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Spring 1984: memories of Michael from former girlfriend, N.B.

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Apr. 1st, 1984 | 09:00 am

N.B., a former girlfriend of Michael’s, was kind enough to talk to me, and answer some questions. Here is what she told me:

"I was amazed at hearing about your project. I am sure Michael would have been even more surprised to find people still honouring his work as an actor some twenty years later. He wouldn't feel he was worth the trouble."

Getting to know Michael

"I got to know Michael on a crisp spring Sunday morning in 1984 in the “Brasserie Dome”1 in Hampstead. He sat there having his cappuccino and reading the Sunday paper. I was having breakfast with a friend of mine. I was living in London as an au-pair, and so was my friend; we cherished our fee day away from the family where we lived and worked.

My friend knew Michael, because he had taken her out for dinner some weeks previously and she said hello to him across the tables. She pointed out who he was and I immediately recognised him thanks to his glasses. They were the ones he wore in the Bond film “For Your Eyes Only.”

When we were about to leave the restaurant, we got to talking to Michael, who had finished reading his paper. He later told me, he hadn’t been very keen on talking to my friend because he had found her too self-centred and boring the evening he had spent with her in a restaurant. But, despite that, we started talking and had a lot of fun, so in the end he invited us over to his home and suggested we could make ourselves some pasta for supper, which we did.

I left that evening without having exchanged telephone numbers which I regretted sorely. But I learned that he had asked my friend the next day to give him my number… So we stayed in contact.

After this first encounter I was absolutely fascinated by this man. He was not only funny and witty, but also extremely knowledgeable and had a very wide horizon as far as his interests and hobbies were concerned. He was a very educated man, although he kept saying that he did it all on his own; he hadn’t liked going to school too much. And he was very charismatic and his personality radiated around him. Obviously I wanted to meet him again!

Shortly afterwards we met again and we talked for hours on end, never having the feeling we were running out of topics; on the contrary, the more we talked the more interesting things we found to talk about.

Then I became his girlfriend and was soon going to move in with him because I got fired by my host family. Soon afterwards he got a phone call from his agent and was offered a job. I was to accompany him to Munich where he started to act for a TV production.2

For the film "Yellow Pages" we went to Copenhagen in September 1984. That's where Michael was filming for several weeks. I was accompanying him, and met the people on the set, i.e. Chris Lemmon and Lea Thompson. Lemmon flew in only shortly. Copenhagen was the only place he went to for this film. The parts in the USA were made without him.

We had a relationship for exactly 3 years. I lived with him in his house in London, whenever we were in England. But we also travelled a lot and as I was studying in Switzerland we also lived a long distance relationship, but stayed in very tight contact with each other, with the help of long phone calls in between periods spent together. We also wrote each other a lot of letters. It was always so much fun reading them (he wrote them on his typewriter), because he was so witty and knowledgeable and funny when he reported me scenes from his life while I was away.

That suited us both well, because we lived such an intense life when we were together, we were absolutely riveted by each other, that we needed time and space apart to get on with everyday life.

1987 we split up, but stayed in contact until the end of his life.

Michael did have other girlfriends after we split up. There was a French lady he was seeing, and later an Indian girl living in London who kept a relationship with him until his death (or it may have ended shortly before, I don't know exactly)."

His depression

"I knew he had bouts of depression even during the time we were together. He saw a therapist but not very regularly, but his illness got worse after we had split up.

I don’t know what medication he took, but I am absolutely sure that his suicide was an accident: a moment of weakness and total despair. Had he been able to overcome that moment, he would live to this day!

He never said that he would kill himself."

Did he do any live theatre work in between film and TV work?

"As far as I know he didn’t do it. He only did it at the beginning of his career. Although he was very good at reciting Shakespeare by heart – and very impressively indeed!"

Which of his roles did he like best? Did he watch his own performances?

"He did them all with all the professionalism he could muster. No matter if it was a leading role or a small one, he always gave his best.

He didn’t like watching himself. I never got him to show me any movie he had worked in. From what he told me, I think he liked the film “Up the Junction” and “Arthur of the Britons.” And the French one, “La vallée.”

He had told me that the public really liked "Arthur of the Britons" at the time it was shown on TV. It looks like they all enjoyed making this film!

It feels very familiar to watch him in this setting (although he obviously never walked around in furs etc.) It's probably the way he talks: that was him.

Michael would have liked to play more films like that. With time passing, he was more and more getting into the role of the "bad guy" - and he wasn't happy about it, but he had no choice, and acquiesced.

He would be really surprised and awed that thanks to technical development and digitization old films can now be easily distributed and watched by many more people. He was a fan of all sorts of progress. If he still lived today he would be an avid user of the internet and all its possibilities."

Did he mention any problems with directors?

"He preferred not to talk about his work too much (at least not to me)."

Did he have any friends in the TV/film world?

"He probably had contacts, but the friends of his I know of had nothing to do with his profession. He was friends with the writer Elias Canetti3 who also used to live in Hampstead. They used to have a chat when they met in local cafés."

What were his likes and dislikes?

"What he really hated was, when there was music being played in a restaurant. He just couldn’t stand it, especially if it was loud pop music. If anything, it had to be jazz or classical music, but very subdued. There were so many occasions in London and everywhere else, where he made a row if the restaurant wasn’t going to turn the volume down after his request.

