The Compleat Oxonian

An interview with Michael York, Cabaret's other star

THE wall-to-wall Persian rugs at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston are faded. There are large worn-out spots down the middle of the hall runners where generations of peripatetic snobs have tread or trudged. I had been told that the elevators were perfumed. I didn't smell anything. Everyone had been so impressed with the fact that I was going to interview someone at the Ritz-Carlton, and had inspired me with such an otherwise non-existent curiosity about the mystique of those hallowed halls. As I walked through the doors, I indulged myself in the bad pun that they were hollow, not hallowed. The "someone" I was going to interview had gradually taken on a secondary importance, even in my mind. Only slowly, ever so slowly, had it begun to dawn on me that the Ritz-Carlton, spectacular as it might be, had taken on such alluring dimensions only in comparison with my poor ignored "someone". No one really knew who Michael York was.

I looked back shame-facedly at the excited screechings I had uttered when asked if I wanted o interview him, "some English actor who's in 'Cabaret'". And how terribly untrendy it had been of me to giggle at Joel Grey's incredible antics in the movie's opening scenes, but still to wait with bated breath for Michael York to appear, as he finally did, his beautiful boxer's nose suspiciously sniffing Berlin's decadent 1930's air: after all, who is Michael York? Many things to many people in "Something for Everyone." A few might remember him as a stereotypical young Englishman, latent homosexuality personified, Oxford-accented to perfection, in several of his other roles. Or as another one of those striking Zeffirelli faces in that director's visually stunning renditions of Shakespeare. For most Americans he seems to drew a blank. Who was I to react to enthusiastically?

When I was about sixteen, I hadn't read much Shakespeare. Forget the implications -- cinematic, literary or otherwise -- of Zeffirelli's "The Taming of the Shrew" for my unpenetrating mind; forget any sensation created by the Burton Taylor team. After the movie I remembered one character from the play, Lucentio. Played by Mr. York. "Romeo and Juliet," another Zeffirelli extravaganza? I could have ravedfor hoursabout the figure of Tybalt. Guess why. A year or so later I was ready to go to college. A serious academically inclined young lady? How super to read at Oxford or Cambridge; such a stimulating intellectual atmosphere? Looking back, I am rather dubious about such reasoning. I'm afraid my imagination was busy populating the cricket-fields of those institutions of learning with the ubiquitous presence of countless Michael Yorks: tan and rugged, batter's arm swinging purposefully across the screen of Joseph Losey's "Accident," cricket whites emanating some holy light.

I'm surprised I even noticed the carpets in the Ritz-Carlton. Adolescent crushes had faded fast in the cynical Boston climate, but Michael York was still the embodiment of that lost naivete, still subject to my curiosity about what the man behind the actor was really like. Admittedly, my mind was more agitated than my heart when I knocked on the door to his suite, but casual as I now felt in the realization of his relatively small fame. I was still letting myself remain skittishly impressionable.

Well he smaller than I had expected. At least, he's not the brawny specimen of British manhood he appears or film. Rather thin and well-dressed, soft spoken and polite. A mild joker in a veddy British way. "I'm an absolute tea-fiend. Get me some immediately, or else I shall have to inject it into my veins." (Take that damn foreigner down to Harlem.) A refined version of the feline eyes, two-coloured hair, the endearingly bumpy nose projected on the movie-screen. The Oxford accent, my dear, of course unmistakable: but not an affected one. Rather the natural tones of the Oxonian graduate, the eternal college boy who likes to reminisce affectionately but unpretentiously about his undergraduate days.

He is the first one to ask questions: about coeducation at Harvard, about similar changes at English universities, "when I was at Oxford (for the first time I knew then that the collegiate role fit the man himself) if you were caught with a girl in your room, you were promptly sent down." He asks if I have a copy of the Crimson with me. I do, and he leafs through it thoughtfully, smiling at certain items. "Kids go to a lot of films here, don't they?" A modest manner; sometimes, when speaking about other actors or directors, almost too much so. Friendly, helpful, approachable but shy. A warm smile, but almost never a laugh. A set of positive phrase: "marvelous," "I adore it," "extraordinary."

"It's the first time I've ever held and interview like this, you know. I'm doing it because I enjoyed doing 'Cabaret' so much, and it also gives me a chance to talk with Americans. Oh yes, I've been to America before, my wife (does the heart sink?) used to work for Glamour magazine. But I've been living amongst this colony of American refugees (so he can be sarcastic...) in London, and they all have this terribly pessimistic view of the States. I wanted to see for myself. And then, I adore travelling more than anything else. I think it's what I like best about my life as an actor."

