July 7, 2014


I have a confession. Although I've always had respect for Shakespeare, I never found his work accessible until I saw David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in Hamlet (2009). Let's face it, sometimes one needs the right context, and their production's modern-day surveillance/paranoia take on the classic was just what the doctor ordered (Pun intended). Not to mention that the actors' careers in various Sci-Fi adventures also ensured my loyalty as a built-in viewer. They brought the words to life for me at last and I could finally understand what was happening- and it was moving! Both Tennant and Stewart have been in many Shakespeare productions- as well as many thrillers in the past, including Spies of Warsaw, Foyle's War, Eleventh Hour, Safehouse, Code Name: Emerald, Smiley's People, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. After watching Hamlet, I began to wonder about my favorite secret agent actors and their experiences with Shakespeare.

Speaking with the Express in 2013, Robert Vaughan (Man From U.N.C.L.E.) mentioned, "Laurence Olivier once said that the goal of all serious thespians is to play Hamlet, and he was right. I played Hamlet twice. It's one of the most demanding roles to perform, especially as the play is more than four hours long." He told the Guardian in 2007: "My mother taught me the 'To be, or not to be...' soliloquy when I was four. When I was six, I met John Barrymore - Drew's grandfather - who at that time was the greatest American Hamlet. So as long as I've been vertical, it wasn't so much that I was going to be an actor - I already was." Vaughan released an LP album of excerpts from the play in 1965 for MGM records. Despite some poor reviews of his stage production at that time in Pasadena, the record itself is quite fun to explore. Amazingly, tracks are available for download on Amazon and iTunes. I recommend his version of the Act I Scene II soliloquy, where Vaughn infuses some painful cries of anguish with, "His canon 'gianst self-slaughter! O God, God!" Vaughn hilariously lampooned the tradition of Hamlet by playing the ghost of John Barrymore visiting a young actor in a play called I Hate Hamlet in 1992.

Before he was cast as agent 007, Sean Connery appeared in a number of CBC productions, including Macbeth (1961) and Age of Kings (1960). For Spy Vibers interested in seeing Connery as Hotspur (Henry IV part 1) in the Age of Kings, the performance was filmed and is now available on DVD at Amazon here. Connery's 1961 Macbeth was released on DVD here.  

One of my own favorite adaptations of Shakespeare is All Night Long starring Patrick McGoohan. Made in 1962 between the actor's stint on Danger Man and Secret Agent, McGoohan plays Iago as a Jazz drummer, who sows the seeds of doubt between a bandleader and his vocalist wife. You can see McGoohan's cool drum solo scene below.

Man From U.N.C.L.E. star David McCallum started performing in Shakespeare plays as a kid. During a staged production of Julius Ceasar in 2000, he told the Daily News, "I did a lot of Shakespeare in repertory theaters all over England. Actually, I'm an actor because of him. I was 8 or 9 when I played the young king in 'King John,' and when the play was over, everybody in the audience stood up and yelled. It all seemed so wonderful. I was so pleased, I thought, why go to school? Why do anything else? This is great! So I didn't do anything else. And still haven't." McCallum in Julius Ceasar below from Playbill- full Playbill interview here

Patrick Macnee of The Avengers most recently was one of the narrators of The Children's Shakespeare audio book in 2009, and he appeared in a guest role spoofing Shakespearian actors in an episode of Frasier called "The Show Must Go Off" (2001). Some of Macnee's earliest filmed roles included Hamlet (1947), as an extra in Olivier's Hamlet (1948), Macbeth (1949) and Othello (1950). Here is his appearance in Frasier.

During the 1940s, Roger Moore attended RADA for two terms (with fellow Bond star Lois Maxwell). He performed on stage in a number of plays- including Noel Coward productions. And according to a popular Roger Moore website, his Shakespearian plays included Henry V (1945), As You Like It (1944), and Merchant of Venice (1944). He also appeared in an early TV production of Julius Caesar in 1953. There are few images out there to document this early period, but Moore did star in a costume drama in the late 1950s, Ivanhoe, which helps to set the mood.

Michael Caine starred as Horatio in a celebrated production of Hamlet with Christopher Plummer in 1964. What made this version extraordinary was that it was filmed on location at Elsinore, Denmark, the actual location where the play is set! Unseen until 2011, it was finally released on DVD. Amazon page here.

There will be undoubtedly many more interesting examples of spy-actors doing Shakespeare, but I leave you today with Timothy Dalton. Long before he played James Bond, Dalton spent years on the stage. He reportedly caught the acting bug after seeing Macbeth at age 16 and managed to land a role at the Old Vic. His many Shakespeare productions include Coriolanus, Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, and Henry V- and that's just during the 1960s! Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play, and do any star a classic spy actor? Bonus clip below: Peter Sellers and his hilarious 1964 Shakespearian adaptation of The Beatles! Learn more at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Next up: Spy Actresses in Shakespeare. 

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