Actor Tom Conti, 73, has won numerous awards for his work on stage and screen. He is currently on tour in a new production of Twelve Angry Men.

…A VERY PLEASANT CHILDHOOD

I suppose you would have called us middle class. My mother and father, Mary and Alfonso, owned ladies’ hairdressing salons in Scotland. We lived in a nice neighbourhood in Paisley and I had a great bunch of mates. Believe it or not, a few of us actually met up a couple of years ago; we’ve been friends for the best part of 70 years!

We were formed, of course, by the war years. The one thing that was at the forefront of our minds was that great British sense of fair play. There was amorality that guided our childhood, and I think so many people from that generation carried it on into adulthood. It made us who we became.

 

…LIVING IN HAMLEYS TOY SHOP

A couple of times each year, my parents would spend a few days in London for business meetings, seeing all the latest London hairstyles and new gadgets for the salons. Every morning, they would head off to their meetings and leave me at Hamleys…for the whole day! By day two, I was on first-name terms with all the staff, riding the rocking horses, zooming around on the racing cars and living every kid’s fairy tale life.

Can you imagine what would happen if a parent did that today? Social Services would be out in a flash!

 

…REALISING I WASN’T LAZY; I WAS DYING!

For most of my school life, people told me I was lazy. It was as if I couldn’t be bothered with school or study. By the time I was about 15 or 16, my parents were getting a bit fed up with this, so they dragged me off to the doctor, where I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. One of the first symptoms of TB is exhaustion. Luckily, I wasn’t infectious. For years, I’d been under the impression that I was a lazy git, but it seems that I was actually taking a slow walk to death’s door!

 

…TELLING MY PARENTS I WANTED TO BE AN ACTOR

The big hope for all middle-class parents back then was that their child became a doctor or a lawyer. I was doing OK academically, but my parents had taken me to the theatre a few times and this acting thing just seemed to grab me.

We were all sitting round the dinner table when I told them and, initially, there was a worrying silence. They eventually came round, but those early years weren’t all plain sailing. I got the part of Kostya in Chekov’s The Seagull when I was 18 and, at rehearsal, the director said, “Tom, you’re absolutely marvellous…until you speak.”

 

…DISCOVERING THE SECRET OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE

My wife Kara [artist and actress Kara Wilson] and I got married in 1967. For one reason or another, there’s been a lot of talk about our marriage over the last few years [the couple were rumoured to have had an open relationship that included a string of affairs], but let me just say that it was all a long time ago.

For me, the most important part of any relationship is being together. Even if I had a job that took me to the other side of the world for three months, Kara and I were never apart for more than two weeks. We must have been doing something right—we’ve been together for almost 50 years!

 

…THE JOYS OF FATHERHOOD

It didn’t come naturally to me. The leadup to being a parent was a feeling of absolute panic. I didn’t have a real job, I didn’t have a vocation…how could I look after my family? I was on the verge of giving up on acting and trying for medicine! Then Nina [comedy ventriloquist Nina Conti] came along and life took over: nappies, sleepless nights, all of that. And you fall in love with this little person.

I knew she was going to be a comedian when we sat and watched Walter Matthau and George Burns in a film called The Sunshine Boys. We must have watched that film a 100 times and I could tell that she understood what made people laugh. I might be able to do comedy in a film, but what Nina does—stand-up, making people laugh for an hour—takes some guts!

 

…WHEN TV DRAMA MATTERED

I’m not saying we don’t get decent TV dramas these days, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, the stuff that was going out really was amazing. You wanted to be in a TV drama because it was written by Alan Ayckbourn or an Oscar-winner such as Frederic Raphael [Conti starred in Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests in 1977 and his first major TV role was in Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes a year earlier].

That stuff would never get on TV now because there are too many long words and not enough action. We’re not even allowed to read the news sitting down any more; we have to walk around and wave our bloody arms. It’s the news, for God’s sake! Aren’t the words enough?

 

…WINNING A TONY AWARD IN 1979...

For the Broadway production of Whose Life is it Anyway? I’m sure if you ask any actor if they’re good, they’ll struggle to find an answer. If you agree, you’re a big-head. I never wanted to be a star; I just wanted to be a better actor. Living in New York was fun, though. Nina loved it! We had this swanky apartment on the 27th and 28th floors with views of both rivers.

Funnily enough, I met Mick Jagger while I was working on Whose Life. He came to see it one night. If we’re talking about stars, let’s talk about Mick. Could I do what he does every night? Sadly, I don’t have the waist for it!

Family bliss: with daughter Nine and wife Kara in New York
Family bliss: with daughter Nina and wife Kara in New York

 

…SHIRLEY VALENTINE

There was something about that film that really seemed to click with the public. Here we are, over 25 years after it was released, and we’re still talking about it. Bits of my character Costas were sort of based on my father. Not the womanising! His relaxed manner, the way he spoke. Italians can’t say “the” and Greeks can’t say “shh”. So Shirley became Sirrelly Valentine.

People always ask why we didn’t do a follow-up; in fact, Pauline Collins and I were talking about it when she came over for dinner recently. I did have an idea for a sequel and mentioned it to the writer Willy Russell. Costas is an old guy, still pulling birds from Wolverhampton, but he wakes up one day and realises he hates his life. He remembers Shirley, decides he still loves her and heads off to Liverpool to find her. Willy said he couldn’t write it, but I think it would have been wonderful.

With Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine
With Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine. "We're still talking about it after 25 years"

 

…DABBLING IN POLITICS

Well, I wouldn’t even call it dabbling; all I’ve done over the years is shout a lot. I can’t help it…things annoy me. I did consider standing for London Mayor because, frankly, none of that lot we’ve got could run a cake shop, never mind a country. Farage is the only original in the whole bunch, which is why people have responded to him.

I would make anyone who wanted to be in the Cabinet run a corner shop for a year so they could learn a little bit about what matters to ordinary people. These buggers are career politicians—they know nothing about real life.

 

…BEING ASKED TO APPEAR IN FRIENDS

Every now and then, there’s a job that really makes you smile and this was one. I played the father of Ross’ fiancée Emily [Helen Baxendale] and Jennifer Saunders played her stepmum. The joy of doing a show such as Friends is that it’s such a well-oiled machine and everybody gets on with their job. Egos? Are you kidding! They are some of the most down-to-earth people you could meet. They take the job seriously, but not themselves. Have you seen Matt LeBlanc’s new show Episodes? That guy is so cool it hurts!

 

…WONDERING IF I PICKED THE WRONG JOB

Kara and I were talking the other day and, out of nowhere, I said, “I wish I’d been a conductor…touring the world with an orchestra.” I grew up listening to Verdi, Mozart and Beethoven, and did study the piano quite seriously. I’d love to have been a musician, but I knew I wasn’t good enough. My hands used to know the keyboard so well, but my fingers don’t work like they used to. What was once a gentle leap between two notes is now a painful stretch. My playing isn’t so much Beethoven as Les Dawson.

 

…STILL GETTING STAGE FRIGHT

Last year, I joined the cast of Twelve Angry Men in the West End and I enjoyed it so much that I’m touring the country with it. I understand that theatre isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this grips you from start to finish. You’ve got this young kid about to be put to death for murder and I’m on the jury. It’s my job to ask, “Are you really sure he’s guilty?” Look at what’s happening all over the world. This is as relevant now as when it was written in the 1950s.

The strange thing is that, even after almost 60 years of being on stage, I still get scared. First night…absolutely bloody terrified!

 

Photo credit: David Rose/REX

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