03 November 2012

Laurence Harvey

Handsome Lithuanian-born actor Laurence Harvey (1928 – 1973) achieved fame as the Jack the Lad of British cinema. He is best known for his lead performance as a ruthless social climber in Room at the Top (1959).

Laurence Harvey
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. D 551. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation. Publicity still for Romeo and Juliet (1954).

A Terrific Romeo
Laurence Harvey was born in the town of Joniškis, Lithuania in 1928. He maintained throughout his life that his birth name was Laruschka Mischa Skikne, but it was actually Zvi Mosheh Skikne. He was the youngest of three boys born to Ella Skikne Zotnickaita and Ber Skikne, a Lithuanian Jewish family. Aged five, his family emigrated to South Africa, where he was known as Harry Skikne. He grew up in Johannesburg, and lied about his age at 14 in order to join the South African Navy. He served with the entertainment unit of the South African Army during the Second World War in Egypt and Italy. After moving to London, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he became known as Larry. After leaving RADA early, he began to perform on stage in regional theater. According to Jason Ankeny at AllMovie he also worked as a male prostitute. He made his cinema debut as Laurence Harvey in the British horror film House of Darkness (1948, Oswald Mitchell). After this the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) offered him a two year contract and he appeared in several of their lower budget films such as the film noir Man on the Run (1949, Lawrence Huntington) starring Derek Farr, and the narcotics crime drama Cairo Road (1950, David MacDonald). He failed in a disastrous revival of the play Hassan in London's West End, and then joined the company of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon for the 1952 season, earning almost unanimously poor notices. His film career got a boost when he appeared in Women of Twilight (1952, Gordon Parry) opposite René Ray. This crime drama was made by Romulus Films who signed Harvey to a long-term contract. He secured a small role in a Hollywood film, Knights of the Round Table (1953, Richard Thorpe), and was cast with Rex Harrison in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954, David Butler). That year he also played Romeo in Renato Castellani's adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1954), narrated by John Gielgud. Patrick Hunter at IMDb: “a very worthwhile movie, especially for Shakespeare fans. I personally think Laurence Harvey is a terrific Romeo. Yes, he's a bit of a simp, but that's the character. In fact, Harvey is the screen's best Romeo; he's a lot more passionate than Leslie Howard in the MGM version, and he speaks the verse better than either DiCaprio or Leonard Whiting in the two subsequent versions.” Though overshadowed by these later film versions, this Romeo and Juliet was impressive enough in 1954 to win the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival.

Leslie Howard
Leslie Howard as Romeo. British postcard in the Picturegoer Series by Real Photograph, London, no. 1101. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity photo for Romeo and Juliet (1936, George Cukor).

High-spending, High-living Ways
Laurence Harvey was now established as an emerging British star. He was cast as the writer Christopher Isherwood in I Am A Camera (1955, Henry Cornelius), with Julie Harris as Sally Bowles. Later, the musical Cabaret would also be based on the same novels by Isherwood. Harvey also appeared on American TV and on Broadway. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in the play Island of Goats. The play closed after one week, though his performance won Harvey a 1956 Theatre World Award. A hit in France was the film Three Men in a Boat (1956, Ken Annakin) with Shirley Eaton. Harvey appeared twice more on Broadway, in 1957 with Julie Harris in William Wycherley's The Country Wife, and as Shakespeare's Henry V in 1959, as part of the Old Vic company, which featured a young Judi Dench as Katherine, the Daughter of the King of France. Jon C. Hopwood writes at IMDb: “The colorful Harvey, a press favorite, became notorious for his high-spending, high-living ways. He found himself frequently in debt, his travails faithfully reported by entertainment columnists. More fame was to come.“ His breakthrough to international stardom came in 1959 when he was cast as the ruthless social climber Joe Lampton in Room at the Top (1959, Jack Clayton), based on John Blaine's 'angry young man' novel. The film was produced by British film producing brothers Sir John and James Woolf of Romulus Films and Remus Films. For his performance, Harvey received a BAFTA Award nomination and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor, the first person of Lithuanian descent to be nominated for an acting Oscar. His co-star, Simone Signoret, did win the Oscar for her performance. Room at the Top (1959) and Look Back in Anger (1959, Tony Richardson) inaugurated the ‘kitchen sink’ cinema, the New Wave that revolutionized Britain’s film industry.

Simone Signoret
Simone Signoret. Russian postcard, 1961. Retail price: 8 Kop.

