James Booth: actor who turned rewrite man
A dusty courtyard in Cuernavaca, Mexico, packed with stunt men dressed as nineteenth-century Mexican soldiers and local extras dressed as peons, seems an unlikely place to track down James Booth.
"I'd been a rich man in England. I had a company which bought flats, renovated them and sold them. In 1974, when the property boom collapsed, I was wiped out overnight. I went from leading a push-button life with chauffeurs, secretaries, everything done for me, two a situation where men in bowler hats were coming out of the woodwork demanding money. I'd lost all my capital and I owed a fortune to the banks. I was in my mid-forties, I had a wife and four kids, two of them at Millfield, and I had to think about how I was going to support them. I was very bitter. I decided the last thing I wanted to be was a middle-aged actor in London, hanging round the pubs, waiting for work."
Booth began his career with Joan Littlewood's company at Stratford East. Once described (by the Evening Standard) as one of the 10 most handsome men in London, he was, by his own admission, "never a leading man". He came from the wrong class to be a natural British hero and he was too rebellious to transcend his origins as did an Albert Finney or a Tom Courtenay. Besides, there was always something wolfish, essentially untrustworthy about Booth's stage and screen persona--an asset he exploited in a succession of roles as a smooth, fast-talking confidence trickster, a Cockney hustler, whether of women or wages. He was in Fings Ain't Wot They Used Ter Be and the film Sparrows Can't Sing, for Miss Lockwood, then in Zulu, Robbery, The Man Who Had Power Over Women, The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom and a score of other British pictures and television plays.
"I was lazy about being an actor," he says. "The parts came too easily and so did the money. By the time I left the country, I reckon I was functioning on about 10 per cent of my talent. As a young actor, one of my problems was that I could never decide what I really was. I did a film with Shirley MacLaine once and the New York Times described me as "a cross between Jack Lemmon and W.C. Fields." If you think about it, most British comedy is very broad, very anal. Unless you fit into the Carry On series, there isn't too much scope. There are the upper-class parts, played by a Nicholas Parsons or a Leslie Philips, and the lower classes, the late Sid James or Kenneth Connor, who take the mickey out of them. I didn't fit into either of those categories."
"In 1974, when I lost everything, I was a terrified man. I underwent a sort of spiritual metamorphosis. I'd been known as a roustabout, a drinker. I had to take a look at myself and I didn't like what I saw. I hadn't done the things I should have done. I should have helped Joan more, carried on her work. I arrived in Los Angeles with my family. I paid the first and last month's rent on a small apartment, I rented some furniture, and after I'd done all that, I had exactly 1000 dollars left. I had a few contacts and I'd written with Joan, and I started to get work rewriting other people's scripts."
He has been a rewrite man ever since. Among his efforts was Sunburn, the second of Farrah Fawcett Major's (as she was then) attempts to switch from being a television star to a film star. " I was the one who turned that film into a comedy. The script I wrote attracted Art Carney and Chuck Grodin to the project but it was a very troubled production. The director, Dick Sarafian, rewrote extensively, then the producer got in on the act. I refused to go down to the location, the situation as so bad."
Has he done much acting in the last five years?
"Virtually none, although I did have a small part in The Jazz Singer. I don't even have an American accent. It's very difficult for British actors over here. If they need a British actor, they'll usually import one. Then the bulk of the acting work is television and most American television is ethnic--I can hardly play a California sheriff or an Italian from the Bronx." However, Booth did appear on the Los Angeles stage in a musical he wrote himself. Called The Al Chemist Show (after Ben Jonson's The Alchemist) it featured Booth, Georgia Brown and Al Mancini. "We did it for nothing at a small theatre. We made around 10 dollars a week, which covered our petrol. It went well enough so that we're getting the music rewritten now and hoping to mount it in London next year." The "we" refers in part to Booth's close ties to Hemdale, the British stage and film production company.
Then there was Booth's reason for being in that Mexican courtyard. He was appearing in Zorro and the Gay Blade [sic], a comic version of the old Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn swashbucklers. The film stars George Hamilton and is a follow-up to Hamilton's highly successful Dracula spoof, Love at First Bite.
"I play Velasquez, the assistant villain. He's a cross between Long John Silver and Captain Hook, with a sword and a gold eyepatch. He's a terrible bully and a terrible coward. It was pure chance I got the part. I was down in Cuernavaca doing some rewrites on a Hemdale Film, Big Bucks, and one day there was a knock on the door of my hotel room. It was the director Peter Medak, who's doing Zorro. He'd heard the typing and came to see what was what. He'd an idea it was me. He offered me the role and here I am. It's a strange feeling. Nobody here knows who I am; I feel the way I did when I made my first film, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 18 years ago. I can see their faces when I do a bit of business that's good. They look at me in surprise, as if to say, "Who is this guy? And where did he learn that stuff?"
"But this is a film full of second chances. Peter [Medak] had a rough time for a while getting any films. And George [Hamilton][ is a wonderful actor who's never been used properly in pictures."
Although he has paid off 90 per cent of his debts ("I've no wish to be a bankrupt"), Booth has no plans to return to England. He has not been back since 1975 and says he is depressed by what he hears from visiting friends. "My wife misses it very badly. The only thing I miss is the theatre, even if the actors are paid almost nothing. Theatre in Los Angeles tends to be run by small groups of friends and frankly the standard is poor. They have excellent actors, but there don't seem to be any competent directors. I went to see Travesties when it was done in LA by a local outfit, and it really was a travesty."