Tom Courtenay, who stars with Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years,” was reviewed in Variety in 1960, for Chekhov’s “The Seagull” at the Old Vic. That led to the 1962 film “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” followed quickly by the movies “Billy Liar” (1963) and “Dr. Zhivago” (1965).
Did you always want to be an actor?
At grammar school, the head boy would do the day’s reading and I didn’t like the way he did it. I wanted to do it. And eventually I became the head boy. And later I went to University College London, which was on Gower Street and the real reason I wanted to go there was because it was close to RADA.
How did you start out?
After University College London, I did two years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I heard the head of RADA, John Fernald, wanted to do “The Seagull.” I had a premonition I would do it. I kept meeting young actors who were invited to audition, but I never was. Instead, I was asked to do a general audition to join the Old Vic. Michael Benthall, director of Old Vic, said, “You can play Konstantin — but not with those teeth.” RADA helped me pay for a dentist. The man was a butcher. Instead of my regular teeth, he put this thing in my mouth which A) didn’t look like teeth and B) made it very difficult to talk. It was a time that should have been utterly magical but became something of a nightmare.
How was the production otherwise?
I was a bit raw. The director thought my rawness would work for this character. That production was also the beginning of my film career. John Osborne saw it and told Tony Richardson, his partner in Woodfall Films. I met with Tony, who said, “Go and read the book (‘Long-Distance Runner’). You’ll be absolutely marvelous.” Almost 18 months later, I got the film. In the meantime, I joined the Old Vic company. I played Feste and Puck and whatever, then the Old Vic let me leave early to take over from Albert (Finney) in “Billy Liar” in the West End.
So you were on your way.
“The Seagull” was the start of everything. It all happened so fast. I had gone to drama school, then was right away thrown in the deep end and then movies. I was in a state of shock and was not feeling ready for it. About the time of “Zhivago,” I was determined to start over again. I felt I had to be in plays, to learn how to act. I turned down a lot of film work. Too much maybe.
But things turned out well.
Thank you. And eventually, I got my teeth sorted out by a wonderful man — whose son is now my dentist!
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