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Ken Russell Vladek Sheybal
The Debussy Film Dance
of the Seven Veils Billion
Dollar Brain Women
in Love The Boy Friend
Vladek Sheybal worked with Ken Russell from the early BBC days through to the early films and the classic Russell era. As well as his work with Russell, Sheybal appeared in films ranging from the Bond film From Russia with Love to Red Dawn and television series including the sublime U.F.O. and Smiley´s People.
This interview and article is by David Del Valle and originally appeared in Psychotronic magazine. Thanks to David and Psychotronic for permission to reproduce it.
Vladek Sheybal was a character character actor, a zany eccentric performer, fluent in several languages and devoted to his native Poland. My first exposure to Sheybal was with Women in Love and of course, From Russia With Love, playing a chess master with ties to SPECTRE. I came to know Vladek after seeing him at the Roundhouse in London playing King Herod in Lindsay Kemps Salome. We became friends and stayed in touch. He came to Hollywood to teach acting at UC Berkeley but decided to change his mind and returned to the UK to work on Ken Russells (unreleased feature) Moll Flanders.
Vladek passed away soon after in London (in 1992). Vladek was very proud of his work on The Apple. The film is not one of the best musicals ever made but he is great in it playing the Devil singing and dancing! Vladek, like his fellow actor Udo Kier, had a style not unlike Peter Lorres and could have become an international star villain, had fate been kind to him. His death was certainly premature because Vladek had so much more to offer.
Vladek Sheybal was born in Poland in 1933. The history of Poland is long, complex and tragic. When the future actor (originally named Wladylaw) was around six years old, his country was invaded by the brief unholy alliance of Stalins Soviet Union and Hitlers Germany. The Nazis occupiers finally left in 1945, followed by decades of Communist rule. I decided to be an actor when I was about four or five. My first part was as a mushroom in a school play, dancing and singing songs, it was very funny. I was nicknamed, at school, Actor. My father was a professor at the Academy Of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and was a painter. He wanted me to become an architect. My Mother wanted me to become a doctor. And I was very much tempted to become a doctor because Im born under the sign of a Pisces, to heal people and to be good to them.
Suddenly, one day after the war, I walked into this drama school and I became an actor. The first jobs were theatre, travelling in the south of Poland. Very old fashioned, very good theater. (One day) somebody twisted an ankle, so the director said,Vladek will play the part. It was French comedy. I played the leading part, a young lover in a white powdered wig. A very good beginning. Then I was playing a considerable amount of big parts in the Warsaw theater. (Roman) Polanski was playing tiny parts. I remembered him because we were in the same dressing room for about one week. He was not talking about being a director. He wanted to be an actor then. He would look up to me then as a sort of already big star. He is now in Paris. I am still in touch with him (I shouldnt say that in this country!). I dont estimate him very highly as an actor. I saw him on the stage as Mozart in Amadeus, in French. He wasnt bad, but I couldnt believe in him as Mozart. He was technically very good. His main talent and genius is his fanatic ideas and observations of the lives of people, his scripts and as a director. Polanski, born the same year as Sheybal, acted in Polish films and directed his first shorts in 1959.
In 1956, Sheybal co-starred in Kanal, about the 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Nazis. It was the second of a WWII trilogy by famous director Andrzej Wajdas, a former Resistance fighter. Kanal didnt play in America until l961 but was an international hit. Eventually Sheybal made it to England where he landed work on stage, on TV and in movies. In theater youre stuck for several months in one play in the West End. I used to be basically a theatrical actor, Stanislawski training, tremendous training. Theater in Poland is very strict about these things. The acting process is a rather painful process. Its like giving birth to somebody. When l wake up in the morning and I know Im going to play somebody, like Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, which I played in London, the whole day is ruined, my live ceases to exist, because Im recharging my battery, Im getting pregnant. It sounds corny but it is true, on the stage especially. I envy those actors who can just walk in off the street and into the play. I have to go though this pregnancy period. When Im finished playing the part in the evening, I kill the character. Its like a murder. I go back to my bed with blood all over the place.
