An accomplished actor of stage, screen and television, Victor Spinetti's lengthy, celebrated résumé was bolstered by small but showy supporting roles in two films: "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and "Help!" (1965). The enduring status of those two appearances was due to his co-stars, the Beatles, but Spinetti's lively turns in these pictures made him both an audience favorite as well as a friend and collaborator with the band - John Lennon in particular. He burst onto the theater scene with a Tony-winning turn in the Broadway production of "Oh! What a Lovely War!" in 1964, which coincided with his appearances in the Beatles pictures. Spinetti soon became friendly with Lennon, and later collaborated on a stage play based on the musician's 1964 book In His Own Write. Though his Beatles credits remained his best known, Spinetti worked steadily in U.K. films and on television from the 1960s through the 2000s, primarily in comedies that showcased his knack for madcap characterizations. His passing in 2012 from prostate cancer brought to a close a long, celebrated performing career, as well as another element in the sprawling pop culture tapestry that was the Beatles' legacy.
Born Vittorio Georgio Andrea Spinetti on Sept. 2, 1929 in the Welsh mining town of Cwm, Victor Spinetti was the eldest of six children by his Italian father, Giuseppe, and a Welsh mother, Lily. A younger brother, Henry, later became an in-demand session drummer on records by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Townshend, among others. Victor's education began at the Monmouth School for Boys, where he proved a bright student as well as a burgeoning dramatic talent. He had shown a knack for entertaining others from an early age by imitating the voices of personalities on the radio. As a teen, he honed his skills as a member of a local theater group, the Ebbw Vale Playgoers' Society.
Despite deafness in one ear, Spinetti was drafted into the military as part of his national service, but was discharged with a disability pension after suffering from pleural effusion. He soon enrolled at the Cardiff College of Music and Drama while working evenings as a classical pianist in order to maintain his grant. Spinetti soon graduated from revues in London to his West End debut in 1958, playing four parts in a production of "Expresso Bongo" at the Saville Theatre. However, the spotlight proved short-lived; by the following year, he was touring in a production of "South Pacific" with a young unknown actor named Sean Connery, then working as an emcee at a burlesque club in Leicester Square. But an audition for Joan Littlewood's esteemed Theatre Workshop led to his Broadway debut in Brendan Behan's "The Hostage." In 1959, he was top-billed in the popular Cockney musical comedy "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be," which featured music by Lionel Bart of "Oliver! fame. During this period, he also became a familiar face in bit and supporting roles in British films and on television.
In 1963, Spinetti was cast as an aggressive drill sergeant in the dark military satire "Oh! What a Lovely War!" A surprise hit, the production moved to Broadway the following year, where Spinetti claimed both the Tony and Theatre World Award for his performance. That same year, he made his debut in a major Hollywood feature with an uncredited turn in "Becket" (1964) opposite Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. However, these and subsequent successes were largely overshadowed by his appearance in the Beatles' first motion picture, "A Hard Day's Night" (1964). Cast as a highly irritable television director attempting to film the band's appearance on a U.K. television show amidst the chaos of Beatlemania, Spinetti encapsulated the bewilderment of the establishment as it tried to make sense of the group's astonishing popularity. He also became a close friend of the band members themselves, most notably George Harrison, who remarked to the actor that he had to be in all of their films, since his mother was a devoted fan.
However, he remained closest to John Lennon, who included Spinetti in his social circle throughout the 1960s. In turn, Spinetti offered the Beatle a welcome dose of reality, most notably in aiding Lennon's then-wife Cynthia in weeding out the cadre of hangers-on that had become a constant in the musician's life. Spinetti also used his theater connections to provide the Lennons with a private box at a West End theater in order to enjoy an evening without the constant distraction of the aggressive British press. As time progressed, Spinetti saw that Lennon, as well as the rest of the Beatles, had grown weary and even cynical about their fame; while filming "Help!" (1965), which featured Spinetti as the surgeon hired to remove a fabled ring from Ringo Starr's finger, the actor noted that the group's much-celebrated sense of joie de vivre had been replaced by apathy and constant drug usage. His final collaboration with all of the Beatles came with a cameo in "Magical Mystery Tour" (BBC1, 1967), which also largely closed their careers as film and television stars.
In 1968, he co-authored and directed "In the Write," a surreal, freeform play written by Lennon and based on the singer's 1964 collection of short stories and poems of the same name. By the end of the 1960s, his connection to the Beatles had essentially assured his place in pop culture, which Spinetti parlayed into steady work on television and the stage. He starred in a popular sitcom, "Two in Clover" (ITV, 1969-1970) opposite much-loved screen comedian Sid James, then played a hapless booking agent in the comedy "Take My Wife." (Granada Television, 1979) while maintaining a regular diet of guest appearances. Among the most notable of these was as the voice of the satyr Mr. Tumnus in an Emmy-winning 1979 animated production of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (CBS). Feature film work was, however, less prominent, though he enjoyed memorable minor turns in "The Taming of the Shrew" (1967) opposite Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, "The Little Prince" (1974) and "Return of the Pink Panther" (1975), in which his hotel concierge attempted to make sense of Inspector Clouseau's (Peter Sellers) impenetrable accent.
Spinetti concentrated largely on theater as both an actor and director during the 1980s, including his one-man show, "A Very Private Diary." which recalled his career and famous associations. From 1982 to 1994, he provided the voice of the villainous Texas Pete, archenemy of the heroic teddy bear "SuperTed" (BBC1), one of the U.K.'s most popular animated series. His profile increased considerably in 1990s with supporting turns in the U.S.-English TV movie "The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank" (YTV, 1988) and "The Krays" (1991). He also played another scheming agent on the sitcom "An Actor's Life for Me" (BBC1, 1991), based on a popular BBC radio series. The early 21st century saw Spinetti still active on stage and television, most notably as a master of disguise on the children's television series "Harry and the Wrinklies" (ITV, 2000-02). He penned a 2006 autobiography, Victor Spinetti Up Front. His Strictly Confidential Autobiography, shortly before reviving his one-man show in 2008. In 2011, he was the focus of an episode of the BBC documentary series "Great Lives" (2011- ), which included comments by Paul McCartney, among others. The following year, Spinetti succumbed to prostate cancer at a hospice in Monmouth on June 18. His passing prompted tributes from the film and theater world, which hailed his talents as both an actor and raconteur.
By Paul Gaita