Michael Crawford - Putting On The Ritz
Sunday Express 17th May 1992
We are only on the Caesar salad and already Michael Crawford has got to his philosophy of life. It's typical of him that he should reveal it in a remembered remark from the world of show business: "It was Evelyn Laye who said to me: 'Never turn your back on success.' And she's absolutely right You don't think so when you're 21, but you should savour success. If you don't, you're a fool." He says this in a stage whisper that Laye, the musical comedy star, would have approved of. Michael Crawford's world is a stage. He was 50 in January and his boyish looks have not crinkled too much to disguise the imp in. him. His hair is full and curly and the thin look of a decade ago has gone. He has filled out and when he asks for extra anchovies on his salad, he looks at me guardedly: "You'll say Fm a glutton."
He's marvellously entertaining over dinner at a restaurant near his hotel in Westwood, Los Angeles. He is here to rehearse an album of songs intended for worldwide release next year, though it's only days before he leaves to tour Australia. Then, on 28 June, he gives his first British performance since he left The Phantom Of The Opera in 1987.
He will be performing in The Music Of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a showcase of the composer's works. The concerts have been hugely successful in America, tickets for the Australian tour sold out within 48 hours and in Britain he sold faster man Prince.
Michael Crawford plans to enjoy himself. It seems as though he's been in the spotlight forever - on film, stage and television, including his wild, wonderful run as lovable idiot Frank Spencer in the sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. But just as Rex Harrison became Henry Higgins and Yul Brynner the Ring of Siam, Michael Crawford is the Phantom of the Opera.
Of course, he had the benefit of the glory from behind make-up and a mask. He could walk down Broadway - the biggest star in town with rave reviews shouting from magazines and billboards - and not get a glance.
He grew up as Michael Dumble-Smith in Salisbury. His RAF pilot father died in battle before he was born and his mother remarried. The young Michael's strongest childhood influence was his maternal grandmother. He was a thin little boy, hopeless at sport but a natural entertainer. At 12 he toured with Benjamin Britten's Let's Make An Opera. Three years later he had left school and was earning a living doing BBC radio plays.
He changed his name to Michael Crawford - inspired by a Crawford's biscuit tin - while doing repertory theatre work. He was on the West End stage at 20 and swiftly went on to films like The Knack, with Rita Tushingham, and How I Won The War, during which he listened to co-star John Lennon composing Strawberry Fields Forever. It was London in the 60s and Crawford wanted to be special. "It takes time to become a character actor. You have to become a character first," he says.
In 1965 he married Gabrielle Lewis and two years later made his stage debut in New York opposite Lynn Redgrave in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy. "I was spending Christmas on my own and Emma [their first daughter] had been born in May. On Christmas Day I was sitting in the Algonquin Hotel with a turkey club sandwich, making my telephone bill larger than my rehearsal money and playing The Lovin' Spoonful singing Do You Believe In Magic? I remember that because I bought a cheap cassette player on Broadway and it broke after three weeks. When I took it back, the shop had closed down. I had a fitful six months in New York. I hadn't long been married and didn't want to be away from my wife, but I wanted the excitement of Broadway."
Gabrielle and Emma joined him in New York Emma got meningitis and nearly died, but Crawford won an award for Broadway's Most Outstanding Performance of the Year - and the attention of Gene Kelly. Then the family returned to their flat in Clapham and Emma's bed was upgraded from the bath to a drawer in the chest of drawers.
In 1967 he flew out to San Francisco for the premiere of How I Won The War, checked into the Fairmont Hotel and was told that Gene Kelly had called him and would be arriving at 10.30am. "It was 7.30am, so I had three hours to kill. I had three baths and I was drying off by Sam. I had another shave - in these days I didn't need to shave that much, so I was scraping off skin. Then I started getting dressed - trying on different outfits. What should I wear for Gene Kelly? I ended up in a pair of striped pants and a checked jacket when the doorbell rang and I was caught on the hop in completely the wrong outfit He said: 'Can you sing?' And I said: I've done a bit in the bath.' It was me beginning of Frank Spencer. Then he said: 'Try this.' And he got on the coffee table and did a few steps - it was like Singing In The Rain. Then he said, 'Can you do that?', and I said, 'You do it far better. Let's leave it.'
"Then he said the reason he was there was to see me for a part in Hello Dolly. So I got up on that table and I went da-da-da-da..." Crawford hammers out the beat with a spoon. "He said, 'Great! Ill tell you what I've been looking for in this part Cornelius Hack! is an attractive idiot. My wife thinks you're attractive and I think you're an idiot. So I mink you're just fine for it'
"Gene Kelly was the biggest single influence on my career. He taught me bravery. He gave me the courage to sing on the stage."
Hello Dolly, with Barbra Streisand, led to a three-film deal with 20th Century Fox. His second film was The Games in 1970, Mowed by Hello Goodbye. The title turned out to be prophetic. It was a box-office flop and Crawford found himself on his way home to England shortly afterwards. He spent a year out of work before getting a part in No Sex Please, We're British. Later, he moved out of the family home to a hotel nearer the theatre. His evenings were spent playing for laughs while his wife stayed at home with their two daughters, Emma, and Lucy, and frequently cried herself to sleep. To her, Crawford became a voice at the end of the phone.
"Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em started in 1974 and my marriage went wrong at the same time. Things got better after we divorced, and after about two years everything was actually fine again. Now we're the best of friends and we've always remained a family." There have been girlfriends and he has a reputation as a ladies' man, especially with dancers. There were other, longer relationships, one of which ended, apparently, because he would not marry again: "You're wary about a second marriage, having had a spoiled one. I've been tempted, but I have good friends in many places. Would I remarry? Yeah." It's certainly a change of attitude from a few years ago, when he doubted he'd try matrimony again: "It goes along with the career - you can't guarantee anything. I don't think I'd be a very good catch. I'm always on the move and I wouldn't want a wife in circumstances like that But I don't want to stop. I never want to stop."
Publicly his daughters, now 26 and 24, are his "dates", but Dad even has problems with them: "When they get boyfriends I'm second choice. I hate being second choice to my own daughters." He's been offered fat cheques for TV and film work but he's resisted. His recordings are gold and platinum sellers across the Atlantic. When we met, his tours in America were outselling Whitney Houston and Diana Ross and in Britain his record sales pipped Michael Jackson.
"I'm sitting here in wonderment," he says with a smile. "Fm so excited, and what is nicest of all is that it's happening at this time in my life, because I can really appreciate it. Had this happened at the time of Hello Dolly I wouldn't have appreciated it because I wouldn't have 1^1 suffered as much."
"The Music Of Andrew Lloyd Webber" kicks off at the International Centre, Bournemouth, on 28 June and continues in London, Sheffield, Manchester, Edinburgh, Dublin and Birmingham.
Back | Gallery | Star Talk | Home
Back to the top