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The Man Who Taught The World How To Talk Like A Pirate

by Dave Lee
19 September 2013 17 Comments

On National Talk Like a Pirate Day, Robert Newton's performance as Long John Silver that defined pirates in the eyes of the world always deserves a good eyeballin' over some grog... arrr!

Robert Newton as Long John Silver

In any list of the most influential performances in cinema you’ve expect to find Brando in On The Waterfront or De Niro in Taxi Driver or James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause but there’s a very strong case for arguing that all of them are utterly eclipsed by Robert Newton’s 1950 turn as Long John Silver in Treasure Island. It’s not a role normally associated with great acting technique or even a performance that’s particularly good, but there can be little doubt that it’s had more influence on a global scale than its given credit for and the character he created is the only one to ever become a universally accepted archetype. For it was Newton that gave us the ‘ooh-aar-Jim-lad-pieces-of-eight-shiver-me-timbers’ pirate voice used by everyone on the planet.

Robert Newton was well into an eclectic and surprisingly well-respected stage and film career when he was asked to play Long John Silver in Disney’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, their first foray into live action cinema. He’d worked with Olivier, Coward, Hitchcock, Lean on works as varied and celebrated as Hamlet, Jamaica Inn and Oliver Twist, yet by the time Treasure Island came around in 1950 he was deeply alcoholic and delivered a performance of such swivel-eyed, bizarrely-accented, scenery-chewing lunacy that he not only stole the entire film but also created a character that almost immediately defined the physical, sartorial and verbal attributes of a pirate.

Many actors had portrayed pirates on screen over the previous decades but  Newton’s Silver was a performance of such individuality and eccentricity that it single-handedly created the persona of the ‘arr, jim lad’/ peg leg, rum swigging/ parrot-toting variety we all instantly imitate whenever the word ‘pirate’ is uttered in company.  Try it now, say ‘do a pirate’ to the next person you meet (preferably someone you know to avoid being taken for a nutter) and see what happens. That eye thing they’re doing, that standing on one leg, the speech patterns, tone and content of what they say, pretending they have a parrot on their shoulder – that’s not ‘a pirate’, that’s Newton’s vision of a pirate. Johnny Depp famously impersonated Keith Richards for his Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films but even with their global ubiquity it’s still Newton’s definition of the pirate character that dominates popular consciousness.

He was deeply alcoholic and delivered a performance of such swivel-eyed, bizarrely-accented, scenery-chewing lunacy that he not only stole the entire film but also created a character that almost immediately defined the physical, sartorial and verbal attributes of a pirate.

Looking at the performance now it appears entirely over-the-top; he’s limping, sweating, unshaven, bursting out of his clothes, licking his lips and bulging, turning and squinting his eyes as if they’re on opposing, uncontrollable gimbals, each intent on taking sole control of his vision. It’s as if a mad uncle has had one Xmas sherry too many and is wandering the house frightening the kids by doing his pirate schtick, complete with a gruff, indistinct West Country accent so tortuously distended that it makes it impossible to believe that Newton was actually born and raised in Dorset and Cornwall. How did such a hammy turn end up having such influence?

The film came out when TV was in its infancy and the Saturday morning cinema matinee was still the entertainment of choice for most kids Consequently, Treasure Island was, by default, seen by a whole generation of kids almost instantaneously. Newton had such an impact on those children that his performance became part of their playground ritual. People like Tony Hancock, Peter Cook, Robert Crumb and Keith Moon (all acknowledged fans of the film) started impersonating Newton, along with millions of kids around the English speaking world. Moon, in particular, bore a strong resemblance to Newton and used to dress as Silver and adopt the character whenever possible, right into adult life. The Monty Python team, too, were all fans, creating the Watford Long John Silver Impersonators for one sketch (coincidentally, Python’s producer John Howard Davies starred as Oliver Twist alongside Newton’s gill Sikes in David Lean’s 1948 classic).

