ever played have been off Broadway in 300-seat venues where I have really got my teeth into some fun parts. Working with Stephen Daldry on An Inspector Calls was an eye-opener and Entertaining Mr Sloane was a riot and got me the movie break on Grease 2. In hindsight I jumped left there when I should have gone right,” he says.
While Caulfield is good-natured about his lack of blockbuster hits, he admits to hankering for the big leading man parts.
“I’m sick of being in cult films. I want a box office smasheroo because it totally changes the lay of the land,” he says, his speech patterns spanning the Atlantic with dashes of eccentric vocabulary such as ’smasheroo’ and ’cockamamie’ thrown in.
There’s no trace of a Glaswegian accent there, however, despite many websites claiming that Caulfield originates from Glasgow’s Gorbals. There’s also mention of a Derbyshire birthplace and also London. Which is correct?
“This has haunted me for years,” he laughs. “I’m sorry but I wasn’t born in Glasgow. I’m from Derbyshire. It came about because when you first write your biography for a stage play in New York, it sticks with you. Mimicking my hero Marlon Brando, who said he was born in Rangoon, I disavowed my English public school roots and said I was from the Gorbals, because I wanted to sound like a hard nut. It didn’t matter in America so I never corrected it, but I do now,” he says.
He does have Scottish family though – his grandfather was a Findlater, and when Singin’ in the Rain comes to Edinburgh, he plans to be buying up souvenirs in the Innes and Ogilvy tartans.
As well as the confusion over birthplace, there are also internet entries about his previous existence as an “exotic dancer”. Does the suave Mr Caulfield, relaxing in his smart casuals have a racy past or are these erroneous too?
“I like the way you put that ... exotic dancer,” he says.
“Yes, I was, at the Windmill Theatre in London, to get my equity card.” He roars with laughter.
With his equity card sorted, Caulfield also qualified for a green card thanks to his US marine step-father and headed for New York at 18. His mother had divorced his father, an interesting sounding cartoonist/game inventor/bingo-caller whom Caulfield agrees was “a character” and later remarried the American whose militarism hastened the young actor’s departure.
He bursts into a loud parody of his step-father, shouting: “‘It’s six am, let’s not sleep the day away!’ What teenager needs that?” he says.
Caulfield’s answer was New York and a cold water pad, sixth form college and learning how to tread the boards, in between working in a bookies and cooking chickens. Theatre and films followed and then in the mid 1980s he landed one of his best remembered roles, as Miles Colby in the Dynasty spin-off The Colbys.
“The Colbys was fun. There was no bitching. We had no reason to be at each others’ throats – we were all swimming in mullah! We were living the dream, driving Ferraris, wearing Armani suits and I had two six foot tall women on each arm,” he says.
More films followed then it was back to soaps with Casualty@Holby City in 2003 and Emmerdale in 2009. He still hankers for the big leading man role, yet even as he talks about the McConaugheys, DiCaprios and Bales, he’s pulling back.
“I’m not sure I can hang with the leading men. McConaughey lost over three stone for his last role: he’s extraordinary. They really are pushing the envelope.”
Which actor’s career would he have liked to have had then?
“Richard Burton without all the alcoholism and multiple wives,” he replies immediately.
In his domestic life, however, he’s got the girl and has been married to actress Juliet Mills, daughter of Sir John, for 33 years. As soon as she’s mentioned, he bounds across the room to get her photograph from his dressing table. The pair met in The Elephant Man, when he was 21 and she was 39 and the 18-year-age difference raised eyebrows at first, but they’re now one of showbiz’s most enduring couples.
“Look at her! Look at that smile!” he exclaims. “Why would you not want to be married to that girl for 33 years? She’s an absolute living doll. And self-sacrificing in terms of her career. She could and should be a dame by now. She could keep abreast of the Dame Judis and Dame Helens, but she’s not ambitious. She’s got a terrific range, wonderful at comedy, and can break your heart too.
“I was knocked out by her immediately. On our first date she took me to see a play on Broadway and I sat between her and her friend Natalie Wood. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
While Caulfield tours the UK with the show, Mills is at home in Ventura, California but visits him often on tour.
“We couldn’t be apart. I would start to fall apart!” he says. “But you have to go where the work is. I want to be more considered in my choices, except that needs must, and we’re in a business which is precarious. I have made more B movies and spent more time shooting schlock in my prime years than I care to acknowledge, but I’m an entertainer, not some deep profound actor. I aspire to heavyweight roles but I like to do other things along the way. I wouldn’t mind doing Eugene O’Neill or more Tennessee Williams, but I’m too old to play Stanley Kowalski and I’m not in a rush to play Big Daddy.
“I’m looking a bit Leslie Phillips with this moustache, a bit no good, a bit louche. He’s a personal hero of mine,” he says. “Will I end my days playing old roués like him? Well, probably.”
He doesn’t look like he’d mind that one bit.
• Singin’ in the Rain, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Tuesday 25 February to Saturday 15 March, tickets £17.50-£46.50 (www.edtheatres.com)