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
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.
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