Anthony Harvey: The Lion Looks Back

by Patsy Southgate | November 28, 1996

To get inside the film editor and director Anthony Harvey's Water Mill house, one must first undergo a four-star welcome from his golden retriever, Rufus. Safely past this wild embrace, one is free to greet the dog's fond master.

"Rufus simply can't get enough love," Mr. Harvey said in an amused British accent, settling a visitor at the dining table in his colorful, bookish, grandly commodious living room.

The editor of "Dr. Strangelove" and "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," and director of "The Lion in Winter" and "The Glass Menagerie," among many other films, the London-born Mr. Harvey launched his protean career at age 14.

The Young Ptolemy

"My stepfather, Morris Harvey, was a rather good actor who raised me on Lawrence Olivier and Ralph Richardson at the Old Vic," he said.

"Through the designer Oliver Messel, who was doing the sets for a production of 'Caesar and Cleopatra' starring Vivian Leigh and Claude Raines, he got me an audition to play Ptolemy, Cleopatra's younger brother."

Beating out 100 child actors, Mr. Harvey snagged the part, only to come up against the disapproving headmaster of his boarding school.

"Since it was Bernard Shaw, he finally let me go, but only for two weeks. Of course the shooting dragged on forever. The London Blitz was on, the studio was bombed and caught fire, and Vivian Leigh had a miscarriage. But it was a wonderful start, working with these great performers."

Scholarship To RADA

Mr. Harvey said he "got the part because the casting director thought I had eyes like Vivian Leigh's." (In a Rank Film Classic reissue of the original, one can still see him: a mischievous young king in a lot of oddly alluring Egyptian eyeliner.)

Came time to audition for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: "I interrupted my prepared delivery of the Agincourt speech to tell the judges - Kenneth Barnes and Sybil Thorndyke - to stop talking about the previous candidate, or else I couldn't continue. They quieted down."

"I took it from the top, and got in."

But, realizing early on that he was not going to be "the next Albert Finney," he abandoned acting. "When I got behind the footlights, I just knew I didn't have the command," he said.

First Job

Deciding to get into the "technical side" instead, he hung around the gates of Charter Films, founded by the famous twin-brother director-producer team of John and Roy Boulting ("Brighton Rock," "Seven Days to Noon"), and bombarded them with letters. Finally Roy Boulting hired him as an assistant editor.

After Mr. Harvey had toiled in the cutting room for a year, joining film strips with cement, Mr. Boulting made him chief editor, first of "Private's Progress," then of "I'm All Right, Jack," which starred Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough.

"We had wonderful teamwork," Mr. Harvey said. "The Boultings made even the script girl feel important, and took us all out to a pub every night. It was great fun. We were part of a family, which means a lot; we would have worked for nothing."

Goodby Hollywood

In contrast, directing "The Patricia Neal Story" in 1982 in Hollywood was "absolute agony."

"It hit me right between the eyes. It was a made-for-TV film starring Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde, and it should have been a joy. But the studio moguls kept interfering, handing us reams of nitpicking notes, and utterly undermining my confidence and the cast's. They were only interested in making money."

"I never went back."

American technicians are another story, he said. "A Hollywood crew I worked with in Denver shooting 'The Disappearance of Aimee,' with Faye Dunaway and Bette Davis, had enormous vitality and enthusiasm. And making films in New York is always thrilling on every level of the production."

"Lolita," "Strangelove"

The demanding and controversial director of "Paths of Glory," Stanley Kubrick, interviewed Mr. Harvey for his next film-editing job, not once but "ten times, to make sure I would have no private life, and be entirely at his disposal."

After the celebrated "Lolita" in 1962 came the super-hit "Dr. Strangelove," shot in London a year later.

"At first, American critics reviled it for being in execrable taste," Mr. Harvey said. "Then they did anabout-face and called it a masterpiece. I must say, I was honored to have edited it."

"I believe the writer is the most important element in film-making," he went on. " 'Strangelove' was written by Kubrick and the brilliant Terry Southern. I remember going to a blue movie with them, and Ken Tynan, and Dwight McDonald. Terry, usually on speed to cover up his shyness, was terrified of being arrested. He was extremely insecure, as I think the most talented people always are."

"Dutchman": A Leap Up

John Le Carre's thriller "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," starring Richard Burton, was another huge success. After that, it seemed time for Mr. Harvey to make another leap upward, into directing.

"You're becoming impossibly difficult as an editor, the Peter Sellers of the cutting room," Mr. Kubrick told him, asking him to cut "2001" for him anyway. But Mr. Harvey had seen a play he longed to direct: "Dutchman," Leroi Jones's story of bigotry and murder on a New York subway.

