John Bluthal: an actor’s life

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith pays tribute to the gift of an actor.

The actor is her uncle John Bluthal who died on November 15 north of Sydney, aged 89.

Bluthal was born in Poland, raised and educated in Australia and worked as an actor for stage and screen for seven decades, mostly in London.

His career included lead roles in West End musicals, Shakespearean roles at the National Theatre during Sir Peter Hall’s artistic directorship, TV satire including Spike Milligan’s Q series, the long-running sitcoms Never Mind The Quality, Feel the Width and The Vicar of Dibley, the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the Pink Panther films, and in 2016 at age 87 as a Marxist professor (pictured above) alongside George Clooney in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!

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“There are always going to be more actors than anybody can ever use”, said Edward Albee and as a playwright who has sat in on hundreds of unsuccessful auditions, I know how true it is. The biggest achievement is not to be the biggest actor, but to be an actor for the distance.

In John’s case, he made the distance. He was a successful, skillful, engaging, useful and pleasure-giving actor for seven decades. He delighted directors which his instinctive understanding of how to entertain, his ability to take direction, his understanding of collaboration, his instinctive wit, his dexterity with language, his respect for the audience and an intelligence that was made from an artist’s rocket fuel: curiousity. 

Actors succeed because they don’t observe the normal limits, and that includes the normal limits of other people’s endurance. 

Acting is an adventurous life. It’s space travel, it’s anthropological shape-shifting, it’s trying things on for size and then selling it, it’s pretending something with your heart not your head. The great irony of an actor’s life is that they are necessarily brilliant observers but mostly prefer to be observed.

In family life, John was always the star attraction: be it at a barbecue reunion or my mother’s huge memorial service, where he ad-libbed a life-time’s witticisms. He loved an audience. He adored the stage. He commanded the microphone and he switched it on: an effortlessly funny monologue, a spontaneous show made up of wry asides, recollections of past performances or colleagues, witty bloopers from his past lives, old jokes that never fail, indignant observations about other actors’, writers’ or directors’ lack of talent or insight, generous praise for great art in all forms he loved and a shared affection with his sister, my mother, for the word “marvellous”. 

He was a great reader, always asking my mother for recommendations and falling in love with gloomy and lyrical authors such as Cormac McCarthy – writers who represented a creative world a million miles from John’s most established comedic repertoire. He was also a life-long devotee of music in many forms and these were infinitely linked to his own creativity, in oblique ways.

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With Spike Milligan in Q

He had a love of life, even with — and inspired by — the shadows of a childhood he recalled as being sinister and traumatic, prior to arriving in Australia from Poland in 1938. He had the artist’s inevitable handicap: an emotional depth, a vulnerability to anxiety and panic, even if unrecognised by himself or camouflaged.

But it was that combination of high highs and low lows that made him a wonderful actor. That often painful rollercoaster gave him empathy and insight and created his desire and facility to give joy. He understood the necessity of joy to equal life up from despair and suffering. The motivation of his comedy came from a dark place and although it was a gift to the world of the arts, it was also a survival strategy so significant he had no choice but to excel. His childhood was a powerful motivator for endurance and success, as it is for most of us in the arts.

He performed one essential element of a story, captured the energy and wit of the writers, transformed into one highly charismatic cog in the vast, sprawling, demanding and glorious machine of a good production. 

And joy he gave. My friend Andrew Cornell was ecstatic when back in the ’80s and we were at Melbourne University, he found out John was my uncle. Andrew grew up in the country town of Mildura, where he worked in his parents’ sports store on weekends and watched Spike Milligan’s Q series by night. “What I really remember was what a perfect straight man he was because he was zany in his own right, but against Milligan quite normal. And the eyebrows!” I love the idea of these kids in Australian country towns having their eyes opened to the sophistications of absurdism through John and Spike.

John had a big screen presence, in early years on The Mavis Bramston Show, the Q series, the Beatles’ films, with Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther and in Casino Royale — and in later years perhaps most famously in The Vicar of Dibley with his adored friend, Dawn French. But John was first and foremost a theatre person, both as actor and audience. His presence on stage, was, of course, ephemeral. His performance vanished moments after the curtain came down, and for that reason, was perhaps more precious, or magical, than the work trapped, unchanging, on screen. But then I would say that. The performance may evaporate but the effect of a particularly adept incarnation of a character, comedic or tragic, can stay with us and build the momentum of an actor’s identity, his characteristics and talents, in our mind’s eye.

