Many happy returns to the icon that is Peter Wyngarde, star of Night of the Eagle, The Innocents, Department S, Jason King and Flash Gordon, who is 86 today. Here are some thoughts he penned for me on one of his best-known roles in Night of the Eagle, based on Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife.
“When my agent sent me the original script, then called Burn, Witch, Burn, I didn’t like it very much. It was very much in the not-as-good-as-Hammer-film category and frankly I threw it out of my window! The Innocents had received considerable critical acclaim – and my performance as Peter Quint in particular – so I was a bit cock-a-hoop and another horror (but not nearly as good) on top of two others I was offered brought about this suicidal career abandonment.
“More in pique than anger I left my flat and walked down the High Street where my action was confirmed when I was recognised by several passers-by, convincing myself that I’d made the right decision in turning down Burn, Witch, Burn! Actors are such insecure creatures that a look of recognition from a complete stranger meant more than a serious analysis of an author’s hard-earned book.
“And then the object of my whole change of plan appeared suddenly before me. It was smiling at me in the courtyard of a famous brand of motor car’s showroom. It was also the most beautiful sports car I had ever seen in my life: The hand-built 2-litre Bristol 405. I fell in love and simply had to have it. The builder and designer and former racing driver Anthony Crooke didn’t need to give me any spiel – I was convinced. The price at that time, exorbitant for any car, was £5,000 17sh and 6d! I asked if I could use his phone and called my bank. I had £12 10sh 0d in my account. I then called my agent [and said] ‘Dennis, you know the script you sent me called Burn, Witch, Burn? Well, I’ll do it for £5,000 17sh 6d! Call me back on…’ and I gave him the number of the showroom.
“At that time that was a hefty amount for an unknown – remember Vivien Leigh got £12,000 for Gone with the Wind, and it was a good half hour later before I knew I was doing the film. Luckily I had a wonderfully sympathetic and clever director in Syd Hayers who endeared himself to me forever when he said ‘You know just ‘cause I don’t speak posh like you doesn’t mean I ain’t educated – I’m a BA Cambridge, ya know!’ Together we had a go at the overloaded script and hopefully brought it to its final cult version.
“Poor Mr Bloch, I believe, had the same treatment with Psycho by Sir Alfred Hitchcock, which means his is the real credit, as a film script is simply a blueprint for a director to interpret. A bit like a menu, which the chef’s brilliance concocts and we enjoy according to our tastes.
“On a more pragmatic note was the horrifying experience I underwent with the eagle. I thought as my other co-star in the film [after Janet Blair] was the eagle I would like to introduce myself. So I went up to the third floor of the building we were using as dressing rooms at Elstree Studios.
“I knocked on the door and heard a grunt which I discovered later to belong to the trainer. I said I was playing the professor who encountered the eagle and wanted to meet her/him if it were convenient. The dressing room was opened after the sound of a bolt and key being dislodged and I was confronted with a huge pair of talons the size of two of Mike Tyson’s fists holding onto the gloved hand of his/her trainer. (I never found out what the sex was). The bird was hooded and the trainer’s face obscured by the door. It had a 3ft wing span, as the trainer informed me, and was a Golden Spanish Eagle. In spite of appearances [he said] it was one of the gentlest and well-behaved birds he had ever trained. He then tickled it under its enormous and frightening-looking beak and made purring noises before inviting me to do the same.
“I thanked him but declined, making some pathetic excuse about my lunch being served, which was a cue for him to suggest I fed the bird. It was then that he opened the door further to reveal his face and a dark cavern where his right eye had once been. His right hand produced a chunk of raw meat, which he shoved at me to take as he removed the bird’s hood.
“’Put it on me hand,’ he gruffly ordered in a thick Scots accent. ‘Quickly,’ he added, ‘or it’ll think yer hand’s for afters!’
“I didn’t need much encouragement and as the bird started tearing into his lunch I thanked the trainer and made a swift exit.
“When I did the series Department S and later Jason King I had the best stunt double in the business, Paul Weston, but on the Eagle I was still a vain, hot-headed and stupid young actor. I’d never seen an actor show real fear on the screen. So, in spite of meeting my co-star briefly I decided I would do the scene when the (now) giant eagle flew down from the top of the school building and attacked me.
“I’d asked Sydney to position the camera so it caught the real emotion as the bird came for me. A steel frame was put in front of the cameraman, Frank Watts, to protect him but I had no such defence. Instead a huge chunk of steak was strapped to my back as I lay behind the statue whose head the bird toppled on its thunderous descent on me. Can you believe anybody else but an actor being so stupid?
“Needless to say we only had one take and if the insurance company knew the film would’ve been cancelled. I took full responsibility and of course the crew were thrilled. They were getting the real McCoy. Frank, who worked on both series afterwards, said he’d never been so scared, so you can imagine how I felt.
“But the eagle was, rightly, the real trooper in spite of not having been fed for four days. It made straight for the camera, got its talons into the meat which looked like my back and left the shot as professionally to the applause of the cast and crew!
“The last day of shooting – the burning of the house – was a traumatic experience. As Janet (Blair) and I watched she was called urgently to the phone and, as the flames rose to the challenge of a sudden gust of wind, I saw a very white-faced Janet moving towards me and I just managed to hold her as she collapsed.
“Her husband in Beverly Hills had phoned her to say their house had just burned down to the ground. Thank God her children were safe. She caught the next plane for L.A.”