Derren Nesbitt at 75
PUBLISHED: 01:15 31 March 2010 | UPDATED: 11:14 02 May 2018
Sussex-based actor Derren Nesbitt is best known for playing villainous Germans, famously as a cold-blooded SS officer in the classic war film, Where Eagles Dare. He talks to Angela Wintle about his long career...
At the height of his fame, Derren Nesbitt was the man we loved to hate. With his peroxide-yellow hair, large pursed lips and faultless German accent, he cornered the market in Nazi villains.
He reached his apotheosis as the cold-blooded SS officer, Major von Hapen, in that classic war thriller, Where Eagles Dare (1968). By then, his great knack for playing Germans was actually beginning to fool people into thinking he really was German, prompting his great partner in crime, Anton Diffring, to famously remark: "You're more German than I am!"
But Derren, now 75 and still playing Germans, is as English as they come (well, give or take some Russian blood on his fathers side). And now he's living in that most English of seaside resorts Worthing, where, appropriately enough, he will be treading the boards in April.
He has lived in the town for several years and likes nothing better than a walk along the seafront, battling a brisk south-westerly. "I've lived in most countries around the world, but I would never move from Sussex", he says firmly.
"My wife Miranda was brought up in Hove and we initially looked at properties in Brighton. But then we found this delightful house in West Worthing and I love it. I particularly like leaving the house, seeing the sea and then glimpsing the Downs."
For a man who has carved a career playing villains, Derren has an unexpectedly sunny temperament. A gifted storyteller and mimic, he has a keen sense of the ridiculous and never more so than when hes the butt of his own humour.
But why, I wonder, is he still touring in his eighth decade? Well, why ever not? And besides, his old mate, theatre impresario Bill Kenwright, was looking for an actor to play one Herr Frederick Winklekopf in a revival of the Oscar Wilde play, Lord Arthur Saviles Crime. I mean, who else was he going to call?
Where Eagles Dare
Derren landed the defining role of his career in 1968. Where Eagles Dare, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, was written by Alistair McLean and shot mainly on location in Austria and Bavaria. Though it ran massively over budget, its now heralded as a cinema classic and has become compulsory bank holiday viewing. For men of a certain age, it's as comforting and dependable as that first sip of Horlicks.
Derren had worked with Burton many years before at the Old Vic. Did they become friends? "No, he drank too much. You couldn't be friends unless you were a drinker, too."
By the time they paired up again, Burton was drinking five bottles of vodka a day and couldn't act when he was sober. "In the big scene at the end of the film, he came on and couldnt remember a line. So Brian Hunt, the director, took him away, and when they came back four hours later Burton was plastered and could do it."
"I was on a daily rate by then because the film had run massively over budget. MGM never thought they'd get their money back, but I was very happy because I was earning a fortune. I felt like saying: Richard, why dont you have another drink?"
Derren researched his part meticulously, even tracking down an SS major so that he could quiz him about the medals he should wear. He arrived with a scarred face and a leather coat down to his ankles, then produced a paper bag and laid out his trophies. The swastikas had been knocked out.
"In the film, I wore a medal with huge gold wings, awarded for hand-to-hand fighting. You were given a bronze for three hand-to-hand fighting, a silver for eight hand-to-hand fighting and for the gold... well, you had to be a homicidal maniac. You threw away the machine gun and slashed at people with a bayonet".
Despite Derrens best efforts, the film was riddled with historical inaccuracies, so typical of the genre. The heroes had a seemingly limitless supply of ammunition and a helicopter was seen taking off at the start of the film, even though they were virtually unheard of during the Second World War.
Derren's uniform was also wildly inaccurate, although his objections cut little ice with the director. "But you look so beautiful", he said. "And besides, they'll never know in Arkansas!"
The movie may have been Derrens finest hour, but it was very nearly his last. On his final day of shooting, Clint Eastwood was supposed to shoot him in the head and then the chest. But the explosives strapped to Derrens chest failed to go off, until, at the fifth attempt, they went off rather too spectacularly and he was nearly blinded.
"I looked like Id been hit by a bazooka. My eyes were burnt and bits got into them. I was quite a sight when I arrived at the local hospital dressed as an SS officer, with a perfect bullet hole in my forehead and blood running down my trousers!"
Fortunately, his sight returned within two weeks and Clint Eastwood sent him an enormous Fortnum & Masons fruit hamper. Buried in the middle was a bottle of Optrex.
A star at RADA
But Derren hasnt only played Germans, of course. His credits run to several pages and he has worked with some of the greats, including Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Roger Moore, Dirk Bogarde, Christopher Plummer and Michael Caine.
He was destined for the limelight. His mother was a chorus girl; his father was the South African comedian and vaudeville artist Harry Nesbitt, who performed in a popular double act with his brother Max.
Derren was even born in a theatre the Finsbury Park Empire in North London. "Bad timing on my mothers part", he grins.
He made his first stage appearance before he could walk. "I crawled on in the middle of Max Millers act. Max couldnt understand why the audience was laughing, then turned round and saw this little thing crawling towards him. I dont understand", he said. He's been calling me Daddy all day!"
At the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Derren joined the likes of Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole. Far from being dazzled by his contemporaries, he outshone them, winning the Forbes-Robertson and Kendal awards for his outstanding Shakespearian performances.