Once these and many other fans started referencing Newton’s ‘pirate’ style and adopted it as a stock character on TV it simply became the norm. Now it’s everywhere, look at some of the people and productions that use the pirate archetype. The Simpson’s sea-captain, Spongebob’s Mr Krabs, Tom Baker as Captain Rum in Blackadder, Patrick Stewart in The Pagemaster, Graham Chapman in Yellowbeard, Richard Dreyfuss’s taunting of Quint in Jaws, Tom Waits even wrote a song called ‘Shiver Me Timbers’, inspired by an often misquoted Silver line from Treasure Island. To top it all there’s also an international ‘Talk Like a Pirate’ day that is so in debt to Newton that they have adopted him as their patron saint.

Newton went on to reprise Silver for a 26-part Australian TV series called ‘The Adventures of Long John Silver’ and even played another legendary pirate (Blackbeard) before his inevitable drink fuelled death in 1956, aged just 50. He never lived to see the part he created lodge itself immovably in the popular conscious and become so influential. Some could argue that Brando as Don Corleone gave us our mental image of a mafia don, that Bela Lugosi defined Dracula or Lon Chaney did the same with Frankenstein but only Newton, and Silver, has come to completely define in the world’s conscience an entire sub-division of the human race. No performance can legitimately claim to have done the same. And he did it on one leg, while drunk. Not bad going.

History of Piracy: From Blackbeard To Somalia

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Michael Tanner 1:27 pm, 19-Sep-2011

Lon Chaney was the Wolfman. Boris Karloff was Frankenstein.

Dave Lee 3:11 pm, 19-Sep-2011

Well done Michael, you spotted the 'last para tester'. I always put a deliberate mistake in the last para of all my pieces to see how many people are reading right to the end. You win!! *walks away quickly and quietly*

Jack Sparrow 4:30 pm, 19-Sep-2011

Actually gents, Boris played Frankenstein's monster... not Victor Frankenstein, savvy? A common mistake among the masses.

Dave Lee 5:29 pm, 19-Sep-2011

And Jack walks straight into my 'pedant's trap'!! Mwah-ha-ha-ha. Just as I planned.

mxhg@att.net 8:02 pm, 19-Sep-2011

Lon Chaney was "Phantom Of the Opera"... busy guy.

Bruce 10:22 pm, 19-Sep-2011

"Them whats dies 'il be the lucky ones".

Elizabeth Moisan 10:29 pm, 19-Sep-2011

Great article! My favorite Newton line in the movie (There are no "arrs" in the book)is the morning after Mr. Arrow "mysteriously" disappears during the night, and Cap'n Smollett is saying a few words in his memory. Newton, with an impossible innocent face says, "Arr-men." Now, for a story about a bunch of pirates who never say "arr," check out my book on Amazon--- "Master of the Sweet Trade: A Story of the Pirate Samuel Bellamy, Mariah Hallett, and the Whydah." A great read, and some pirate truths, besides!

john 12:06 am, 20-Sep-2011

I think you'll find that he played Bill Sykes in Oliver not gill sikes as you stated a performance that greatly influenced Oliver Reed in the musical version.

Radar Kilowatt 4:07 am, 20-Sep-2011

Lon Chaney Sr. was the Phantom. Lon Chaney Jr. was the Wolfman

PETER BENEDICT 9:59 am, 19-Sep-2012

The best line of Newton's in TREASURE ISLAND is "Ohh - For ten toes !!". The grisly ending of Blackbeard, which I saw as a child, still gives me nightmares. Amazing to think it was shown at children's matinees when today we are warned that a film contains "mild threat".

Nicholas Newton 3:57 pm, 19-Sep-2012

Well put, matey. From son and grandchildren of the the great man. Nicholas, Matthew & Jack Newton

Dave Lee 4:43 pm, 19-Sep-2012

Thanks Nicholas and all. Glad you enjoyed the piece and thanks so much for commenting.

Bela Lugosi 11:27 pm, 17-Feb-2013

Karloff was a cocksucker!!

fdsa 11:40 pm, 17-Feb-2013

Fascinating article - but it's "consciousness", I think, not "conscience".

grant mckenzie 10:07 pm, 19-Sep-2013

was he trussed up to appear one legged?

Tim Footman 9:40 am, 20-Sep-2013

Actually, Lon Chaney Jr *did* play Frankenstein's Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). That is all.

Annie Mac 3:49 am, 23-Oct-2014

OMG --I LOVED that Rascal as a Child, and still do. Thank You!!

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