Here is an interview with Vladek Sheybal which originally appeared in issue #8 (December 1992) of FAB, the magazine produced by the official Gerry Anderson fan club Fanderson. This interview was conducted by Tim Mallett and Glenn Pearce, and is reproduced here with permission from Fanderson.
Wladislaw Sheybal was born in March 1923, into a Catholic family at Zgierz, near Lodz in Poland, the son of a university professor. Imprisoned in a concentration camp during the war, Sheybal escaped only to be captured and to escape once again. During each spell in prison, he was forced to face a mock execution as part of the Nazi 'punishment by terror'.
THE FAB INTERVIEW
UFO - DOCTOR DOUG JACKSON
As an actor, Sheybal's first major role came in 1957 with a part in Andrzej Wajda's Kanal, a film about the Polish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, but the increasingly Soviet face of his native country dismayed Sheybal, and in 1958 he fled his homeland and re-established his career in Britain. He arrived almost destitute, unable to speak a word of English and knowing no-one.
His first employment in London was as a dish-washer in the kitchens of a drama college, where he eventually began to teach acting to the students who recognised him from Kanal. He learnt English and gradually involved himself in the London theatrical world, staging Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina for the Oxford University Opera Club. This led to a job with the BBC, directing opera for television, and in 1960, he became joint director of a theatre company based at the Little Theatre, Bromley, where his first production - Donald Howarth's All Good Children - was promoted to Hampstead Theatre Club.
Sheybal had originally wanted to be a romantic actor, but the course of his acting career was laid down by his friend Bette Davis, whom he met in Hollywood. She told him, "Just be the bitch, darling. You'll never stop working then." In 1962, on Sean Connery's request, he took the role of the villainous Kronsteen in the James Bond film From Russia With Love, and this led to a career of similarly creepy roles as middle-European or Soviet villains, in episodes of The Man In Room 17 (twice), The Saint, Danger Man, Strange Report and The Champions.
In the cinema, he was particularly liked by Ken Russell who used him in the award-winning film of D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love (1970), in which he played the artist-sculptor cavorting in the snow with Glenda Jackson; The Music Lovers (1970); and The Boyfriend (1971), in which he played the film director Cecil B. de Thrill. Russell had previously 'discovered' Sheybal in the BBC canteen in 1961, and hired him to play Debussy in his television production Strauss. Sheybal also appeared in John Boorman's Leo The Last, in which he played a political schemer in the entourage of Marcello Mastroianni's Italian prince.
However, it was his role as the Eurosec physician Dr. Beauville in Gerry Anderson's Doppelganger, that led to his being cast as Dr Doug Jackson in the UFO episode Exposed. Vladek reprised the role on an episode-by-episode basis during the first production block (he was not contracted for the whole series) as his character was required, more often than not as a replacement to Maxwell Shaw's Dr Shroeder when Shaw became seriously ill during production. This resulted in an intriguing character whose real loyalties were uncertain, and whose area of expertise enabled him to function in a variety of roles for both SHADO and the International Astrophysical Commission. For the second block, Jackson's function within SHADO was more clearly defined as a psychiatrist, and Vladek became a more permanent member of the cast.
Following UFO, Vladek appeared in such films as Puppet On A Chain (1971), in which he played the smuggler pursued by Interpol along the canals of Amsterdam, and The Wind And The Lion (1975) as Sean Connery's brother, while on television he made a brief return to the Anderson fold as Sandor Karolean in The Protectors episode Brother Hood, and also made a memorable guest appearance as the bird-man Zacardi in The New Avengers episode Cat Amongst The Pigeons.
More recently, Sheybal had forged a second acting career for himself in France. Leaving his villainous roles behind him, he found a niche playing middle-aged romantics in love with much younger women. His last screen appearance was in The Bill episode Sympathy For The Devil in September 1992, while his last interview was with Fanderson for The UFO Documentary. He died suddenly of an abdominal haemorrhage at his home in London on October 16th, 1992.
How did you come to get the part of Dr. Jackson in UFO?
