David Hemmings

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British Actor/Director

David Hemmings didn't like it when he was described as a philanderer, preferring to think of himself as an 'incurable romancer', a chap who couldn't stop asking girls to marry him...(scroll down)

david hemmings

But I think he was at least a lovable, and often irresponsible, rogue. He was also, in his phrase, a 'journeyman actor' with a low boredom threshold, who got a lucky acting break when he was 25, and found his life coloured by it, for better and worse, ever after.

And although he had at least four different careers, from boy soprano, to actor, to director and finally artist, it seems to me that perhaps he got it all too early, and that he had been too young to appreciate his good fortune.

His lucky break was when Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni cast him, instead of Terence Stamp, as the young David Bailey-type photographer in the film Blow-Up. It was shrewd casting. Stamp never had the cheeky charm of Hemmings or those Sixties photographers.

Hemmings was excellent in the part, although he honestly admitted towards the end of his life that he 'could never make much sense of the script'.

Like a model, he simply followed Antonioni's shouted directions from behind the camera, a style of filming unknown in Britain, but made possible by the Italian movie tradition of recording only the pictures. All the sound was added later in the studio.

Thus when Hemmings was filmed in a supposed orgy with two naked girls, one of whom was a very young Jane Birkin showing the first glimpse of pubic hair in a major film, the eroticism of the moment was somewhat dulled by a barrage of Antonioni shouting at him: 'Get her knickers off now.' And: 'I can't see her tits.'

Slight and opaque though the plot of Blow-Up was, Antonioni caught the critical Zeitgeist of the mid-Sixties with it, and when the film was released in 1966 no one dared cry 'Phoney' to this cinematic emperor.

Though there was less there than met the eye, the movie was a cult hit, and Hemmings, still not knowing what it was an about, became a star.

Blow-Up was, however, his first and last big hit. Though he appeared in Camelot, The Charge Of The Light Brigade and Alfred The Great, soon he was reduced to taking roles just for the money.

In all he would appear in more than a hundred movies or TV films, but hardly any are memorable, until those made in the last few years of his life when he was doing mainly small character parts.

Certainly, however, he was multi-talented. Born in 1941, he would sing in pubs and competitions accompanied by his father on the piano from the age of six, until one day when he was ten a judge opined bluntly that he 'needed a proper pianist'.

He got one, and singing lessons, but his father never forgave him, resenting his son's career ever after, beginning when Hemmings created the role of Miles in Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn Of The Screw.

Britten was in love with him, Hemmings admits, but, though there were rumours, he insists the composer never laid a finger on him.

Instead the 12-year-old David gratefully received early lessons in heterosexual sex from a young wardrobe mistress at the English Opera Group.

When his voice broke, Britten wanted the boy to continue his career as a singer, but Hemmings fancied acting more and soon he was at a stage school and appearing in Billy Bunter and Dixon Of Dock Green on TV.

By the time he was 20, he was married, but he would rarely be faithful, not to his wives nor to his many lovers, until he met his fourth and last wife in 1993. There was, for instance, Kim Novak in a coat and not much else in a park in France, and then an affair with Samantha Eggar while making a movie.

He 'canoodled' with the ill-fated Sharon Tate, and had flings with Jean Shrimpton, David Bailey's and Terence Stamp's old flame, the 16-year-old Tessa Dahl and many, many more.

All this suggests he wasn't taking his acting career as seriously as he might and soon, as the parts and the fees became smaller, his offspring more numerous and his carefree lifestyle more lavish, there were money crises.

Eventually in the Eighties, when his looks had been bloated by drink, he found stability of a kind directing more than 200 episodes of formula TV in Hollywood, shows such as The A-Team and Werewolf. How artistically rewarding he found this, he never revealed.

Then, suddenly, in the Nineties he returned to England, fell in love for the last time, took up painting and, reacquainting himself with old pals, began getting small movie parts again.

Almost unrecognisable behind luxuriant eyebrows and beneath a red wig in Gladiator, he was just about cut out of Gangs Of New York. But he was enjoying himself again.

Two of his great early drinking pals were Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, and he spoke sadly of their premature deaths. Within three years, he, too, was dead.


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