Obituary: Victor Spinetti, actor
Born: 2 September, 1929, in Cwm, Ebbw Vale, Wales. Died: 18 June, 2012, in Monmouth, aged 82
In the 1960s and 1970s actor Victor Spinetti made movies with Peter Sellers, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, starred in his own sitcom and won a Tony award on Broadway. But he reached his widest audience and received his greatest acclaim for his work with The Beatles.
In the first Beatles’ film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Spinetti was the harassed television director, driven to despair by the wacky antics of the Fab Four. He played the mad scientist forever coming up with ingenious new ways in which to separate Ringo from his ring in Help! (1965) and he was the army recruiting sergeant in Magical Mystery Tour (1967), with Paul McCartney as the officer.
A little larger than life, Spinetti could be camp or bullying. He could do drama or comedy but was probably most at home in comedy, albeit playing the straight-faced character who served as foil to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Spinetti and The Beatles became close friends and they all visited him individually when he was ill during one of the shoots, though Lennon warned him that the doctors were probably experimenting on him and McCartney would not go into the room in case he caught anything.
Spinetti worked with Lennon again in adapting In His Own Write, Lennon’s book of comic stories and poems, for the stage. Spinetti directed the original London production in 1968. A gifted raconteur, in later years Spinetti entertained audiences with memories of his “Beatles Years” in a stage show.
In one anecdote, he recalled working on a New York musical called Skyscraper in the 1960s at the height of Beatlemania. He did not get on with the American actor Dick O’Neill, who made it very clear that he thought Spinetti was a nobody and that an American should have got his role. Spinetti decided he would take him for lunch on the day The Beatles were due to arrive in New York.
“All The Beatles’ fans would be roaming Manhattan looking for signs of where they might be staying and they’d spot me because they’d seen the film dozens of times and they’d follow me thinking I might lead them to where The Beatles were staying . Of course, I knew that; Dick O’Neill did not know that,” he said.
“We hadn’t gone half a block and there were some girls went ‘Victor Spinetti, that’s Victor Spinetti!’ And then suddenly there’s more. ‘Victor Spinetti!’ And now we’re running down the street. ‘Victor Spinetti!’ And Dick O’Neill says ‘Christ, how often does this happen to you?’ And I said, ‘All the time, wherever I go’.”
Victorio Spinetti was the eldest of six children, born to an Italian father, who ran a fish and chip shop, and a Welsh mother. His father was interned on the Isle of Man during the Second World War as an enemy alien.
Spinetti studied at Cardiff College of Music and Drama, worked as a waiter and in a factory and toured in the same production of South Pacific as Sean Connery. Spinetti recalled that the first time they met Connery was when they were both naked and urinating in a dressing room sink.
In the late 1950s, Spinetti joined Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East. Littlewood’s company built its reputation on new works that featured working-class characters and tackled political and social issues, but often within the framework of comedy or a musical setting.
Spinetti appeared in the hit musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and the original 1963 production of the satirical entertainment Oh, What a Lovely War!, along with George Sewell and Brian Murphy.
Oh, What a Lovely War! transferred first to London’s West End and then to Broadway and Spinetti won a Tony for his performance in the multiple roles of master of ceremonies, a general and a drill sergeant. It opened on Broadway in September 1964. A Hard Day’s Night had opened the previous month.
By that time Spinetti had already appeared in several films including Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing with Barbara Windsor, another Theatre Workshop veteran, who became one of his closest friends.
He became part of The Beatles’ stock company and George Harrison once told him: “You’ve got to be in all our films. If you’re not in them, my mum won’t come and see them because she fancies you.”
His involvement with The Beatles made him a familiar face internationally, he had his own fan club in the US and he played Hortensio in Franco Zeffierlli’s glossy film of The Taming of the Shrew, with Burton and Taylor.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s he and Sid James gave up their office jobs to become farmers in the sitcom Two in Clover, and Spinetti played the Mad Jaffa Cake Eater, a Mexican bandit who stole people’s Jaffa Cakes in a long-running series of television adverts.
His other films include Start the Revolution Without Me, Under Milk Wood, Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World, The Great McGonagall, The Return of the Pink Panther, Voyage of the Damned, with Orson Welles, pop star Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon and The Krays. He voiced Texas Peter on the children’s series SuperTed.
More recently he played Baron Bomburst in the London stage production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He also directed productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and published poetry and his memoirs.
His partner, Graham Curnow, died in 1997. They had been together since Spinetti was a student.
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