Despite U.S. criticism for its violence, the film, starring Shirley Knight and Al Freeman, Jr., was a wild success at Cannes, and Ms. Knight won the Golden Lion Award for her performance at the Venice Film Festival.

O'Toole And Hepburn

Peter O'Toole, who was planning to star opposite Katharine Hepburn in a lavish film version of James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter," wanted the hot Mr. Harvey to direct it.

"To convince Kate I would be right, he dragged her to see 'Dutchman' at some little movie house in Hollywood at 2 a.m.- way past her bedtime."

"While she failed to see how a New York murder related to a historical drama about Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine set in 12th-century France, she agreed to trust me."

Shot in Ireland and the south of France, "The Lion" was the best time he ever had, he said. "Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton were also in the cast, and Kate was our mother figure, arriving with bottles of champagne at the end of the day."

Hepburn Gives In

Ms. Hepburn was not easy, at first, Mr. Harvey said. He gave her a big bunch of "rather beautiful" roses, which she disdained because they had wires in them, telling him, point-blank: "Don't try to be friends with me."

After an argument about a scene she refused to do his way, she finally gave in, and the scene worked, he said. "She shoved a note under my door later that night. 'I hope the sun, the moon, and the stars are always with you,' she'd scrawled. We've been fast friends ever since."

The film was a spectacular success, amassing Oscar nominations in all major categories including best director, and earning Ms. Hepburn her second Oscar (tied with Barbra Streisand). Mr. Harvey won the Directors' Guild Award, usually a prelude to an Oscar, but it was Carol Reed's year to get it, for "Oliver."


After turning down offers to direct "Cabaret," "Love Story," and other films "out of sheer fright" - he was paralyzed, he said, by success - he shot another Goldman script, "They Might Be Giants."

A quixotic story about a distinguished New York lawyer who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes (George C. Scott), and his psychiatrist-Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward), it seemed dangerously unconventional to Universal Pictures, which "mutilated" the last 30 minutes.

"My things often end up in a turmoil because the studios are worried about profits," Mr. Harvey remarked.

But "They Might Be Giants" had a critical success, after which "they more or less put the right ending back for the video version."

Made For TV

"Some people are snooty about working for television, but sometimes you can do more extraordinary things on it than in film," said Mr. Harvey. His next production was a made-for-ABC-TV version of Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie."

"It was the first play I ever saw in London, in 1948, directed by John Gielgud and starring Helen Hayes. I wanted Hepburn for Amanda, but she'd been awed by Laurette Taylor's performance in Chicago; she went with Spencer Tracy every night for a week."

One night when Hepburn and Tracy visited backstage, the soles of Ms. Taylor's feet were bleeding from the intensity of her performance. "I could never do it," Ms. Hepburn told Mr. Harvey.

But she did. The film was shot in five weeks in London on a tiny budget, with Sam Waterston playing Tom and Michael Moriarty in an Emmy Award-winning role as the gentleman caller. "It was the first TV film to be shown with only two commercials," Mr. Harvey said.

Tennessee Laughed

"I showed it to Tennessee years later in London," he went on. "He sat in the back of the theater roaring with laughter. I was devastated."

"On the way to Claire Bloom's house afterward - he was preparing 'Streetcar' with her - I asked rather nervously what he'd thought. 'Absolutely brilliant, especially Moriarty's gorgeous performance. Best gentleman caller I ever saw,' he said."

" 'But you were laughing!' I said. 'That's my protection,' he ans wered."

"Marion Seldes later told me that he roared with laughter all through the night of Kennedy's assassination, and would burst out at odd moments during rehearsals: Ha! Ha! He was very shy, and laughed when he was moved."

Sunset Comedy

A TV production of "Svengali" with Peter O'Toole, Jodie Foster, and Elizabeth Ashley, and a dark comedy about euthanasia, "The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley," with Ms. Hepburn and Nick Nolte, came later.

Mr. Harvey's most recent work is "This Can't Be Love," a sunset-years romance starring Anthony Quinn and Ms. Hepburn, who, even at 86, was the first one to appear on the set every day.

"Now in her 90s, she's settled into this huge peace. She doesn't want reincarnation; she's rather looking forward to the rest."

New Directions

At the moment, while waiting for the possibility of a film in London and Greece to develop, Mr. Harvey is writing a book about the agonies of the industry - the horrors of the Hollywood package, the millions at stake. It's called "Incident-Prone."

Looking back over his often turbulent career, Mr. Harvey said working with actors had been the best part. Also being funny and breaking all the rules.

"I believe films should be uplifting," he said. "These are desperate times, and it's too easy to make money with violence and ugliness."

He is preparing to appear in the Elaine Benson Gallery's "Emerging Artists" show next spring. "Kurt Vonnegut will be emerging as a painter," he said, "and I as a photographer. Emerging, thank heavens, is much more restful than directing films."