If you’ve listened to “Movie Magazine” over the years, you may have noticed that its producer, yours truly, has a very definite bias towards character actors. In many cases, the character actors are better than the stars and more versatile; they could, if they would, steal every scene if they so chose. Most don’t, of course, because they know that a juicy supporting performance may well throw the movie off-balance and even wind up on the cutting room floor if it outshines the major players.
The very least an excellent character actor might expect, besides a steady paycheck and some favourable reviews, is a decent death notice. So I was really angry last week when Tom Bell, a first-rate British actor, died at the age of 74, and no U.S. papers even noticed it. All the latest scandals of non-stars like Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton and the sociopathic bodyguards of Angelina Jolie were covered in breathless detail, but not a sentence about Tom Bell. What had he ever done anyway, except given dozens of brilliant performances since his 1960 debut in Joseph Losey’s “The Concrete Jungle,” a fine film noir starring Stanley Baker and San Wanamaker?
Other crime dramas, Sidney Hayers’ “Echo of Barbara” and “Payroll,” followed in 1961, with Bell 5th billed as Ben in the first and 6th billed as Blackie in the second. The film that really put Tom Bell on the international map was his seventh, “The L Shaped Room,” released when he was thirty. It was his first co-starring role as a writer who falls in love with a French girl in his rooming house. As Toby and Jane, Bell and Leslie Caron created a new type of screen lovers: adult, flawed, willing to stake their all in a romance that each feels, for different reasons, will not last very long. They are surrounded by a motley group of characters: an extroverted elderly lesbian, (Cicely Courtneidge) an elderly black man, (Brock Peters), Jane’s doctor (Emlyn Williams) and others doing their best in the shabby reduced circumstances of furnished rooms with very thin walls. Caron won a British Film Award and Oscar nomination as Jane.
Never again would Tom Bell play such a vulnerable, attractive character. He seemed to prefer tough, uncompromising men, who took no prisoners and expected no mercy. He found most of his work playing reprehensible men about whom nothing good could be said. His career was tough and uncompromising as well. More than once, he found himself cast in star-making roles that he walked away from without a backwards glance, and if he had any regrets about his professional decisions, he kept them to himself. Producers were ruffled by an actor so indifferent to true fame and real fortune. I expect that this is why his London Times death notice was admiring, rather than affectionate in tone.
But actors can create a rich and memorable gallery of characters, even if they are creepy, dissatisfied, conniving, treacherous, bad-tempered and violent. As Jack McVitie in “The Krays,” Tom Bell was an unrepentant thug, but an unforgettable one. In “Let Him Have It,” he was equally vivid as the cop whose death led to the hotly debated execution of Derek Bentley. Tom Bell made everyone’s skin crawl as the icky sexual partner of teenaged Emily Lloyd, and as Adolph Eichmann, he helped to make “Holocaust” the best miniseries of 1978. And then of course there was Bill Otley, forever chafing at the bit around Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson in “Prime Suspect.” Bell returned to play in the series’ final installment shortly before his death.
Why explore the dark side of human nature so thoroughly, without a single bid for audience sympathy and understanding? Well, someone has to play the bad guys. Since Tom Bell understood the bad guys better than the actors who chose to portray them as tortured anti-heroes, he kept his work honest. And he kept me and many others riveted by his clean-eyed visions of hell on Earth.
© 2006 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 10/18/06