His first major England language feature was From Russia with Love (1964), the classic second James Bond film. His friend Sean Connery convinced him to accept the role. Terence Young directed in England and Istanbul. It was my first international film. I was playing Constantine the chess player.
I was an accomplice of Lotte Lenya, a fantastic lady that I adored. In 1965 he had a similar role as the as manager of a chess club in Return from the Ashes, a serious WWII drama starring Maxmillian Schell, Samantha Eggar, Ingrid Thulin, and Herbert Lom.
I read the script and didnt like my part, although it was a leading part. It was a film director who is making a film about Debussy I told him I would play the part if he would allow me to play another part in the film made by this director, a very close friend of Debussy, a very famous French poet. He said Greedy greedy, out of the question. but a week later he rang me up and apologized for waking me from my sleep and asked me if I would play these two parts and that is what I did. But Oliver Reed, Ollie, played Debussy. He and I worked for six weeks, every day and some nights. Everything that happened in my career and life was coincidence. Im not a planning person, Im an emotional person."
British TV work included roles on series that were also broadcast in America: Secret Agent (starring Patrick McGoohan, British title Danger Man), The Saint (starring Roger Moore) and The Baron (starring Steve Forrest). Sheybal was in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale as a representative of le Chiffre (Orson Welles) in the casino scenes.
He then played Dr. Eiwort in Billion Dollar Brain (1967 the third of the Harry Palmer spy movies starring Michael Caine. It was directed by Ken Russell (in Helsinki and in Latvia) and featured François Dorleac, Karl Malden, Ed Segley, and Oscar Homolka.
In 1968 he played Dr. Delgado in Deadfall, directed by Bryan Forbes (partially in Madrid and Majorca). Michael Caine stars as jewel thief in love with a woman who is married to her homosexual father. He also appeared on the spy series The Champions that year. Journey to the far side of the Sun was a 1969 sci fi feature starring lan Hendry, Roy Thinnes, and Herbert Lom. Producers Gerry and Silvia Anderson were known for their Supermarionation TV shows (Thunderbirds, Supercar...).
Women in Love (1969) was Ken Russells controversial adaptation of D. H. Lawrences novel staring Alan Sates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson (who received an Oscar). It was partially filmed In Switzerland. Sheybal played the major role of the homosexual artist Loerke. Russells later The Rainbow (1989) was a prequel. (Del Valle and Sheybal watched parts of Women in Love while taping this interview).I think I hate my first close up on the staircase. I read the book, so I based myself on the book, a brutal man. I think that real artists have to be ruthless and brutal to achieve certain things. Oh my God, I was so young. I cant believe it. This was Glendas first big step. Shes a lovely girl. This film made, in a big way, Glenda Jackson. Made in a smaller way, Oliver Reed, and made me in a smaller way too. To this day anybody, when they recognize me, they say Women in Love.
You know she was seven months pregnant. Ken thought that he would not be able to finish the film. It shows in one shot when shes dancing with me on the snow. I was always afraid when we were whirling and twirling on the snow, not to hit her. No one knew it would be a big success. Ken Russell put the cigar in my mouth. I dont smoke and it was difficult to speak the lines. This is my real scene where Im an artist showing that Im mad about my work. We didnt discuss it with Ken, what we were going to do in the scenes, we were just doing it. Glenda is an excellent actress. She will change with age like Bette Davis, easily.
Russells TV movie Dance of the Seven Veils (1970) was about Richard Strauss. I played (Nazi propaganda minister) Goebbels, and I had to limp like Goebbels. I made him as much as possible, a stinking pig. In one part I had a little German sausage in my mouth and he (Russell) asked me to give it, still holding in my mouth, to my partner, a lady next to me. So I arranged that the sausage was dripping with fat and grease, to make it as filthy as possible.
He was in five features released in l970. The Music Lovers (1970), his fourth Russell project, starring Richard Chamberlain as the (gay) composer Tchaikovsky. Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, and former ballet dancer Christopher Gable.