"I started playing UFO in...1969? Yes, 1969. So long ago, I can't believe it. And I can't believe that it became a cult film all over the world! It's incredible. Anyway, Sylvia Anderson, who was very beautiful and looked like a film star, with big eyelashes, asked through my agent, "Would I be interested at all to play a Dr Jackson?" and she didn't elaborate at all. Well, I got the (script of the) first episode, I learned my lines and I went to the studio where Sylvia Anderson - with the big eyelashes and a very beautiful hairdo - was there, and I met all these friends afterwards from UFO for the very time, including Gabrielle Drake. You remember Gabrielle Drake? She was my pupil at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art - I once was teaching acting there and she was my pupil, and I was very surprised when she was there in the studio.
"Anyway, to cut a long story short, I didn't know who this Dr Jackson was and Sylvia Anderson, after we had finished - or maybe it was while we were filming? - she said, "Would you be at all interested if we feed a script in with Dr Jackson, because we like very much the way that you are doing it." And then I asked her, "Who is this Dr Jackson?". "We don't know," she said. And that is what happened, so from time to time when they wanted to write in Dr Jackson they would ask my agent if I would be free for, let's say, next week for ten days to come to the studio to play Dr Jackson.
"And then I started forming my opinion about the character, and I came to the conclusion that he's got lots of colours and whatever, and I think that I developed it while I was playing it. But I wasn't a regular of UFO like the others - I was only from time to time, whenever I was free and whenever they wanted to write in Dr Jackson."
Jackson spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent, which seemed at odds with the character's ordinary Anglo-Saxon name, leading to speculation that perhaps the character was using an assumed name to hide a secret in his life before SHADO?
"Lots of things happen in films that we don't understand. You know, I have been in about 35 films as an 'international film actor' - as I am called - and believe it or not, in one, which was called The Wind And The Lion, they asked me to play the brother of Sean Connery. Can you imagine that? I was looking up at him and we had completely different hair colour, completely different accents and yet I was his brother. So it is unpredictable.
"You see, my name is Sheybal, which is not Polish name, which is not Armenian name, which comes from Scotland as a matter of fact. And I was brought up in about four or five languages. I was brought up in a terribly international family - as a matter of fact, I don't have a drop of Polish blood. I am mostly Armenian, a little bit of Scottish, a little bit of Austrian, and yet I am Polish actor and I arrived into this country as Polish actor, and (yet) I was lucky enough to have been (cast) in several cult films - Women In Love with (director) Ken Russell and Glenda Jackson, then with Marcello Mastroianni in John Boorman's Leo The Last, then Puppet On A Chain with Barbara Bach, and then UFO of course - and it's incredible really.
"I never aimed at it, I never thought that these sort of things would happen to me, but everything in my career was always the unexpected and coincidence and I was never pushing it or anything - just things were happening."
Prior to UFO, you were best-known for your role as the sinister chess-master and SPECTRE agent Kronsteen in the James Bond film From Russia With Love.
"It was the second James Bond film. I first of all started my career in this country as a teacher in drama school and as a director in television. I had done quite a lot for BBC Television and suddenly, quite by chance, I was seated in the canteen at BBC Television eating my lunch and a man came up to me and he said, "My name is Ken Russell and I do short artistic films and I would like you to play a part because I saw you in the Polish film Kanal." It was a film about Debussy, the composer, and this was Oliver Reed, who was not yet Oliver Reed and Vladek Sheybal when he was not yet Vladek Sheybal. And then, you know, Harry Saltzman was one of the producers, I think, of James Bond, and he telephoned my agent, my first agent, and he said, "I saw you in Ken Russell's film and I would like you to play a part in From Russia With Love."
"I said to my agent that I would like to read the script and he gave me the script and I just thought, 'No, I'm not going to be bothered about that - one scene in the beginning, one scene in the middle and then Lotte Lenya kills me with that spiked shoe!' I thought this was just ridiculous. I was very serious actor before I started acting in films and I just said to my agent, "This is ridiculous. Why should I bother to play this part? I was just playing a leading part in Ken Russell's film for television!", and he said, "Look, listen! It was Sean Connery who asked personally that you accept the part!" Why did Sean Connery ask me to accept the part? Because I met Sean Connery as well when he wasn't Sean Connery. He was the boyfriend of Diane Cilento, who was an actress and I was directing a television (play) with her, and he was always coming to the rehearsal room to pick her up and the three of us would go for a drink and then Diane Cilento would try to sell him to me. She would say, "Look at him! Isn't he sexy? Doesn't he have star quality? Do you have a part for him?", because nobody wanted him. And two years later he was James Bond and Diane Cilento went into decline or whatever - this happens. And then Sean Connery wanted me to play The Wind And The Lion as well, as his brother, because he thought this would be a good bit of fun.
