Lesley-Anne Down on filming with Patrick Swayze

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Lesley-Anne Down, who turns 70 today, was a stark contrast to Patrick Swayze, her co-star in the hit 1985 U.S. Civil War miniseries ‘North and South’. In interviews for Canadian TV Guide, the enormously likeable but very intense young American actor told me back then, ‘The only thing that will make my career last is if I always deliver one hundred percent.’ The English actress, famous for the 1970s British series  ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, confirmed the actor’s high energy and drive drily: ‘Oh, very, yes.’

Equally charming and personable, she said, ‘I don’t know how long he’s been in this industry but I’ve been in it for 21 years. Mine’s faded, or rather, not faded, I just want to use a lot of energy on other things now.’ Did that mean she had no driving need to be a huge star? ‘I don’t know that I’ve lost that need, she said, ‘but I think it has its proper place.’

Swayze spent more than six months filming on location in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and South Carolina, often in sweltering conditions. Down was back and forth from January to June. Still, it was a lot different from ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ not least because the British show used video and the American series was on film. ‘The hours also are very different,’ she said. ‘On “Upstairs, Downstairs”, we used to stroll into work at one o’clock, have tea, eat buns, play cricket, do about an hour’s worth of work and all pootle off at five o’clock. Then we had two days in the studio every two weeks to record it. This is totally different. Totally.’

Down confessed that she knew nothing about the Civil War or American history in general. ‘You know what we learned about in English schools,’ she said. ‘Ancient Greece, a lot of Roman history going up to medieval times. You don’t even get on to the first or second world wars. We tend to concentrate on our end of the world so I had absulutely no idea and I still haven’t. I’ve no idea who was fighting whom. I’d come on the set and say, now, who are the good guys and who are the baddies?’

Most of her scenes were with Swayze and David Carradine, who played her abusive husband, and she said she got along with both of them very well. She took the part, she said, because ‘I read the scripts and enjoyed them. ‘I’m afraid I’ve chosen things in my life that have turned out to be total rubbish,’ she said. ‘I’ve chosen other things that have turned out to be rather good and I’ve done them all for very different reasons but basically the only reason I choose to do something is because I think I might enjoy to watch it when it finally comes on the telly. I can’t judge art, I’m afraid. All I can do is say, will people watch it or won’t they? Am I entertaining someone? I have no idea about this one because I have not seen it yet. I’ve seen bits and pieces when I’ve been looping. I think it holds up remarkably. I think people will enjoy it.’

Down went on to make many more film and TV appearances. Of her movies up to the time we spoke, she said ‘The Sphinx’ was ‘rubbish’ and the only thing she recalled distinctly about ‘The Betsy’ was that ‘I was doing another day’s filming with Tommy Lee Jones in a New York hotel room and he was already doing “The Eyes of Laura Mars”. We all took an hour’s break because it came over the radio that Elvis Presley had died.’

She said she liked what she had done for British television: ‘I did a thing called “The One and Only Phyllis Dixey”  (left) about a stripper set during World War Two. I thought it was an interesting piece and said something that was sort of different to most television. I did another TV thing called “Unity” about one of the Mitford girls. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (with Sean Connery) I thought was quite a nice film.’

Like most beautiful actresses, she had encountered the casting couch early in her career and, as she had appeared recently on the David Letterman show, I asked if she thought he really was a chauvinist: ‘I will not speak about him personally,’ she said, ‘but I do have to say that it doesn’t actually matter what country you’re talking about. I find the majority of those so-called chat-show hosts to be male chauvinists. They get anybody on their show who does not look like the back of a bus and is reasonably successuful and there is always the odd comment trying to put them down. Don’t put it like it happens only to me – it’s happened to a lot actresses that I’ve seen. They do not allow you, the press even, to be pretty, talented and successful and intelligent. Or even half-way intelligent. You’ve got to have one of those things missing for them to be nice to you.’

This entry was posted in Film, Interviews, Memory Lane, Recalling ..., Television and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.