Leo the Last was John Boormans version of a play starring Marcello Mastroianni as a Prince who becomes involved with blacks in a London ghetto. Billie Whitelaw and Calvin Lockharr co-starred and Sheybal played Lazslo. It one of my best parts. Everybody was predicting that after this part I was going to shoot up as an international star, but unfortunately... John Boorman is a great artist and a creator and now a great friend of mine. I visit him in his house in Ireland. I love his whole family. All these great directors Ive worked with, they always accept your ideas. They always listen to you. I do my homework. Puppet on a Chain, based on the Alistair MacLean drug traffic novel, starred Sven-Bertill Taube and Barbara Perkins. The memorable speed boat chase sequence in Amsterdam was directed by Don Sharp. The Last Valley, directed by novelist James Clavell starred Michael Caine as a 17th century warrior, Omar Sharrif, and Florinda Bolkan.I spent two days in the studio with Omar Sharrif and Michael Caine. Mosquito Squadron was a WWII drama starring David McCallum as a Canadian RAF pilot. Sheybal played Lt. Schack. I usually play in American Films. The bulk of my films are cast from London. Im always working for MGM,Warner Brother, Paramount... I love it because I fly first class jumbo jet and I stay in the first class hotels.
Ken Russells The Boyfriend (197I) was a version of the popular West End (then Broadway) musical (which had borrowed from the Busby Berkeley classic 42ns Street) starring Twiggy and Christopher Gable (also the choreographer). Lovely man. Hes dead, from a heart attack, quite recently. In a restaurant. Twiggy, who I knew as model, Pisces like myself. Max Adrian, dancer Tommy Tune, and an unbilled Glenda Jackson were also in it. Sheybal played the director De Thrill. Im all through the film. I was supposed to be Cecil B. DeMille I was wearing DeMilles actual britches. Fantastic. I loved every minute, dancing, music, tapping, high kicks and whatever and Tommy Tune was playing my son, which is funny because hes three time as tall as I am. At the end were supposed to embrace and he had to lift me up from the pavement.
I was watching him being so incredibly talented and asking myself,’why isn’t he a big star?’. He had wait ten years. But he’s not as young as he was then, as a dancer. We were filming in Portugal. Sheybal helped making parts of the script more perverse.” I said to Ken Russell right from the beginning How can you imagine that all the provincial actors, in a little theater, would react to the fact that the famous C. B. DeMille, from Hollywood, suddenly arrived and is in the box watching. Everybody would try to sell anything. I mean, girls, their bodies, boys, their bodes, abilities of acting, smiles, upstaging, everything. Ken was marvellous. He said, I agree with you.So the whole idea started from my homework."
During 1972, he was a regular (Dr. Jackson) on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson´s odd U.F.O TV series which was syndicated in America. Scorpio (1973) was a spy movie directed by Michael Winner with Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon. Alain Delon, I worked with him only one day, very professional very polite. I got to meet Burt Lancaster. We acted together for a split second. A charming man.The same year, The Kiss of Death was an Italian feature with Martine Beswicke (also in From Russia with Love) as a devil worshipping drug taking gypsy witch. Sheybal plays her reptilian assistant. S*P*Y*S was an unpopular comedy with Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland as CIA agents. QBVII was an ABC mini-series based on Leon Uris best-seller. Ben Gazara starred with Anthony Hopkins and Leslie Caron. Sheybal was Sobotnik.
The Wind and the Lion (1975) was John Milius romantic historical adventure starring Sean Connery, Candice Bergman, and Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt. Sheybal played an Arab called The Bashaw, the brother of Connerys character. The Night of the Marionettes was a 1977 episode of the BBC show Supernatural I was playing the proprietor of an Austrian inn in the mountains with Gordon Jackson. Very spooky, very strange things going on. There is a very snobbish Dracula Society, The Gothique, I received a letter saying I was being awarded for the best Gothique performance of the year. They invited me to a fantastic sumptuous dinner. They handed me a scroll which I have framed on my wall. One of the first awards was Christopher Lee. They are very rich people, country squires.
