I met with Alan Bates after a lot of hemming and hawing on his part – he was a most reluctant interviewee who vacillated continuously about meeting with me, something I later learned he was famous for. It was “yes,” “sorry,” “maybe” for about a year. We finally met up in Rome, where he was filming a television movie, and I just happened to be on vacation. Alan and I had a late dinner in the restaurant at the hotel in which he was staying. I have to admit at the outset that I had a tremendous crush on Alan from the time I was a young teenager, after seeing him onstage in New York. So I was that much more nervous about meeting someone I really idolized for a long time (and the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love, only added to my infatuation.) He was as charming as I had imagined he would be, as he tucked into his fish dinner. I never eat when I am interviewing someone over a meal – it’s too much to focus on at the same time. Alan was often evasive, but he was always deeply thoughtful about his responses rather than giving rote answers, which is the problem with someone who does a lot of interviews. I found Alan to be entirely grateful for the career he had, that it had lasted for so long, and gone through so many changes, and he’d been granted such a variety of roles to play. Alan also showed tremendous interest in me, which was surprising – most actors want to talk about themselves, and that really is the whole point – not to talk about me. But I had to keep reminding Alan that I was interviewing him, and not the other way around. He had a great curiosity about people and that kind of power of observation is part of what makes a great actor. The sense of connection was something Alan valued enormously, as an actor and as a person.
I had just seen Alan in a Simon Gray play Life Support; it was one of many of Gray’s plays that Alan had worked in, the most acclaimed,probably being Butley, the role of a lifetime. Life Support was essentially a one man show, in which he plays a husband at the bedside of his comatose wife; he tries to rouse her to consciousness. Alan’s wife, Victoria, had died several years prior to the production of the play, under tragic circumstances that Alan chose to share with only a close circle of friends. He and his wife had a tormented relationship, and Alan eventually was given sole custody of their 2 boys, because his wife was not able to care for them. His son Tristan had also died a few years earlier from an asthma attack after he mislaid his inhaler. Alan was, as a friend of his put it, coming out of a “cocoon of sadness.” I felt uneasy asking Alan about how it felt to relive this death every night for months on end. I knew that he was private person, and I felt that plumbing this subject would be going too far. I was grateful that I did not bring up the subject, but focused exclusively on Alan’s feelings about and preparation for acting. As is clear from the interview, he was a person who did not like absolutes and dead-on clarity -he wanted to remain open to any impulses that hit him during the rehearsal period.
Alan liked to play cat and mouse and to take a counter position just for fun, which made the interview process more tricky for me, but challenging and entertaining.Sometimes, one feels that people are making comments to irritate you, but with Alan, it seemed like his normal modus operandi. Alan was by turns amusing, teasing, testing, but always generous and sensitive – a gentle, completely loveable man. I was genuinely distressed when he died only a few years later of cancer at the age of 69. His illness was another secret that he kept from everyone but his closest friends. I was happy that he got to play another great role, as the main butler in Gosford Park, before his untimely death. An immense loss of a formidable talent.
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