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Are you sure Errol Flynn started this way?

By Christopher Andreae / December 19, 2002



A Movie-buff friend tells me I'm in excellent company. It seems that Errol Flynn's very first Hollywood role was as a body. Not what you might call an altogether promising debut, but I suppose even the "greats" have to start somewhere.

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And, as one who recently appeared on the boards playing a similar part, I'd say that acting a body is not just as easy as falling off a log.

There are, I reckon, worse positions vis-à-vis the crust of the earth than horizontal. But a modicum of underlying springiness does help. Nightly I praise whoever it was that invented beds.

"Ah!" I say, sinking onto the mattress with a contented dispellation of air, "He who came up with the wonderful, felicitous, mellifluous, combobulating idea of The Bed should be celebrated in song and rhyme. He should be knighted - no pun intended. He should even have a street named after him." Then I may launch with surprising accuracy into Shakespeare's melodious "Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,/ The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,/ Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course...." At that point I am more than likely to drift off into nod-land, to the benefit of sundry and all.

Anyway, with regard to Errol Flynn, my knowledgeable friend went on to tell me that the soon-to-be swashbuckler's body role was not a notable success. It is a solemn matter to think he might have ended his career there. He might have been remembered only as "one-part Flynn" and sold doughnuts or insect repellent the rest of his days. I can't vouch for this, but it seems he was a no-good body. He was useless at it. Breathing was the problem. He found it impossible not to do it. And if you are supposed to be remotely convincing in this branch of show business, breathing just isn't the way to go.

I certainly found this in my recent efforts in the cloistered yet challenging world of Glasgow amateur dramatics. The production was a silly spoof on "Phantom of the Opera." As a high-strung chorus master I started out as a speaking part, became for a few hyperbolic moments a singing part, then dissolved spontaneously into a weeping part. Pulling myself together, I soliloquized for a few telling and touching minutes and then plunged into an "I am being throttled by the Phantom of the Opera" part.

The so-called Phantom was supposed to dispatch my character efficiently and then drag his body offstage. This worked pretty well most nights. But in one memorable performance we both lost our balance completely and ended up in a tangled heap in the wings. The audience might never have known about this except for the thunderous crashing sound as we hit the deck, and my exigent and repeated pleas to the Phantom to tell me I hadn't squashed him flat or killed him. How much of our mutually concerned laughter was sufficiently muffled I cannot tell.

At the beginning of Act II, the body of the chorus master (me) is discovered recumbent on the boards. Time lies heavily on your hands when you are a body. You can't relax for a second. If you do, one of two equally fatal (drama-wise) things might happen. You might fall asleep, with the possibility of unwitting twitching of fingertips or nostrils. Also, bodies don't snore. Or you might, without thinking, feel so good about the world that you sit up and look around or smile brightly at a funny line. Not advisable.

The same three strapping stagehands who finally carried the chorus master's body off after its long, motionless ordeal, brought his body onstage each night in Act II. They would dump me carefully in place, and I had to immediately assume a good position in which to stay comfortably motionless for the next five or six minutes. (Or was it hours?) Once I was in that position, there was no going back.

On the last night I wanted very much to clear my throat. But somebody once pointed out that comedy is a serious business. It isn't funny if the actors find it funny, or try to make it funny. That's the audience's job. I knew I must hold out until borne offstage, but it wasn't easy. My Adam's apple seemed to wobble dangerously and my eyelids to flutter loudly.

We had some makeup students in attendance, and I asked them to do a good job on my face and hands. They did. Strolling around, all prepared, at intermission, I was asked by several cast members if I were OK. A few others mentioned that they had known me to look better. I assured them I felt fine. I'm not sure they were convinced. It wasn't until after the show closed that Andrew, the director, told me that the audience couldn't see my face. All that makeup was unnecessary. "You might have told me!" I expostulated. "Oh, I didn't like to spoil your fun," he said with a grin.

Telling my wife about this later, she said, "Yes, all we could see was your stomach."

"And my feet?"

"And your feet."

That's thing about acting dead. You have no notion what you look like. But at least you don't have to worry about remembering your lines.

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