Years and years of performances, from the epitome of commercial theatre – Fagin in Oliver on the West End, The Bed Sitting Room with Spike Milligan or performing with Leslie Caron in a Feydeau farce —  to Shakespeares at the National Theatre where directors as legendary as Sir Peter Hall, who had the world of actors at his feet, used John over and over again. 

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As the blind accordian player with Peter Sellers in The Return of the Pink Panther

Over decades of evening shows and matinees, he carried characters into audiences, sitting in those dark spaces, waiting to receive them. He performed one essential element of a story, captured the energy and wit of the writers, transformed into one highly charismatic cog in the vast, sprawling, demanding and glorious machine of a good production. 

And audiences went home enlarged by the experience, and there were plenty who said at the bar or the coat check or as they made their way home: John Bluthal… what a great actor. He meant something to them, whether as one part of an experience that wouldn’t have been the same without him, or as the singular high of an experience, because theatre-literate audiences knew him and loved him by name. 

John’s extraordinary ability for accents and mimicry, his absurdist improvisations, his eccentricities and enthusiasms made him a wondrous thing to me and a very precious uncle.

We often laughed about John needing to be the centre of attention, but the fact was he earned it. Actors succeed because they don’t observe the normal limits, and that includes the normal limits of other people’s endurance. 

I loved his trick, when I was a little girl, when he would painstakingly fold a piece of paper and rip tiny bits off it, building anticipation as we all waited to see the result of his endeavours: some gloriously conjured image. Eventually…. long minutes later…. his delicate little rips succumbed to complete destruction of the folded paper until it was a handful of confetti which he threw exhuberently into the air. I requested and watched this Milliganesque “trick” a hundred times, always knowing the outcome! But it was the brilliance of his performance, the establishing of an expectation, the building of suspense and the absurd deflation of his own artistic grandeur which was so hilarious and compelling. 

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Professor Pacoli in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element

John’s extraordinary ability for accents and mimicry, his absurdist improvisations, his indefatigable willingness to please, his eccentricities and enthusiasms made him a wondrous thing to me and a very precious uncle. He was one of the few people who called me Josie and he appreciated my admiration, which means something to a child, because it’s rarely felt. 

A life in the arts had highs and lows but the highs always and forever justified the lows.

In 1971, at the height, perhaps, of his fame in London, he zipped around the city in his blue MG, recognised everywhere, always given the most notable table, free corned-beef sandwiches in the Jewish delis of the West End, the best car parks, signing photos, making wise-cracks with cabbies, ushers, security fellows at Pinewood, waiters at the Richmond Rendezvous, always gregarious, riding the high. 

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With George Clooney in Hail Caesar!

I suspect the sheer fun he exuded communicated something to me about the lack of mediocrity about a life in the arts. Such a life had highs and lows but the highs always and forever justified the lows. Whatever it was, a creative life wasn’t ordinary.  The business of making and telling stories was both a hugely accessible contribution to society and a hugely mysterious one as well. There were no rules. Things happened unexpectedly. You riffed off life. Observation was a weapon. Humanity was a constant source of professional development. The absurdity of life was gold. Fantasy was that gold, spun. You fell into different worlds and gave life to inventions, you conjured stories from thin air, you sold things that didn’t really exist and you made people laugh… an under acknowledged talent if ever there was one and one he had firmly under his belt over a long life. All these things I learned about the theatre from John. He was, in his effervescent spirit, a missionary for it.

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The voice of  Commander Wilbur Zero in Fireball XL-5

Every family should have an Uncle Johnny, or a Gruncle, as he became known to the next generation of great nephews and nieces. But most don’t. We were lucky. Even into his 80s, he made us laugh every time we saw him. How many of us can say our Uncle’s new best friend – at 87 – is George Clooney, who was so taken by John, that he insisted on personally holding his cue cards for him in the Coen Brother’s Hail Caesar? He was a wonderful, lovable showman—across the globe and within our clan — and we were so incredibly proud of him. 

One response to “John Bluthal: an actor’s life

  1. Thank you for a wonderful farewell to an irreplaceable actor. I remember him with great fondness although I only met him once.

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