LIFE is just beginning for Michael Crawford. Yes, really!
He may have been one of our most popular stars for half a century and become a major box office sensation, but for Michael every new challenge is like starting life again and he certainly has no plans to retire.
“I loved being involved with All Star Musicals,” says Michael. “Being able to help others present their hidden talents is such a great privilege as well as a lot of fun.
“I am a hard taskmaster but if they feel good about it when they perform in front of an audience and they get the applause they deserve, then it has all been worthwhile.
“I was helped by many people, with the benefit of their experience and knowledge. I like to repay that by passing something on to others.
“Not that I know it all! You never stop learning, and meeting new challenges is what I love most. That is why I have no thoughts of retiring. I still have more to offer.”
Michael turned 76 in January, but he looks and has the fitness of a man at least 20 years younger.
“I don’t think about age as a number,” he says. “Age is what you feel like at the time.
“When you’re young, you can sometimes wake up and feel 10 or 20 years older. It depends on what you’ve been doing the night before! When you are older you can wake up and feel great. If you think your age, you will feel your age.”
Michael’s story is nothing less than spectacular, especially given his very humble beginnings.
He was born on an army base in Wiltshire, where his mother was staying with her sister because she was not married to Michael’s father. The rest of the family were at Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey but his mum agreed to go away to have Michael in secret to avoid a scandal, and to keep away from the frequent bombings along the Kent coast while World War II still raged.
“I can just about remember some of the early times in Wiltshire and then growing up on Sheppey,” recalls Michael. “The circumstances were difficult but there was always music and laughter and bread toasting on an open fire. You never forget things like that.”
Michael mostly remembers the stepping stones of his career.
“If it had not been for Benjamin Britten, I would probably never have become an actor,” he admits. “I don’t really know what I would have done, nothing very clever though.
“I was in a school production of the great man’s Let’s Make An Opera. I was Sammy in The Little Sweep. Later I auditioned for a role in another Benjamin Britten creation called The Turn of the Screw. I lost out to David Hemmings, who went on to be a great actor, of course.
“But Benjamin Britten saw me and gave me another chance in a bigger production of Let’s Make An Opera. He was very encouraging and gave me self-belief.
“He helped me tremendously.
“After that, there were many stage productions, then I got into films and TV, mostly with cameo parts.
“I had to play an American in one film and I spent hours listening to tapes of Americans so that I could get the accent right. I’ve always thought that you can’t do things by halves. If you want to do something, do it right and put in the work to make it happen.
“The really big change came when Frank Spencer came along.
“I wasn’t first choice,” Michael admits. “It was amazing really that both the brilliant Ronnie Barker and the amazing Norman Wisdom turned it down before it landed on me. What a break!
“I was on stage at the time playing Brian Runnicles in No Sex Please, We’re British, and I could see some of the same characteristics for Frank.
“It was lovely working with Michele Dotrice who was just brilliant as Betty, and the public took to it straight away when the show was screened in 1973.
“I still get people doing impersonations all these years later, and it was a bit of fun to be Frank again a while ago for Sport Relief. You never know, Frank might come back again one day.”
Even after Frank Spencer left our screens, Michael stayed at the top, becoming the toast of theatreland with his stunning work in Barnum, Phantom of the Opera and so many other shows which have become legends in their own right.
“I just love musicals and stage spectaculars,” he smiles.
“Before Barnum or Phantom, I was in the film version of Hello Dolly!. Another great man was directing it and was a big help to me — Gene Kelly. He had a great sense of humour but he was a perfectionist when it came to the work. You would work until you were ready to drop, and then you would work some more.
“When I auditioned, he joked: ‘Listen kid. What we’re looking for is an attractive idiot. My wife thinks you’re attractive, and I think you’re an idiot.’ It broke the ice and took the tension out of me. At least I hope he was joking!
“He was also very encouraging and always ready to pass on tips. He wanted you to be good, he wanted you to be successful and he was always very positive.”
Michael himself leant a helping hand behind the scenes of a very different performance. He mentored ice dance stars Torvill and Dean, helping to create their iconic Bolero routine.
“Whenever I have helped people I get a kick out of it,” he says. “It is a real thrill when it goes right. I remember Torvill and Dean getting top marks and I was totally excited to be a very small part of their legendary success story. I still get a thrill when I think about it.”
Michael’s enthusiasm clearly shows that he is as excited as ever about facing new challenges. He has proven himself to be a straight actor, a singer, dancer, juggler, acrobat and even stunt man.
“Yes, I did most of my own stunts in Some Mothers, as well as learning all those skills in Barnum, and I did stunts in other films, TV and stage shows, too. I have the bruises to prove it!” he laughs.
“I’m not sure about doing stunts in the future. I have to remind myself that it takes longer to recover now although it is tempting.
”I have always loved slapstick comedy like Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and those other comedy greats, and always wanted to follow in their footsteps. To a degree I have — not becoming a ‘great’, but at least doing some stunts that made people laugh.
“I don’t know what’s next. There are always ideas coming along. So watch this space, as they say.”
Whatever he does next, his millions of fans will eagerly welcome him back to stage or screen. He might have been a secret when he was born, but Michael Crawford’s stardom is definitely not a secret now!