HIS LOVE OF TRAVEL goes back to his childhood. Although he is originally from Oxford, his father was a business executive who travelled quite extensively, and so Michael moved around a lot as a child. "I suppose that's where I first got a taste for the gypsy life," he explains. During his school years he became interested in acting, and one of his first stage appearances was in a student production of "The Merchant of Venice." He continued to do much Shakespeare, acting in "Hamlet," "Richard the Third" and "Julius Caesar" after he joined Michael Croft's National Youth Theater at the age of 16. The members of this stage company were teenagers -- or "young toughs and lay-abouts," as he calls them -- drawn from all over England, who spent their "hols" acting and producing plays throughout England and the Continent. "I've always had a soft place for Shakespeare; I adore him. It's too bad he's so massacred in the schoolroom, rammed down people's throats in the most ghastly way. I think I love him because I grew up with him, knowing him as a kid; he gives such credit to his audiences' imagination. I got high on it." Franco Zeffirelli obviously not only spotted York's acting ability, or his ugly good looks, but also detected in him a fellow addict, a lasting enthusiast for the genius of the Bard.

York's love affair with the theater grew during his years at Oxford. "I read English at Oxford -- Tolkien's son was my tutor, actually. But you have to understand the English tutorial system at the universities to realize that I didn't spend much time in the classroom. I spent absolutely all my time acting." He belonged to the Oxford University Drama Society, the university's theater company that produces Shakespearean and classical drama. But he didn't confine himself to tradition, and joined the Experimental Theatre Company at Oxford as well. "Theater was my hole life at Oxford, and Oxford is a very drama-oriented place. It's funny. Sean Connery was the big actor around town at that time. I imagine I always wanted to make acting my career, but if I hadn't I would've picked journalism.

His penchant for the written word is still strong. On his wide travels he keeps a journal and writes down his impressions of each place he visits. By writing he feels he can create a tangible link with past experience, both immediate are removed; scrutinize his own moods, and analyze his reactions in retrospect: study the appearances of strange people and places. "I also read quite a bit, but I don't understand people who re-read books. There's so much to see and read. I don't have the time to re-hash something like that, and I don't approach a book as something that need's going over." Like his journal, each book he reads reflects a new and first impression. Like his indignation at the idea that he ever lets himself be type-cast in many movies, while what he wants is the often indecisive and impulsive freedom to pick a "new direction" with each new role, he confronts life with an infectious excitement. He can rush headlong into each novel experience, because it is based on a mature conviction that Michael York and his world will learn their most valuable lessons from many an unfamiliar little incident.

AFTER GRADUATING from Oxford (with honors), York joined the Dundee Repertory Company, earning the usual minimal rep salary in exchange for a varied acting experience ranging from "Antigone" to "Salad Days." Then came his great break. "The mind boggles at the thought of how full of coincidence life is. With me, I think it was just a question of being at the right place at the right time. I know many actors, friends and colleagues who simply didn't have the luck I did. Looking back, I'm very grateful that things have worked out so well." The right place and time were in London during the auditions for Britain's National Theatre. Sir Laurence Olivier was one of the judges, and a director with the company. Two days later, York was one of its members.

His first appearance with the National Theatre was in a production of "Much Ado About Nothing." "I just walked on and waked off. The real stars were Maggie Smith and Albert Finney." More importantly for York's film career, Franco Zeffirelli was the director. Zeffirelli gave York his first screen role in the bawdy "The Taming of the Shrew." Film critics began to sit up and take notice. Although he had graduated Oxford. York was now enrolled at the University of Renaissance Padua: be played the student who woos Bianca. His cinema reputation as the young academic had begun.

While working on "The Taming of the Shrew," he met director Joseph Losey, who dropped him right back on campus in "Accident." Like most audiences. York admires and appreciates the genius that went into making the picture. "I was tremendously satisfied working with him (Losey). He's a complete professional and won't compromise overmuch, either -- he knows what he's about. When I started working with him on 'Accident.' I wasn't at all experienced in film. I had an absolute trauma after seeing the first rushes at the local cinema." He briefly evokes the close, sweaty atmosphere of a small English moviehouse. "Well, Losey said to me. 'What are you worried about? I'm very pleased. If I hadn't wanted you to look and act that way, do you think you would have?" He taught me so much, one felt so creative."

York's next film was "Red and Blue" with Vanessa Redgrave, followed by "Smashing Time" with sister Lynn and Rita Tushingham. In 1966 he launched himself into the world of television as Young Jolyon in the BBC's popular adaptation of "The Forsyte Saga." During the summer of '67 York worked with Zeffirelli in Rome as Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet." Then he returned to twentieth century England for a persona as a young policeman in "The Strange Affair." Alexandria beckoned in "Justine" with Anouk Aimee, but "of all the films I've made. I like that one the least."

LISTENING TO HIM SUM UP his films and their locations, it seems that his travels left him little time in England at all. "I was bitten by the India bug before it became all the rage." Late in 1967 he went to India to star with Rita Tushingham in "The Guru." A typical example of a movie made before its time. But then the fad caught up with us before it was released. You can't imagine how surprised we were to bump into people like the Beatles and Mia Farrow on our way home." York remains oblivious to general critical opinions: "Personally, I like that almost the best of any movie I've made. It suffered from lack of 'selling.' It was made on a budget of 'frozen rupees' from things like The Sound of Music, but then it was never pushed enough. The Museum of Modern Art has a copy, tho'; it might be revived. What it was about? Well, you know, the old theme of 'East, West, never the twain shall meet.'"