‘How I gave Connery his first big break’: Director who gave Sean Connery his first major role looks back on his time in the film and television industry in a memoir
I’M JUST THE GUY WHO SAYS ACTION
by Alvin Rakoff (Amazon £9.99, 183 pp)
Alvin Rakoff, a Canadian long-time resident in London, is one of the great unsung film and television directors. He obtained a mournful, poignant performance from the notoriously difficult-to-handle Peter Sellers, in Hoffman — a creepy story about a middle-aged man keeping a young girl prisoner in his flat.
Rakoff was also responsible for the classic A Voyage Round My Father by John Mortimer, where Laurence Olivier plays the blind old barrister father and Alan Bates the adoring son. Now a spry 94, Rakoff, in this memoir, returns to the beginning of his career, when in March 1956 he directed the then unknown Sean Connery in his first major role.
Alvin Rakoff, 94, has penned a memoir, including mention of directing the then unknown Sean Connery in his first major role. Pictured: Connery as OO7
The play, Requiem For A Heavyweight, filmed by Rakoff for television, is about a boxer with ebbing powers. The key role of ‘Mountain’ McClintock was proving difficult to cast — at the BBC audition several actors gave rubbish impersonations of Marlon Brando — then in came Connery, also rubbish. ‘Mumbles, can’t get the words out,’ was the note made on his card. But there was a definite charisma.
Rakoff already knew him: Connery had been an eager extra in one of his television plays, appearing as a bandana-wearing guerilla storming a fortress. He was also almost famous in Edinburgh for coming third in the Mr Universe contest.
Trouble was he’d had no formal training as an actor. But those were the pioneering days of telly — a new medium which, though watched by millions, was not thought worthy of being taken seriously, so Rakoff, as a senior TV producer, had far more independence than dreamt of now.
It was also an area where unheard-of actors could take lead roles, so Rakoff had his way and Connery was cast. One extra, a ‘curly-hair blond lad with droopy eyes’ called Michael Caine, was still waiting for a starring role, though his boots were given a close-up during a scene change.
The production was granted three weeks of rehearsal, with tape on the floor to indicate where scenery would be. Rakoff was responsible for ‘minutely detailing every creative moment’, breaking down the script into lists of shots, where one camera switched to another as actors spoke and others reacted.
Cameras then were huge boxy contraptions mounted on bicycle wheels and always in danger of colliding with each other, their cables a tangle of black spaghetti. But no mechanical matter could be left to chance: the crew had to know their exact pre-assigned positions. The reason for the scrupulous, slightly panic-stricken atmosphere?
I’M JUST THE GUY WHO SAYS ACTION by Alvin Rakoff (Amazon £9.99, 183 pp)
Requiem For A Heavyweight was to be a live transmission, one non-stop take lasting one hour 45 minutes, 398 separate shots, broadcast in the coveted Sunday evening slot on March 31. ‘We get one chance’, Rakoff told everyone. It was, he says, ‘remorseless’.
On the night, Rakoff, up in the control booth, was like Monty on D-Day. The production felt seamless, as the performers and the cumbersome technical equipment snaked around the cramped sets: the boxing ring, corridors, alleyway, bar, hotel foyer and railway carriage.
No 10,000-watt bulb exploded. No flat collapsed. No actor forgot his lines or dropped dead on air. Rakoff writes about all this backstage drama with the taut excitement of a well-paced novel. And the next morning’s Press was ecstatic.
Connery had given ‘a measured, structured, tremendous performance’, full of emotional truth. This paper said: ‘He is star material, if ever I saw it.’ His destiny, as everyone knows, was to be James Bond.
The tragedy is Requiem For A Heavyweight doesn’t exist. It wasn’t recorded. Videotape hadn’t been invented and the ‘telecopying’ equipment was judged too inferior to use. ‘Gone into the ether, never to be seen again’, laments Rakoff.
Sometimes, though, things turn up in attics, bootleg copies made by amateurs. I recently saw Richard Burton as a steamy Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Made for NBC Television in 1958 and assumed wiped, a tape was found in 2019. So — fingers crossed.