A Film Up North: An Excerpt From The New Biography Of Ian Hendry

This excerpt from the new biography of Ian Hendry describes the actor's experiences with Michael Caine and role in Get Carter.
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This excerpt from the new biography of Ian Hendry describes the actor's experiences with Michael Caine and role in Get Carter.

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“I’d almost forgotten what your eyes looked like ...” Michael Caine as Jack Carter to Eric Paice (Ian Hendry).

Ian should have been chirpy enough as he prepared to set off for Newcastle in August to co-star with Michael Caine in Get Carter. After Janet’s two miscarriages, a lengthy separation and the nightmares of life on “Devil’s Island”, he and Janet were seemingly thriving again. And all thanks to a terrible car crash the previous year.

Janet, 36 in 1970, had been sober for more than two years. After a relatively dry spell, Ian was now back on the booze. But he had cause to celebrate – didn’t he? – after the birth of their longed for second child, Corrie. The baby, born two months prematurely, arrived on August 4. Ian was there at Corrie’s birth just as he had been at Sally’s. Perhaps mindful of past experiences, Ian and Janet had no name lined up for her. A hospital photograph from August 1970 shows father and daughter sitting on Janet’s hospital bed, Sally thumbing through a book of first names.

Professionally, Ian was strumming along nicely but most of the work was for the small screen. That made the question more pertinent. What had happened to his dream of real movie stardom and meaty roles? Not the heel – Eric Paice – he was about to play in Get Carter but the lead and mega bucks? Ian had not had a starring role since the ill-fated Doppelganger two years before. Ian saw his career as increasingly cursed. The hot property of 1963, whose creativity and talent had once been compared to Charlie Chaplin, was now playing a secondary role to Caine.

Ian had been a star when Caine was just a pale-faced, uncredited “copper” or “second-from-left baddie”. Yet now the tables were turned. Ian’s 40th birthday was still months away, yet he looked much older. His battered face reflected his boozy lifestyle, his voice a gravelly mix of brandy and smoke. The charisma and authority were as strong as ever but the handsome young man who made women swoon was gone.

Comparisons with Caine only made it worse. He was just two years younger than Ian but in much better shape. “Meteoric” Michael’s rise to the top had seen him beat Ian for the part of Gonville Bromhead in Zulu and then become a big name Stateside with The Ipcress File, Alfie and The Italian Job. Alfie – as already noted but worth repeating – was a sore point for Ian. His Albert Argyle in Live Now – Pay Later was a cockney charmer, an endearing ne’er-do-well living on the never never, whom women found irresistible against their better judgement. Ian described the film as “a smash and trend-setter” in his memoir. “I’m sure Michael Caine wouldn’t mind me saying snap when I saw him in Alfie,” he added. The two films, however, were in different orbits. Live Now – Pay Later was a low-budget, black-and-white satire. Alfie, on the other hand, gained Caine an Oscar nomination. It could have been so different. Ironically, Get Carter’s director, 38-year-old Mike Hodges, had always pictured Ian as Carter when he wrote the screenplay. He recalls:

“It often helps when writing to have an actor in mind. But that’s as far as it went. As soon as the script was completed, Michael Klinger told me that Michael Caine had read it and wanted to play the role. End of subject.”

Here was Caine in a role that Ian had prized. Ian’s role as a chauffeur, Caine’s part in Alfie, added to the humiliation. Ian was pissed off, to put it mildly. The taxman was chasing a backlog of unpaid dues, he had two children to support, his wife was a recovering alcoholic and his own career had peaked. So it was in this mood – mournful, resentful and worried – that Ian arrived in Newcastle in August 1970, the city where the sun never shone. Ian was, in Hodges’ words, “itching for a confrontation” with Caine. Hodges had decided to rehearse the race track scene in Caine’s hotel suite the night before filming. Ian had been drinking scotch since the afternoon.

Hodges recalls the encounter:

“Ian came to the reading very drunk and was immediately aggressive towards Michael. It all happened so quickly and for me was so startling I simply can’t remember what he said. All I do remember is that Caine was incredibly gracious and generous when dealing with it.”

The reading was abandoned.

Although the exact exchange is unreported, it was rumoured that Ian accused Caine of having “stolen” his career. The idea that there was “mutual animosity”, touted on various chat forums, was false. Caine had no reason to dislike Ian. Nonetheless, Ian’s reputation as a drinker had preceded him and Caine, to judge from his subsequent comments, was inclined to keep his distance. “I normally avoid drunks like the plague. Ian wasn’t a drunk; he was just a very heavy drinker,” says Caine on the DVD commentary. This was, as Caine must have known, mere word play. Sadly, Ian HAD acquired a reputation as a drunk.

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Ian was clearly behind the set-to with Caine. Yet Caine – it’s only fair to point out – has occasionally annoyed other actors and that’s in a business where stars positively trip over superlatives to praise each other. In a curious interview with The Sunday Times in 1995, for example, Caine described Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris as “drunks” and then allegedly added, a trifle tastelessly, “but at least it takes 30 years to kill you.” Harris fired back with a vitriolic broadside, describing Caine as “a master of inconsequence, now masquerading as a guru”.

Perhaps Caine looked down on problem drinkers – even though he had been a heavy drinker too. He once referred to “self- destructive Celts” (which would have included Ian) and contrasted them to “self-preservationist” Cockneys. Maybe Ian detected Caine’s condescension. They were totally different actors anyway. Ian was a passionate poet and voice artist who believed that great acting came from within.

Caine was more of a technician; his flat London monotone lacked the subtlety of a Burton or Hendry. He was more dependent on his size and his trademark lazy-lidded, emotionless gaze. Caine and Hendry also had different attitudes towards their profession. Despite his talent, there was an element of “take the cheques and run” in Caine’s career. Ian, by contrast, romanticised his craft; his brilliant thumbnail character portraits throughout the 1970s attest to his perfectionism.

Ian’s anger, however, is probably best explained simply through jealousy of Caine and too much of the wrong tipple. In subsequent interviews, Ian admitted he got nasty on whisky, prompting him to switch to brandy. Perhaps this was a nod to the confrontation.

The following morning, Hodges might have expected a hungover actor to stumble guiltily towards his marks. In fact, Ian was raring to go, although their encounter had a definite edge. “The animosity is still there in the scenes together,” said Hodges. The scene at Gosforth racetrack has Carter and Eric swap banter about Eric’s paymasters. Carter, suspicious of his claim to be “straight”, cracks a sarcastic joke about Eric advertising Martini. Carter removes Eric’s sunglasses. “It’s threatening ... because it is saying let’s look in your eyes and see your real soul,” commented Hodges.

Carter then tells Eric that his eyes look like “pissholes in the snow”. It’s perhaps the film’s most cited line. Also memorable is the silent, penetrating eyeball-to-eyeball exchange that accompanies it. The attempt to psyche each other out is just slightly over-long for comfort. Ian’s bloodshot eyes, vaguely amused but also threatened, swirl in their sockets and meet Caine’s deadpan cobra stare. Eric Paice saw Jack Carter, his nemesis in the film, but perhaps Ian also saw Caine, the big star who had now eclipsed him…

Send in the Clowns – the Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry, by Gabriel Hershman, is available from Lulu.