Tom Conti has been a household name since his first major television part starring in The Glittering Prizes in 1976. Along with Judi Dench he was recently voted the most popular West End actor. He took time out from rehearsals for his new play for a chat.
Tom Conti was born in Glasgow to an Italian father and a Scottish mother. He trained in Scotland and spent the early days of his career there. ‘Originally I was going to do music and I trained at music college but ended up as a drama student. My first job was at the Dundee Rep in 1959. It was during my final year at drama school; I only did the one play. It was during the Edinburgh Festival and every actor in Scotland was busy with that. They couldn’t afford the fare and subsistence costs to bring an actor up from London, so they phoned the drama school and asked if they could suggest anyone and I got the job.
‘I came down to London after I’d done my first proper year of rep at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and had many hard years of no work at all. I did other things – I was a tour guide, I played guitar in restaurants, things like that just to pay the rent. I was soon back in Scotland with my tail between my legs not having been able to find work. It was impossible; I didn’t know what to do. Nobody knows what to do in those circumstances. So much of it is luck.
‘Anyway, I did a play at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in about 1970 that transferred to the Hampstead Theatre Club. I was seen in that and offered something else. That’s how it works in this business – you jump from lily pad to lily pad. I was offered a series for Granada in the God-slot on a Sunday evening. It was a play about a Church of Scotland minister and I was playing an atheist doctor. That was about 1971 I think. My first big break came with The Glittering Prizes which was broadcast in 1976.’
I first met Tom many years ago when we were both working at the Traverse. I reminded him that it was all very self-contained, closely knit acting fraternity north of the border at the time. ‘There was a very healthy scene in Scotland for actors. There was virtually only one theatrical agency called Scots and there were a group of actors including David McKail, Leonard Maguire, Callum Milne, Paul Kermack, Paul Young and Stuart Henry, who became a Radio 1 DJ, who did a lot of the work. They made a living but there was never a lot of money there. It was a struggle at times.’
I also worked with Leonard Maguire at the Traverse. He was a much loved and well respected actor, not only in Scotland. He was born in Manchester and worked with Laurence Olivier’s company at the Phoenix Theatre in London and appeared in Crime & Punishment with John Gielgud. He was a founder member of the Citizens in 1943. He died in 1997. As we were chatting about old times Tom recalled a rather sad story about him.
‘The very first job I ever did was when I was about eleven or 12, doing a radio play about the man who built the Cutty Sark and Leonard was playing this man. We were in this small BBC Radio studio in Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow and Leonard was wearing a duffel coat all the time. It was hot as hell and I asked one of the other actors why Mr Maguire – we never used first names in those days – was wearing his big coat. This actor, it was Ian Cuthbertson, told me that Leonard didn’t have a jacket and was embarrassed to take his coat off.’ It can be a tough life as an actor.
© Michael Hasted. No reproduction in whole or in part without specific permission.