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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Baron Munchausen (1925-2011)

Firstly, a very happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it.

Secondly, am I the only one who stayed up Sunday nights watching The First Churchills on public television back in the late 1960s?

Those of us who got hooked on the high-class British soap opera cum literary adaptation that was The Forsyte Saga were left bereft when it finally finished its 26-episode run on PBS. Fortunately, before too long there was another Brit miniseries to take its place, and that was The First Churchills, about the ancestors of Britain’s renowned 20th century prime minister, whose lives coincided with turbulent events in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Like The Forsyte Saga, it had the same high BBC quality and even featured a couple of the same actors. Margaret Tyzack, who had played Soames Forstye’s sister Winifred, was back as Princess Anne, and the lovely Susan Hampshire, who had played Fleur Forsyte, had one of the title roles, as Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough.

Sarah’s husband John, Duke of Marlborough, was played by the London-born actor John Neville. It was Neville’s passing on Saturday that got me thinking about The First Churchills. When I next noticed him, more than a decade and a half later, so much time had gone by that I couldn’t figure out why I recognized him. This time he was in another title role, in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the former Monty Python member’s follow-up to Time Bandits and Brazil. It took me a good while to place the fellow playing Baron Munchausen as the same one who had portrayed the Duke of Marlborough.

Baron Munchausen was a delightful and exhilarating movie that made many of us fans of Gilliam’s films. Much of that had to do with Neville’s charm as the sly, dramatic and flamboyant baron, whose name wound up becoming synonymous with lying and even became the name of a potentially devastating psychiatric condition. Sometimes when I am watching a movie and I don’t quite know what to make of it, a single line or image can win me over in an instant. In the case of Baron Munchausen, it was an absurd moment when the Baron climbs up a crescent moon high in a sky bedecked with fanciful constellations. “This is precisely the sort of thing no one ever believes,” declares the Baron, perfectly summing up the spirit of the movie.

Despite the fact that Neville worked steadily over the course of a six-decade career, he seemed sometimes to appear on our radar only sporadically. Sometimes I found myself confusing him with fellow English actors John Wood, who died in August, and Ian McKellen, who happily is still going strong. While he worked regularly on television on both sides of the Atlantic, Neville was first and long known as a major force on the stage, particularly in Shakespeare. He played Romeo opposite Claire Bloom, Hamlet opposite Judi Dench and both Othello and Iago opposite Richard Burton. During a six-year period in the 1950s he appeared in every one of the Bard’s plays. He then created a character of a young womanizer named Alfie on the stage, which would later be immortalized by Michael Caine in the eponymous 1966 movie by Lewis Gilbert. Neville would recall later, with amusement, that critics were astounded at the refined Shakespearean’s perfect cockney accent, not realizing that it was the very accent the truck driver’s son had grown up speaking with. He moved to Canada in the early 1970s.

One of Neville’s first jobs after Baron Munchausen, oddly enough, was playing the manservant Desmond in John Randolph’s mansion in the 1990 NBC sitcom Grand, which starred Pamela Reed and Bonnie Hunt. He subsequently played Percy Methley in an episode of Road to Avonlea and then Isaac Newton on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in a holodeck poker game that included the android Data, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking (playing himself). He had appearances in the John Hughes-penned movie Baby’s Day Out, Alan Parker’s The Road to Wellville and the Michelle Pfeiffer flick Dangerous Minds, which was spoofed in the Hart Bochner movie High School High, in which Neville also appeared. He also appeared in Anna Benson Gyles’s interesting Ontario-set film Swann. He played a general in Luc Besson’s sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element, which starred Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman.

From 1986 to 1989 Neville was artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival and is credited with turning around that company and making it a major success. In the late 1990s, he had recurring roles in two very different TV shows. He was the voice of Eternity in the animated Silver Surfer. And he had a recurring role on The X-Files (and its spinoff feature film) as the mysterious Well-Manicured Man, who may or may not have been part of whatever grand conspiracy Mulder and Scully kept running up against. He followed that up with playing a murder victim in the teen slasher flick Urban Legend, Rosemary Harris’s brother in István Szabó’s Hungary-set historical epic Sunshine, a preacher in the Canadian drama Time of the Wolf (starring Burt Reynolds), a fellow boarding house tenant of Ralph Fiennes in David Cronenberg’s disturbing Spider and a has-been film director in a comedy about the Canadian film industry called Hollywood North.

During the past decade or so, he appeared on various Canadian TV series, including the Prince Edward Island-set Emily of the New Moon, the Brazil-set Amazon and the drama about prime time TV newsmagazine The Eleventh Hour. His last regular gig seems to have been voicing the character Claxus on the UK animated series Friends and Heroes.

In addition to his great accomplishments of directing and acting in plays and giving great pleasure to fans of The First Churchills on the small screen and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on the big screen, John Neville was married to the same woman for 62 years. And, these days, that is precisely the sort of thing no one ever believes.

-S.L., 24 November 2011

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