"So, anyway, when I refused flatly to play this part, suddenly there was a telephone call from Sean Connery saying, "Look, listen! This is something which is going to change the world! It's a new series - 'James Bond' - and it's going to be next episode and next episode, and if you take a part in it you are in cult thing." So I signed to do it. He was very kind because he was waiting personally for me at the doorstep of the studio and he said, "Welcome to From Russia With Love."
"But during the filming there was an incident which shows my tempestuous character, or my honest character perhaps - that I can't be bought for the money. Harry Saltzman, the producer, started interfering in my scenes, in the way I was acting the scene. So I said to Harry Saltzman, "This is the director Terence Young and he doesn't want me to play the part in any different way. Why should I do what you say?" "Because I am the producer," he said. So I said, "You mean that you represent money?" and he said, "Yes."
"Lotte Lenya supported me very much and I played it my way and then Harry Saltzman became completely unbearable so I just said, "I've had enough of it!" I just walked off the studio, not being a star or whatever - later I learned that only the stars walk off the studio! But perhaps I was born a star? I always felt like a star. So I walked off the studio. They followed me (saying), "What are you doing? What are doing?" I went to the dressing room, I started taking off my make-up and I said, "Get away with you! I go back home!" and I went home!
"And in the evening, Terence Young rings me up and he says, "Vladek, I promise that Harry Saltzman won't be in the studio tomorrow. Will you come and finish the part?" So I came in and finished it."
After your role in From Russia With Love, you found yourself playing a string of memorable villainous roles in series such as The Man In Room 17, The Saint, Danger Man, Strange Report, The Champions and The New Avengers. Did you find that you were becoming typecast?
"Not necessarily, but this happens in the acting profession, that if you chisel for yourself a niche, then you're in. If you can't be identified immediately with your voice, without your villain-ness, with your looks or whatever, then you are in my position when I was completely unknown actor in this country and the western world. I had an accent - I didn't have any chance at all.
"I didn't know anything about it until one fantastic person, great friend of mine for several years, who was Bette Davis, and she said to me, "Honey, you have no chance whatsoever. You're ugly - everything is against you. I think that you should start playing threatening things and everybody will remember you." And I said, "How do I play threatening things? I'm such a loveable character." and she said, "You just narrow your eyes, you lower your voice and just whisper and make long pauses." So that was the trick and I started doing it, and she said, "Just look at me when I'm playing the bitch. I narrow my eyes like that and lower my voice and whisper and make long pauses." And so she launched me - and I'm ever grateful to her - into the part of playing the villains or frightening people.
"But later on, I was playing quite a number of parts in which I wasn't the villain at all, and people will say, "How villainous you were!" People don't want to remember. Once they establish you in a niche, they just want you to stick to this, so I gave them what they wanted.
"But a few years ago, I started playing fringe theatres here in London, and I found I was playing the 'greats' such as Gustav Mahler and Frederick Nietzsche, and I realised that I had to use exactly the same trick to play the 'greats' - whisper, make long pauses and narrow your eyes - so what is the difference between the villain and the 'great', you know?"
More recently, you have been cast in more varied roles both in England and abroad, and have made extensive film appearances in France and Germany. What sort of roles do you prefer to play?
"I have lived, for several years now, partly in France, in Paris mainly, and I have started playing in French films. You know, I had the same trouble, because I thought, 'If I'm going to launch myself into French films, then I've got to find a niche.' But they didn't cast me as villains in France. They cast me as aging men who are madly in love with very young girls and then rejected. So I decided to play them as unhappy, with long pauses as well because it helps, and speaking very fluently, but very softly, and it took off. Here, I'm turning down quite a lot of things, because, quite simply, after so many years now having acted in so many things, I couldn't be bothered playing the same character.
"You see, we actors, we always say that any part which could give you the material to build a character on it in your own way, your own interesting way, is a good part - whether this is cameo part, or larger part, or medium part, or just one close up or whatever. So I think that all actors are multi-character people and that's why they enjoy everything.
"I think I'm no different in being an actor than anybody else. I like playing these unhappy elderly men in France."