What he loved was skiing, good books, good food, dinner parties with nice people, talks that could go on for hours, listening to and making music. He was into all kinds of arts. And he liked travelling. Michael and I liked that Mediterranean food, since we had spent a month on a Greek island in 1985 or 1986.

He didn't do any horse riding while I knew him, but I knew that he was quite good at it, although where he learned the skill I don't know.

He did do a lot of sketching and drawing at times. But that also had to do with his depressions. It helped him to express his anxieties.

He didn't have a TV at home. He hated all the superficiality of the common TV programmes.

We often went to Golders Green to have breakfast. Since his days in France he loved a cup of coffee and a French croissant to go with it. So there was a nice bakery with tables where we often sat in the mornings. But I can't recall the name of it, unfortunately.

He liked Hampstead Heath very much and went there nearly every day for a walk."

What instruments did he play?

"He played the saxophone really well, and later on he started to take piano lessons and got really good at that as well. He had some friends with whom he would have (more or less regularly) jam sessions. I think Clive [Clive Bell] was at the keyboard and Malcolm was playing the bass and Michael the saxophone. Michael didn’t sing. I don’t know what clubs he went to.

Malcolm was a bit older than Michael, and he was a carpenter. He was not only a jamming friend of Michael's, but did a lot of work for him in the house."

The languages he spoke

"He only spoke English. He wasn’t very good at learning new languages. He was o.k. with a bit of French (since he had lived in Paris for a year), but he rarely said anything in French and if so, he had a hard time to get the pronunciation right. But he was really good at imitating accents. And he loved the English language, all the different levels from Cockney to Upper Class; he could talk them all. And also the ancient forms like in the plays of Shakespeare."

Political inclination/beliefs

"Michael loved to read the Guardian every morning. So that was about his political credo as well.

He was always writing his comments as letters to newspapers. Whether or not it always got printed, I don't know. But he often felt he had something to say about the way things were done around him. He was very alert to all things happening in his community, in London, England and the world in general. Not putting up with fools or nonsense of all kind, that was his attitude. That's why it was so fascinating talking to him. He had his own opinions about just about everything.

He engaged himself for the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), collected signatures in the streets of Hampstead and tried to convince people that nuclear weapons are harmful and dangerous.

He was a self-declared atheist."

Was he a vegetarian?

"He was at times, but more out of a conviction that it wasn’t ethical to kill so many animals for the human beings to eat. He did eat meat sometimes, though, but tried to eat as little as possible. But he loved fish and sea food."

Did he have any pets?

"He had a ginger tomcat called Oscar. And there was another one coming to his house and who he fed, but it was never clear who he really belonged to. Michael was very fond of cats."

His family

"Unfortunately I never met his mother. I don’t know what happened to his father, either. I just know that he was very upset that his mother never told him the truth about his father when he was little. Because it was his father who kept seeing him as a child, but his mother told him to call that man “uncle” and he thought it was just an acquaintance of his mother’s. But sometime later his father vanished from his life completely, a fact that Michael never bore easily.

Regarding his father: I don't quite remember whether he just imagined it, or if his mother had ever made such allusions, but he thought it possible that his father was German or had German blood. He was often asked if he had German blood, but maybe just because of his surname and not because of his looks."

Did he have any troubles with reporters?

"Not to my knowledge. But he never thought too much of the critics about him. Sometimes he didn’t even want to read them."

I heard that he was also a therapist. What kind of therapy did he offer?

"He offered different types of therapy, as far as I remember. But I know of a hypnosis-therapy which he got trained for, and which he offered to clients."

About the outfits in films

"I know that sometimes he was given his film clothes after the end of the film. For example the brown ski dress of the brand "Bogner" he wore in the Bond film he could keep. He was quite proud to produce it when we went skiing for the first time."

Michael’s past

"He never talked about his earlier days. He just mentioned that these years were very difficult for him so he didn't want to linger there with his thoughts. He once said that I wouldn't have wanted to know the person he was then."

I was surprised by this, and wondered what aspect of his personality Michael thought had improved over time. I referred her to Gerry Cullen’s good opinion of him, and also to the Petticoat interview, thinking it might be his attitudes to women that he felt had changed for the better.

"Yes, Michael certainly never was a bullying type of person but loved peace among people as well. So in an uncomfortable situation he would rather make a joke than seek conflict. But he must have known times when life was rough for him.

I remember walking at night through a small Italian town with him; we were alone, walking to the hotel, and talking, and suddenly his shoulders hunched forward, and he involuntarily formed his hands to fists when we heard steps behind us on the cobbled street. He then looked at me, and as I was going on talking like before (not sensing any danger at all) he relaxed and laughed, and said that it must be the old times that had made him react.

I think you are right with the suggestion about his relationship to women. He was a young adult during the roaring sixties and surely taking advantage of the new liberties between the sexes. So he most certainly wasn't in for any kind of commitment towards a relationship.

He did change his attitude towards women. He was all in for women's liberation and equality later. In that respect he clearly changed his opinion. He would even have called himself a feminist in the end."

~~

1 possibly The Dome, 38 High St, Hampstead.

2 An episode of “The Scarecrow and Mrs King” entitled “Our Man in Tegernsee.”

3 Per. Wikipedia, Elias Canetti was a Swiss modernist novelist, playwright, memoirist, and non-fiction writer. He wrote in German and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, "for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power."

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