The Jet Set
During the 1960’s, Laurence Harvey appeared in several major films. He starred in Butterfield 8 (1960, Daniel Mann) opposite Elizabeth Taylor, and John Wayne's epic The Alamo (1960), released within a month of each other. Harvey was then cast in the film version of the war drama The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961, Leslie Norman) with Richard Todd. The role had earlier made Peter O'Toole prominent in the West End, but O'Toole was not yet established in cinema and Harvey was clearly more ‘bankable’. Other films included Walk on the Wild Side (1962, Edward Dmytryk) with Barbara Stanwyck, a young Jane Fonda and Capucine; the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke (1961, Peter Glenville) with Geraldine Page, and the superb and cynical Darling (1965, John Schlesinger) with Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde. He also appeared as a brainwashed former Korean War POW in the Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer). Rebecca Flint Marx at AllMovie: "In addition to its status as one of the great political satires, The Manchurian Candidate remains a classic for its sharp, often hilarious script, for John Frankenheimer's fine-tuned direction, and for its uniformly excellent performances. Though Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and Janet Leigh are all thoroughly effective, and James Gregory is pricelessly stupid as Senator Iselin, the film belongs to (Angela) Lansbury. Her Mrs. Iselin remains one of the screen's most terrifying maternal presences". Harvey became very good friends with Sinatra, and was a member in good standing of high society, the ‘The Jet Set’. But his career began to decline. The remake of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1964, Ken Hughes) was a failure, as was The Outrage (1964, Martin Ritt) starring Paul Newman, a remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashômon (1950). Harvey reprised his Oscar-nominated role as Joe Lampton in the sequel Life at the Top (1965, Ted Kotcheff), but the film was not a success. Harvey returned to Britain to make the comedy The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966, Daniel Petri) with Daliah Lavi. His last hurrah was his appearance in the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968), of which he took the direction over after the original director Anthony Mann died during shooting. In settlement of a dispute with Woodfall Films over the rights to The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, Tony Richardson), Woodfall cast him in their version as a Russian prince. He performed as cast, but was never seen as the Prince in the finished film. The only part of his performance remaining in the final cut is a brief appearance of him in the background of one shot, as an anonymous member of a theatre audience.

Daliah Lavi
Daliah Lavi. German postcard by Franz Josef Rüdel, Hamburg. Photo: Polydor.

Long-term Lover
Laurence Harvey played out his career largely in undistinguished films, TV work and the occasional supporting role in a major production. In The Magic Christian (1969, Joseph McGrath), he recited Hamlet's soliloquy, almost nude and very thin. A promising project, Orson Welles' The Deep (1970) with Jeanne Moreau, was never finished. One of his better performances from this period was in an episode of Rod Serling's TV series Night Gallery (1971). He was also guest murderer of the week on Columbo: The Most Dangerous Match (1973) as a chess champion who murders his opponent. He directed himself in the last picture in which he appeared, Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974). He did not live to see its premiere. Harvey was married three times. In 1957 he married actress Margaret Leighton, whom he had met on the set of The Good Die Young (1954). They divorced in 1961. His second marriage in 1968 was to American multi-millionaire Joan Perry Cohn, who was 17 years his senior and the widow of film mogul Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Finally he married Vogue model Paulene Stone. Harvey met Stone on the set of A Dandy in Aspic, and while still married to Cohn he became a father for the first time when Stone gave birth to a daughter, Domino, in 1969. Eventually, Harvey divorced Cohn and married Stone in 1972. Harvey was bisexual. His long-term lover was his manager James Woolf, who had discovered Harvey in the 1950’s. A heavy smoker and drinker, Harvey died from stomach cancer in 1973. He was only 45. His daughter, Domino Harvey (1969–2005), who worked first as a model and later as a bounty hunter, was only 35 when she died. They are buried together in Santa Barbara Cemetery in Santa Barbara, California, USA.

Trailer Romeo and Juliet (1954). Source: VCIClassicMovies (YouTube).

Trailer I Am A Camera (1955). Source: HistoryTimes (YouTube).

Trailer The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Source: Frankypatsin (YouTube).

Sources: Jon C. Hopwood (IMDb), Jason Ankeny (AllMovie), Rebecca Flint Marx (AllMovie), Wikipedia and IMDb.


Bunched Undies said...

Thanks Bob for the interesting biography of this gifted but tortured soul. I never knew about his daughter. Her story sounds fascinating as well

Bob of Holland said...

Hi Bunchie, There is a film about her, Domino (2005, Tony Scott) with Keira Knightley. But I did not see it, so can't tell you if it's interesting.

Bunched Undies said...

It appears to be more of an action film than a bio-pic, but I will probably check it out all the same. I've been reading about Domino and she certainly had a wild and tragic life.