Friday, 5 August 2011

Laurence Harvey

Laurence Harvey was a hustler. Born in Lithuania as Zvi Skikne, he moved to South Africa when he was five, then came to Britain after the war to study at RADA.  His reptilian good looks, bisexuality and desperate willingness to get on endeared him to a number of important theatrical people and within a short period of time he had changed his name to Laurence Harvey and was appearing in films.

Harvey was a terrible actor, but he lived the part off-screen and fooled a lot of people, especially Hollywood, who took his cultured voice, camp theatricality, cashmere coats, cravats and cigarette holder as the hallmarks of a great in the tradition of OIivier and Gielgud. He also had a habit of having relationships with people who could help him professionally, including producer James Woolf and older star actresses Hermione Baddely and Margaret Leighton. Woolf, in particular, cast him time after time despite the fact that Harvey never attracted much praise, public support or any sort of following. The problem was that Harvey was a vacuum on screen: he spoke, he moved, but he elicited no sympathy, no empathy, no interest. Yet he kept going. Harvey was a star in spite of his lack of talent, in spite of his lack of audience, in spite of his lack of success: a triumph of self-determination.

As Joe Lampton in 'Room At The Top'. Note 'working class' haircut. 

When, after ten years of slog, ‘Room At The Top’ (1958) became his first really notable film success (playing a character who, yes, fucks his way to prominence), he packed his bags almost immediately and moved to Hollywood, incidentally marrying Joan Cohn, the widow of Harry Cohn, former head of Columbia Studios, on the way. Harvey was no more successful in the US than he had been in the UK, although he kept busy and appeared in some halfway decent films. His trick, as ever, was to look the part, act the part and make sure he was sleeping with someone influential. The majority of his screen appearances of this period are notable for Harvey’s consistently poor performances: eager to stretch himself, he quickly proved that he couldn’t act, sing, dance, do comedy, or accents - but still he prevailed.  He even directed a couple of films and proved that he couldn’t do that either. 

Can't do Shakespeare, no good at kissing.

Work slackened off a bit in the late sixties, but he maintained his profile by being friends with Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and generally swanning around like a great theatrical knight. He appeared at Stratford in ‘A Winter’s Tale’ (to zero acclaim) and in ‘The Magic Christian’, reciting Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy whilst stripping to reveal his frighteningly thin and pasty body.

Laurence hears about this blog post on Afterlife FM.
By the seventies, he was becoming a regular on television, and seemingly felt famous and rich enough to do what and who he liked for once, marrying a young model, Paulene Stone, in 1972. This was his last failure, as he died of stomach cancer the year afterwards. He was only 45.

It might seem that I’ve been unnecessarily hard on Harvey but I don’t think I’ve been unfair: he just wasn’t any good.  But he absolutely fascinates me: his determination to be a star, unhampered by his lack of ability and charisma, is a lesson for us all. He actually did it, and for almost half of his short life he was where he wanted to be, in the spotlight. The fact that hardly anyone was looking was irrelevant to him, and that’s bizarre and admirable in equal measure.

Louche to the end.


  1. I just wanted to say that your two blogs, Found Objects and this one are brilliant and this discovery has actually made my week (Which just goes to show how banal my existence is)

    Thank you!

  2. One of my favourite Harvey anecdotes (and one which perhaps sums up why a lot of people didn't like him): in his early acting days, he was invited to a "Come As Your Favourite Person" fancy-dress party and went as himself.

    Great blog(s) by the way!

  3. Oh, I dunno, I've always kinda liked this guy when he turns up in things.

    He's great in the Cliff Richard movie "Expresso Bongo".

    Not much of a defense I realise, but there ya go.

  4. Great blog! On Facebook, you may wish to look up "Laurence Harvey - The Authorized Archive" for lots of interesting links and videos.

  5. Damn, he was hot though. Thought he was Rock Hudson's lover ;)

  6. Just watching his performance in The Long/Short/Tall. Agree. Horrible.

  7. I swear that Harvey is the male dancer in a studio scene from the Beatles 1964 movie, A Hard Day's Night.

  8. I have to say that I enjoyed many of Laurence Harvey's films notably `The Good Die Young` - an ironic title given that Harvey died at just 45, `Room at the Top` and `The Manchurian Candidate`. He was slagged off by many critics and fellow thespians such as Sir Robert Stephens who apparently described him as “an appalling man and even more unforgivably an appalling actor”. In spite of all that I have to be contrary and put in a good word for him.

  9. Thank you for your blog. I found this after watching the un-watchable Butterfield 8 and searched "Lawrence Harvey Terrible actor." I could not have been less interested in Harvey's character. He elicited no emotional response, just as you intimated. How he could possibly become a star is a story that should be an inspiration to mediocre people everywhere.