Jim Duffy: When our time comes, we should all say ‘I’m Spartacus’

Andy Whitfield in the title role of the TV drama Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Andy Whitfield in the title role of the TV drama Spartacus: Blood and Sand
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The Andy Whitfield Story is a truly inspirational film about a man who knew how to face cancer, says Jim Duffy

Livestreaming of video has completely changed the way we view movies and television boxsets. No longer do we have to go to the cinema and endure noisy weans, popcorn munchers and exorbitant prices for a hot dog. We can sit in the comfort of an armchair, power up our tablets and get ready to be entertained, educated or moved to tears. It is a much more intimate experience.

It was in this way that I watched the film Be Here Now: The Andy Whitfield Story and discovered one of the most amazing and inspirational human beings I have ever come across.

Andy was a struggling actor whose life was transformed when he won a part as Spartacus, leader of a slave revolt against Ancient Rome, in a major new drama. But, on the cusp of fame, he began to feel an unusual pain. And it was not simply pain from all the action scenes, it was cancer. The film tells how Andy and his family coped with this devastating news.

Before getting his breakthrough part, Andy was skint just like most aspiring actors. He had done a bit of modelling thanks to his fabulous good looks. I guess if any guy could be described as amazing, then they would look and sound a bit like Andy. He caught a couple of breaks and picked up some bit parts. Then he got that call from Hollywood he’d been waiting for. It was a lead role in a low-budget movie, but there was a catch – he would not be paid. He decided he couldn’t afford to do it, but his wife Vashti was adamant he should pursue his dreams despite the financial pressures. So he did.

Not long after this, Andy secured the role that was to catapult him towards stardom. In the boxset, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, he played a captured Thracian warrior who served in the House of Batiatus in Capua in southern Italy before decided to rebel, a role made famous by Kirk Douglas in the 1960 film. It’s a first-class boxset with politics, sex, violence (lots of violence) and love in every episode and I just love it.

Andy had to train at a modern-day gladiator school to equip him for the role. It was gruelling training as he had to bulk up to give him the necessary screen presence, as well as the physical ability to carry out the amazingly realistic fight scenes. Imagine training non-stop every day and sticking to a rigorous diet and restricted lifestyle simply to get ready to play the part. That give you an idea of the kind of guy Andy was: dedicated, focused, targeted, selfless and passionate.

The first series of Spartacus was a roaring success. Andy had made it! He now had a hit on his hands, some money coming in at last and a five-season deal. In anyone’s world, it just did not get any better career-wise. Add to this his lovely wife and two adorable and amazing young children and Andy was the luckiest guy on earth. Until he got cancer.

As he was finishing up filming for the last episodes in the first series, he started to feel that unusual pain and just knew something was wrong. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Spartacus now had the biggest fight for his life on his hands.

As I watched Be Here Now and Andy’s humility and humanity as he went through all the different stages of treatment, I was in awe. He had 11 courses of chemotherapy that almost broke him and his resolve. If it had been me, I would have given up at number three I think. But not Spartacus. Just as in the series, this man was indefatigable and his resolve and desire to live was breathtaking. It made me think about the things we moan about. And how we do like to moan. It also made me think about the things we worry about. Things that are trivial or may never happen. But, instead of ‘being here now’, we catastrophise the future. But to what end?

Watching Be Here Now will be a leveller for many of you whether you have experienced anyone going through cancer treatment of not. It is quite literally one of the most honest, open and loving pieces of cinematography I have ever had the privilege of watching. Made more so by Andy’s wife. Vashti Whitfield would probably say she is just an ordinary person doing what she needed to do. But she is more than this. And when you get to know her in the 90-minute film, you know why she was the wife of Spartacus. They were peas in a pod. But Vashti has a spirit that transcends normal for me. She shows such amazing fortitude in the film, while all the time knowing in her heart that her fighter, her gladiator, was battling his last opponent.

As I cried my way through watching my hero in real pain, his body diminishing in front of me, I was left with a sense of real sorrow. He is and was an amazing human being with such inner strength. Both he and Vashti hugely inspired me, more than any entrepreneur, philanthropist, celebrity or politician could ever do.

If you get a chance, watch his film. It will make you look at your own life very differently. Andy Whitfield could have quite rightly formed the opinion that he was hard done by. Why him? Why now at the time in his life when all the stars aligned? He did not. He simply took the position that he was going to get better. This is what makes him and this film stand out for me above many stories I have seen. So many of us think we have a right to good health, so when things go wrong, we adopt a self-pitying stance. I know I would, if what happened to Andy happened to me. His only question was: how do I beat this? I was asked why I felt so strongly about Andy. Simply put, he remained true to his on-screen persona as a leader and champion, who put others first and accepted that all of life is a battle that takes great effort. I have not witnessed this in many human beings. Hopefully one day I can try to emulate his attitude when the chips are down.