From Bond to Halloween via a Nazi prison-camp: the life of Donald Pleasence

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Donald Pleasence with Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween II - Alamy
Donald Pleasence with Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween II - Alamy

It used to be that you could rate the quality of a Halloween film by how much the production bothered spending on the Michael Myers mask. These days, it’s easier to rate one based on whether Donald Pleasence is in it or not. In other words, the franchise hasn’t been the same without Pleasence’s strange doomsayer, Dr Sam Loomis, both psychiatrist and nemesis to the slash-happy Myers.

Pleasence starred in Halloweens I, II, IV, V and VI, in which it was Loomis’s job to wander around, muttering about Myers being the personification of evil – “You’re talking about him like he’s a human being, that part of him died years ago!” – before turning up in the final minutes to shoot him. Not that shooting him makes any difference: the latest instalment, Halloween Kills, in cinemas now, brings us to 11 Myers films. No matter how many bullets, fires and decapitations he suffers, the killer just won’t stay dead.

Dr Loomis, inhuman in his own way, perfectly captured Pleasence’s aura: a character actor who specialised in varying degrees of mania – loonies, weirdos and sinister types – with a beady stare as intense as it was unnervingly off-centre.

Pleasence was all too aware of his typecasting; he implored a Los Angeles Times journalist to ask him anything “as long as you don’t want to know why I always play psychopathic villains and sadistic monsters all the time.” But he kept himself in business as go-to star of schlocky horrors. “If they made interesting films, then I would appear in interesting films,” he said in 1983. “But the fact is that only horror movies are made at the moment.”

For non-horror fans, however, Pleasence was one of the great stage actors of his generation. Born in 1919 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, he was the son of a stationmaster and grew up around Sheffield. He visited the theatre as a youth but didn’t attend a formal drama school. (“I couldn’t get in, actually,” he later claimed.)

Pleasence with Charles Cyphers in Halloween II - Alamy
Pleasence with Charles Cyphers in Halloween II - Alamy

He initially followed his father into the railway, managing a small station in Swinton. The main export that came through the station was maggots. In 1939, however, he joined a repertory company in Jersey and made his debut with a small part in Wuthering Heights. Pleasence recalled setting up the stage for the following week’s play when Chamberlain’s declaration of war with Germany was broadcast over the wireless. His burgeoning career on the boards was halted.

Pleasence began the Second World War as a conscientious objector and would end it in a German stalag. He enlisted in the RAF following bombing attacks on London, dismayed by the lack of emotional response from his fellow pacifists. He served as a WOP/AG (wireless operator/air gunner) on Wellington and Lancaster bombers and flew 19 missions over Europe. “As an aviator, I was rather successful, right up to the point I was shot down,” he told one interviewer.

His Lancaster was brought down over France in August 1944. Pleasence parachuted out – “I didn’t expect to land safely but I did!” – and found himself immediately surrounded by Germans. In a 1992 interview with Michael Aspel, Pleasence recalled that he laughed when one soldier did an over-enthusiastic Sieg Heil – the stuff of wartime cartoon baddies. When they searched him, the German soldiers found that his pockets were filled with condoms, which Pleasence carried for protecting his aircrew’s microphones against condensation. (He was told, as he related it later: “You vill not be needing zese.”)

Pleasence was marched back to Germany with the retreating Nazi army and ended up in Stalag Luft I, a 9,000-strong prisoner camp on the Baltic Sea. He produced plays with his fellow POWs – all airmen, mostly Americans – including a production of The Petrified Forest. Pleasence took the role played by Leslie Howard in the 1936 film version; a strapping 6’1” GI took the role played by Bette Davis. (Pleasence later wound up in a fictionalised version of Stalag Luft III for The Great Escape – as a doomed forger with good manners but dodgy eyesight – and played death-camp architect Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed.)

He returned to Britain after the war and was hospitalised for six months. (“I was supposed to be suffering from malnutrition, or something,” he said on Desert Island Discs.) In 1946, he resumed his acting career, landing a role in an Alec Guinness-led production of The Brothers Karamazov. Following runs with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Bristol Old Vic, he went to New York in December 1951 for two productions of Cleopatra, alongside Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

In December 1954, he starred with Peter Cushing in a controversial BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The dark, disturbing teleplay – scripted by Nigel Kneale – caused a furore: complaints, newspaper headlines, even debate in Parliament. It was broadcast live, twice. “This was the first British television scandal,” wrote David Ryan, author of George Orwell on Screen. “People hadn’t been shocked by TV in this way before.”

Pleasence in Wake in Fright, directed by Ted Kotcheff - Alamy
Pleasence in Wake in Fright, directed by Ted Kotcheff - Alamy

In 1958, Pleasence reunited with Peter Cushing (as he did often) for The Flesh and the Fiends. This was Pleasence’s first horror film; two years later, his first major acclaim came for the Harold Pinter play, The Caretaker, which he played an aggressive, wily tramp, Davies, who disrupts the lives of two brothers. The Caretaker went from the West End to Broadway and began an ongoing association between Pleasence and Pinter.

By now, Pleasence was a familiar face on British TV, and hosted Armchair Mystery Theatre every week. On US television, too, he was a regular fixture on the non-stop carousel of weekly guest stars, including roles in The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and The Fugitive. Later, he would have the rare honour of being collared by both Columbo and Mrs Columbo (in the spin-off). “One of my all-time favourite guest stars,” said Peter Falk himself.

Pleasence’s most interesting role of the 1960s was in Roman Polanski’s 1963 film Cul-De-Sac, a surreal, New Wave-esque crime caper about a mismatched couple (Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac) whose coastal home is invaded by an overbearing gangster. Pleasence is hyper, squirrely and emasculated – a portrait of lonely, isolated manhood (and dressed up in a woman’s nightie and lipstick for a fair chunk of it). “I think that was Polanski’s best picture,” Pleasence told Joy Jameson later. “We were very creative together and although we had fights, a lot of the scenes were improvised on the spot.”

