Richard Wilson remembers Antony Sher: ‘I gave him one piece of advice for playing Richard III’
“He was the first gay man I ever spoke to. We Scots didn’t really know about that sort of thing. He took me under his wing.”
The actor and director Richard Wilson is talking about Sir Antony Sher, the actor who has died at the age of 72 and who is famed for such stage roles as Lear, Richard III and Shylock.
It turned out that they had quite a lot in common aside from their sexuality, in fact, and theirs was a friendship which lasted for over 40 years.
Wilson, now 85 and about to direct Peggy for You at the Hampstead Theatre, recalls meeting Sher briefly at the Royal Court in the Seventies and then working together for the BBC in a play called The Sheikh of Pickersgill that formed part of the Pickersgill People strand (1978). “He played a Rabbi from the Middle East who came to England to learn English, but really all he wanted to do was watch football.
“During rehearsals we couldn’t stop laughing. The sheikh was strange and he spat a lot. You wouldn’t be allowed to do that these days! Tony was a very funny man and people didn’t always realise that, but when you got to know him that side came out.”
Wilson says that he wasn’t overly keen on Shakespeare (unlike Sher, of course) and so was surprised when Sher asked him to direct Primo, his adaptation of Primo Levi’s If this is a Man which he also starred in.
“I have to say I never thought we would work together because we had such different tastes, but it was a wonderful relationship. We took the show to Broadway eventually.
“He researched it all very thoroughly. He made many notes and of course he ended up writing several books about his performances.”
Despite not seeing himself as an expert, Wilson nevertheless gave Sher jokey advice whenever the late actor took on a great Shakespearean role.
“I was in India and he rang me to say he was going to play Richard III. I said ‘don’t use crutches for God’s sake’, and I am afraid he did. Brilliantly, I may add.”
Sher is best known for his stage roles. Does Wilson believe he should have been more of a star in other media, film or TV?
“I did tell him he should do more film,” he says, “but I think he loved theatre more. I think he enjoyed theatrical stardom.”
Wilson did not get to see Sher in his final weeks because, he says “he and Greg [Sher’s partner Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] were very keen on staying in Stratford-upon-Avon ''.
“But I did speak to him a couple of weeks ago and he seemed to be dealing with it terribly well and was in good spirits.
“I knew it was very serious, but the end came more suddenly than I thought it would.”
So Wilson has lost a great professional sparring partner, and more importantly, a true friend. What will he miss most about Sher? “His humour, without a doubt. But I can still think of all the good times we had together.”
Peggy for You is at the Hampstead Theatre from December 10. Tickets: hampsteadtheatre.com