Shogun (1980) was a very popular mini-series based on James Clavells best seller. It stars Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. Sheybal played the Portuguese Captain Ferriera. I stayed more than three months in Tokyo for Shogun. I was very pleased I was playing this part. There were dangerous moments. Their typhoons raging around us and I was on a little raft. I was in this heavy costume. One misjudgement and I would go down like a bullet. They shouted in the loudspeaker Can You Swim!? But it was tremendous fun. Richard Chamberlain was great fun to be with. In front of the camera and outside the camera in the hotel lobby, joking and chatting. Mifune, we had fantastic eye contact with him. He hardly spoke any English. He learns by line, but he cant communicate. Hes a man who is used to having about 25 servants and translators and food makers around him all the time, a whole court. Its unbelievable. One of his minions, I called them, he send him to me and he said,Could you please look at him as much as possible because he likes looking into your eyes. It was a compliment, across the camera.
His next feature acting role was in The Apple (1980), a crazed Menahem Golan directed West German/Cannon co-production musical fantasy set in future (1994). Catherine Mary Stuart stars as half of a singing duo. Sheybal had the stand out role of record producer Mr. Boogaloo (the devil!). Tristan and Isolde / Fire and Sword (1981) was a German/Irish version of the medieval love story starring Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson. Smileys People (1982) was a BBC mini series starring Alec Guinness as a spy in the 3rd of part of a John Le Carre trilogy. Sheybal was Otto Leipzig. "I am very hard working for each part. I do my homework. I dont believe in talent or intuition. I believe in very hard work, then intuition takes over. When Im in front of the camera I try to forget about my learned lines and start fresh. All this material that I worked on is already inside of me. I liked very much, old fashioned theatrical actors like John Barrymore. I loved him. And nobody can equal Greta Garbo. She was very intelligent. She was working very hard. My favourite actor is Ralph Richardson. I didn´t work with him but I worked with Sir Alec Guinness, on Smiley´s People. I never understood these spy scripts. In Hamburg we were filming and I asked him ´What is our relationship´ he said ´I don´t know, I only know you are one of my men"
Red Dawn (1984) was John Milius American teens vs. invading Commies feature. Its science fiction about America being invaded by the Cubans and the Russians. I play the Russian general. I play the part in Spanish and Russian. I portray these Russian generals in a way that the world should tremble. Im giving a big warning by playing this part In Jigsaw Man (1984), Michael Caine is a British spy who has plastic surgery and defects. Lawrence Olivier, Susan George and Robert Powell co-star and Bond veteran Terence Young directed.
Some of Sheybals last roles were in features that few people saw. Where is Parsifal? (1984) is a comedy starring Tony Curtis as an inventor, plus Erik Estrada, Peter Lawford, and Donald Pleasence. It was the second feature with Sheybal and Orson Welles, who was, by then, huge and still trying to raise money to direct again. Welles had taken the role because the (lying) producers had promised to back his planned version of King Lear. When I met him in London I had tears in my eyes. I feel like a school boy admiring this giant. We lost him. I cant understand. The director (Henry Helman) sent me a French script in which he wants me to play an impoverished Russian aristocrat in Paris, which is funny because I play in Italian films as well. In Italian films, Im invariably cast as impoverished Venetian aristocrat. Memed My Hawk (1987) was a Yugoslavian/ British production directed by the Russian/British Peter Ustinov (who starred as a local Turkish dictator). The Czech Herbert Lom (a frequent Sheybal co-star) was also in it.
Strike it Rich (1990), based on Graham Greene novella, starred Robert Lindsay, Molly Ringwald and Sir John Gielgud. After so many big stars, I could become completely cynical. For instance, I happened to know Bette Davis very well, we were close friends. Im not a cynical man though. After so many films Ive done, technically, one is so prepared. I shut off the noise, people walking around, the camera. Ive learned it long time ago. Im always getting in close with the cameraman. Hes my friend. I know all angles of my face. I have to have technical knowledge- I know quite a lot. I would rather direct. I´d rather not watch myself on the screen because I get angry and ask "why did I do that?...´"
by David Del Valle
Thanks to David and Psychotronic
magazine for permission to reproduce this article.
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