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Director who gave Sean Connery his first major role looks back in memoir

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MEMOIR

I’M JUST THE GUY WHO SAYS ACTION

by Alvin Rakoff (Amazon £9.99, 183 pp)

Alvin Rakoff, a Canadian long-time resident of London, is one of the great unsung film and television directors. He got a sad, poignant performance of the notoriously hard-to-handle Peter Sellers, in Hoffman – a creepy tale about a middle-aged man who keeps a young girl captive in his flat.

Rakoff was also responsible for John Mortimer’s classic A Voyage Round My Father, in which Laurence Olivier plays the blind old lawyer father and Alan Bates the adoring son. Now a sprightly 94, Rakoff returns in this memoir to his early career, when he directed the then-unknown Sean Connery in his first major role in March 1956.

Alvin Rakoff, 94, has penned a memoir in which he mentions directing the then-unknown Sean Connery in his first major role. Pictured: Connery as OO7

The play, Requiem For A Heavyweight, filmed by Rakoff for television, is about a boxer with waning powers. The key role of ‘Mountain’ McClintock proved difficult to cast – at the BBC audition, several actors gave crappy impersonations of Marlon Brando – and then Connery came in, also nonsense. “Mumbles, I can’t figure it out,” was the note on his card. But there was a clear charisma.

Rakoff already knew him: Connery had been an eager extra in one of his television plays, appearing as a bandana-wearing guerrilla storming a fortress. He was also almost famous in Edinburgh for finishing third in the Mr Universe competition.

The problem was that he had no formal training as an actor. But those were the pioneer days of television – a new medium that, although viewed by millions, was not deemed worthy of being taken seriously, so Rakoff, as a senior TV producer, had far more independence than was now dreamed of.

It was also an area where unheard of actors could play lead roles, so Rakoff got his way and Connery was cast. An extra, a “blonde boy with curly hair and droopy eyes” named Michael Caine, was still waiting for a lead role, although his boots got a close-up during a scene change.

The production was rehearsed for three weeks, with tape on the floor to indicate where the scenery would be. Rakoff was responsible for “mindfully detailing every creative moment,” breaking the script down into lists of shots, switching from one camera to another as actors spoke and others reacted.

Cameras back then were huge boxy things mounted on bicycle wheels and always in danger of colliding with each other, their cables a tangle of black spaghetti. But mechanical matters could not be left to chance: the crew had to know their exact pre-assigned positions. The reason for the meticulous, slightly panicky atmosphere?

I'M JUST THE GUY WHO SAYS ACTION by Alvin Rakoff (Amazon £9.99, 183 pp)

I’M JUST THE GUY WHO SAYS ACTION by Alvin Rakoff (Amazon £9.99, 183 pp)

Requiem For A Heavyweight would be a live broadcast, one hour and 45 minute nonstop recording, 398 separate shots, broadcast in the coveted Sunday night slot on March 31. “We get one chance,” Rakoff told everyone. It was, he says, “ruthless.”

That night Rakoff was in the control booth, just like Monty on D-Day. The production felt seamless as the performers and the cumbersome technical equipment meandered around the cramped sets: the boxing ring, hallways, alley, bar, hotel foyer, and train carriage.

Not a 10,000 watt bulb exploded. No flat collapsed. Not a single actor forgot his lines or fell dead in mid-air. Rakoff writes about all this backstage drama with the suspense of a smoothly written novel. And the press the next morning was ecstatic.

Connery had delivered “a measured, structured, great performance,” full of emotional truth. This paper said, “He’s star material, if I’ve ever seen it.” His destiny, as everyone knows, was to be James Bond.

The tragedy is that Requiem For A Heavyweight does not exist. It’s not included. Video tape had not yet been invented and the ‘telecopy equipment’ was deemed too inferior to use. “Goed into the air, never to be seen again,” laments Rakoff.

However, sometimes things pop up in attics, illegal copies made by amateurs. I recently saw Richard Burton as a steamy Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Made for NBC Television in 1958 and presumably deleted, a tape was found in 2019. So – fingers crossed.

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