From thesp to painter to producer, David Hemmings was always recasting himself. But like many actors, he seemed uncomfortable with his own character.
A director friend once told me: “I like actors, but they make lousy friends. That’s because you never know what role they’re playing.”
The death of David Hemmings last week reminded me of this advisory. Hemmings was immensely gifted and ingratiating, but visiting with him over the years I never had the foggiest idea who he was. He was not just an actor waiting for a new film role, he was always acting out a new life role.
Depending on the moment, Hemmings would gladly confide to you that he was a professional singer. Then a successful painter. Then a movie star. Then a financier and film mogul. Then a producer. Then a director.
In his later years he seemed to be going full circle, resuming his acting career in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Gladiator.” He died in Romania at age 62 working on a movie called “Samantha’s Child.”
Hemmings’ personal life was equally frenzied. He was married three times and had either six or seven children, depending on whom you asked.
Hemmings was uniformly persuasive in all his roles, both in films and in life. His problem was that he could never get comfortable with any of them.
Also, like many of his acting colleagues, he drank a great deal in the process of figuring things out. When he passed out after lunch on one film, his producer told him he’d fire him if he ever had another drink during the day. From then on, Hemmings resolutely carried a mug of coffee around with him — only the mug contained beverages more potent than coffee.
Was Hemmings a bit of a scoundrel? Absolutely. But we’re talking a multitalented, world-class scoundrel.
From the age of 9, he was singing opera professionally. His first starring role in a movie, at age 25, was a showstopper: Playing a photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup,” Hemmings became an instant superstar. Indeed, every film he made seemed to catch the moment — “Barbarella,” “Charge of the Light Brigade,” etc.
When I first met him in that period, everyone was shoving scripts his way, but Hemmings informed me that he was misunderstood. Sure, he’d take an acting gig now and then, but he also invited me to an exhibition of his paintings — and, typically, they were instantly a hot item in London.
Then, too, he’d started a film finance company called Hemdale in partnership with a combative young Cockney named John Daly. Hemmings was adeptly learning this new role, too, as I learned when I met with him on a movie project. Here was the one-time star of “Blowup” holding forth with high confidence about territorial deals, bridge financing and completion guarantees.
Hemdale wasn’t a mere toy. It ultimately was involved in projects ranging from “Platoon” to “Terminator” to “The Last Emperor,” though Hemmings had by then lost interest and moved on to yet another career.
Years later when I hired him as an actor, I reminded Hemmings of his mogul period, and he seemed flummoxed. It was as though a critic had referred to a movie that he could barely remember.
When the film roles dried up, Hemmings reinvented himself as a film director — one of his films, “The Wild Little Bunch,” won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Then he was suddenly directing episodic TV, working on “The A-Team” and “Airwolf.”
When Hemmings became bored with this, acting roles started to come his way.
“The saddest thing was that his acting career was flowering again,” says Nik Powell, the producer of “Last Orders,” one of Hemmings’ final films.
But then one career or another always seemed to be flowering for Hemmings. And that, indeed, was what was so baffling about him.
For Hemmings’ behavior epitomized on a grand scale the failings and frailties of many of his acting colleagues. He was obsessed with the belief that he was only as good as his last role — indeed, that he was his last role and thus needed to take bold steps to invent a new one. And surely few were more inventive at instantly assuming a new vocabulary, a new demeanor — indeed, a new identity.
Hence, when someone asked me the other day if I knew David Hemmings, I replied, “I did, actually. I knew several of the David Hemmingses.”
My questioner seemed puzzled, but I decided to change the subject. After all, it would take too long to explain.