He served his indentures in Sir Peter Hall's Oxford Repertory Company, before making his first television appearance in 1956 in The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. He appeared in many more cult TV shows throughout the 1960s including Dr Who, The Saint, The Prisoner, The Invisible Man and Danger Man.
His film breakthrough came in the landmark 1961 movie, Victim, which starred Dirk Bogarde as a closet homosexual barrister who risks his career to stand up to blackmailers. It was the first British movie to deal with homosexuality.
Another key role was in the 1967 espionage film The Naked Runner, which starred none other than Ol Blue Eyes. Sinatra badly needed a hit after two successive flops, but closed down the shoot for two weeks to marry Mia Farrow, then heaped oil on troubled waters by taking intermittent breaks to honeymoon in the south of France.
One tabloid newspaper offered Derren a large sum to reveal all about working with Sinatra, but he turned it down. When Sinatra got wind of it, he sent Derren and his wife on a luxurious holiday to Copenhagen, courtesy of his private jet. Every evening, the hotel concierge would politely knock on their door and present them with a manila envelope, stuffed with bank notes with Mr Sinatras compliments. "By the end of the holiday, we had so much money we'd run out of places to put it!" he laughs.
In 1973, Derren finally got the chance to move away from villains by taking the lead in Special Branch, a groundbreaking drama serial for Thames Television focusing on the tough cops from Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist unit.
Derren played womaniser DCI Jordan, replete with long hair and sideburns. None of this had been in the script, but he says he tore up the rule book when the producer failed to show for the first five episodes.
When the producer finally discovered the changes, he threatened to cancel the show, but unexpectedly it became an overnight ratings winner and Derren's contract had to be renegotiated. Nevertheless, it was a short stay of execution, and after 27 episodes he was axed and George Sewell and Patrick Mower were drafted in to take the lead roles.
The remainder of the decade saw a marked decline in Derren's career. He wrote, produced and directed a British sex comedy called The Amorous Milkman, starring Julie Ege and Diana Dors, but it was savaged by the critics and flopped at the box office.
So what happened to RADAs golden boy?
"I was never ambitious and I took long holidays", he says. "I didnt need the money, so I treated my work as a well-paid, enjoyable hobby. I always thought enjoying life was more important."
Disillusioned with Britain, he married his third wife, an Australian beauty queen, and moved to her native country. He admits that with four marriages and five children to his name, his personal life has been somewhat rocky, but quips that his downfall was never being able to say no. "I've always loved women, but in the long run it's far safer to sleep with a Bengal tiger which hasnt eaten for six months than go to bed with a woman!"
It appears to be a case of fourth time lucky for Derren, who tells me his present and last wife, Miranda, is an angel. "I never knew that women were like this! If she'd been the first, life would have been very different!"
They met more than 30 years ago. He was 42; she was a 20-year-old assistant stage manager. But Derren was married with children, so the couple parted, pledging to stay in touch. Twenty or so years later, Derren was in the throes of his third divorce when Miranda wrote to him in Australia.
"She said she'd been in love with me for the last 25 years. I was on the next flight back to Britain."
Now that all is quiet on the domestic front, Derren has returned to work with a vengeance and is currently playing to packed houses in Lord Arthur Saviles Crime, which comes to the Connaught Theatre in Worthing in early April. He plays a mad German bomber and the cast also features Kate O'Mara, Gary Wilmot and Lee Mead, winner of the hit BBC show, Any Dream Will Do.
"I first performed at the Connaught Theatre when I was 20 years old in Peter Ustinovs play, The Love of Four Colonels. Since then, I must have performed there four or five times. This current production is great fun and audiences leave with a huge smile on their faces."
He took the part because his last play was very nearly the death of him and he didnt want it to be his swan song. "I fell violently ill with an infected gall bladder, which led to septicaemia and pneumonia. I lay dying in hospital in Darlington for four days and at one point my poor wife was told I probably wouldnt survive the night. But I didnt want to die in Darlington!"
Now, he assures me, he has the heart of an ox. "Eight shows a week its as easy as digging roads", he boasts.
I dont doubt him. Well, it did take Clint Eastwood five attempts to kill him.
My perfect Sussex
What do you love most about where you live and why?
I love Worthing seafront and also being able to glimpse the South Downs.
Describe your perfect weekend in Sussex.
Getting up late and then going for a delicious meal in Sussex with my charming wife.
Whats your favourite Sussex restaurant?
The Tajdar on Horsham Road in Findon, which serves authentic Bangladeshi and Indian cuisine. It's one of the best Indian restaurants in the world. I can vouch for that because Ive lived in India and eaten Indian cuisine all my life.
Where do you like to shop in Sussex?
Worthing shopping precinct. I shop where ever my wife likes to buy clothes! I spend half my life sitting outside ladies changing rooms. I frequently tell the staff they should serve coffee.
Whats your favourite Sussex theatre?
The Theatre Royal in Brighton. I've played there many times. They used to have a call boy, who was about 80. If he ever knocked on your dressing room door and gave you your call, you knew you'd missed the boat. I used to tell the other actors: "Don't rely on him! But no one had the heart to fire him."