The following year, Pleasence became the textbook Bond villain: Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. Czech actor Jan Werich was originally cast in the role, but couldn’t muster up the requisite menace. Pleasence – who had the same agent as incumbent 007 Sean Connery – nabbed the role instead. With many of Connery’s scenes already shot, Pleasence found himself filling in as Blofeld for retakes. It was, as he was quoted saying in Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury’s 007 book Some Kind of Hero, “three very, very intensive weeks playing that role to the bolts on the camera instead of another actor. Understandably, it really wasn’t an enormously rewarding or fulfilling experience.” (Connery, meanwhile, spent time on the golf course.)

It was Pleasence’s idea to give Blofeld his trademark scar. “The producers liked my style, but didn’t find me physically imposing, so the makeup and costuming helped quite a bit,” he said. The glue used for the scar left his face bruised. He was also allergic to Blofeld’s cat – actually, three cats, not trained for showbiz, that did their business on him every time a fake gun went off. “So, after every try, we had to call for a new cat – and a new uniform!” he recalled. “The crew could hardly contain their mirth. At my expense, I might add.”

The reveal of Pleasence as the potty, much-parodied Blofeld – an unseen mastermind in Bond films until this point – is the moment that Bond descends into all-out campery. Still, Pleasence remains the definitive Blofeld. Christoph Waltz’s new version was created in his image.

Pleasence as Blofeld, opposite Sean Connery's 007, in You Only Live Twice - Rex
Pleasence as Blofeld, opposite Sean Connery's 007, in You Only Live Twice - Rex

Though a deeply odd presence on screen, Pleasence made for a warm, giggly interviewee – and often self-deprecating. He joked that he didn’t understand why he never got the chiselled hero roles, until he saw his own face on screen. “Right from the beginning, people saw me in some kind of screwy way,” he told the LA Times in 1975. He admitted, however, that he had female fans (and he was married four times). “I’m loved by middle-aged women,” he told The Times in 1983. “They’re my fans. When men stop me in the street for my autograph, it’s always for their wives, who must be around 50.”

In 1972, Pleasence appeared in Wise Child on Broadway; he was nominated for a Tony, but a critical review in The New York Times killed the play and kept him off the stage for almost a decade. His notable films that decade, meanwhile, included the gruesome Western Soldier Blue, George Lucas’s debut film THX 1138, and the what-were-they-thinking Bee Gees musical Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His best was the Australian psychological thriller, Wake in Fright. Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, a drunken vagrant in an inescapable outback town who leads a schoolteacher (Gary Bond) into a downward spiral of searing, sweat-drenched, kangaroo-killing madness. “I see myself in my best roles as portraying the common man,” Pleasence said in 1976. “Though, to me, the common man is something different from the usual idea. You see, I don't view the human race very highly.”

Pleasence also became a stalwart of horror – films that included Death Line, From Beyond the Grave, The Mutations, The Devil’s Men, and The Uncanny. He even boozed it up with the Mummy, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster in a Holsten Pils advert.

Despite the credentials, Pleasence wasn’t the first choice for Dr Sam Loomis in 1978’s Halloween. Writer-director John Carpenter wanted Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. “They wouldn’t hear of it,” said Carpenter. “Didn’t want to have anything to do with me.” So Pleasence was offered the role and the film’s biggest salary: $20,000 for five days’ work.

Carpenter – a fan of Pleasence since childhood – admitted that he was terrified about meeting the actor. Pleasence said the script was “a little melodramatic” (amusing, considering his knack for hamming it up) and told Carpenter he didn’t understand it. Pleasence had only agreed to do the movie because his daughter (one of five) had enjoyed Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter realised, after they became close friends years later, that Pleasence had been testing him.

Carpenter cast Pleasence again: as the president in Escape from New York and as a priest version of Dr Loomis in the eerie, overlooked Prince of Darkness, fighting some satanic green gloop. “John Carpenter is the best director I’ve ever worked with,” Pleasence told Fangoria magazine. “One of the main reasons is his bravery in the way he's cast me in his films… he gave me the opportunities that might have been missed had I stayed a stereotypical madman.”

Pleasence with James Gardner in The Great Escape - Sky Media
Pleasence with James Gardner in The Great Escape - Sky Media

Though supposedly killed off at the end of Halloween II, Pleasence returned as Dr Loomis – now as invincible and unhinged as Michael Myers – for the increasingly daft Halloween sequels. Pleasence had apparently grown fond of Dr Loomis.

He continued to make acclaimed television into the 1980s, however, playing against type on The Barchester Chronicles and The Falklands Factor. He also played Davies the tramp again in a 1991 revival of The Caretaker, adding new layers to the role. His final Halloween film – Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers – was released posthumously, after he died from heart surgery complications on February 2 1995.

One obituary said that Pleasence “dreaded being out of work”, which would certainly explain the Halloween sequels and other dirge. “I haven’t been selective enough but I can’t bear not to work all the time,” he once said. He also admitted: “I’ve got homes in Spain and France, and I do tend to have, shall we say, extravagant ways.”

Halloween was resurrected in 1998, then remade by Rob Zombie in 2007 – with Malcolm McDowell as Dr Loomis – and rebooted in 2018, erasing the Pleasence-starring sequels. But it never felt authentically like Halloween without him. Which is perhaps why Halloween Kills has added a Pleasence lookalike.

“I know it sounds egotistical and arrogant of me,” said Pleasence in 1988, “but I truly believe at this point they could not do a Michael Myers Halloween film without me.” They have, but it’s hard to disagree.

Halloween Kills is out now

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