HIGHLIGHTS OF A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN LEYTON – ABOUT HIS CAREER IN THE 1960’S – PARTICULARLY WORKING ON “THE GREAT ESCAPE”
8TH APRIL 2022
ON THE ABOVE DATE, I HAD THE GREAT PLEASURE OF SPENDING SOME TWO HOURS CHATTING WITH MR. JOHN LEYTON, THE FAMOUS SINGER AND ACTOR WHO AGREED TO DO AN INTERVIEW FOR MY BIGGLES.COM WEB SITE REGARDING HIS MEMORIES OF THE 1960 TV SERIES “BIGGLES” WHERE HE PLAYED “GINGER HEBBLETHWAITE”. “BIGGLES” WAS PLAYED BY NEVILLE WHITING AND “BERTIE” WAS PLAYED BY DAVID DRUMMOND. IN THIS PART OF THE INTERVIEW HE TALKS OF HIS OTHER WORK.
RH – We have got to talk about “THE GREAT ESCAPE”. Since I was six, it has been my favourite film all my life. I absolutely love it.
JL – Oh really?
RH – Tell us about how you came to be in it in the first place and when was it made?
JL – What, the Great Escape? The Great Escape was made in 1962 and released in ’63.
RH – Yes, you made in Germany, didn’t you?
JL – Yes.
RH – How long did you have to go to Germany for?
JL – We were out there for six months.
RH – Six months? Blimey.
JL – And in fact, I did the first shot and I actually did the last shot. The first shot I did was with Charles Bronson and we were talking about how far are the trees.
RH – “300 feet, I make it 330”. That’s the one. Yes, I know the line. (Turns out I didn’t know the line, I am embarrassed to say. I got it wrong. In actual fact, John Leyton as Willie says “How far are the trees, Danny?” To which Bronson as Danny replies “Over 200 feet”. Willie then says “I’d say 300”. Bronson, playing a Pole, says “Long ways to dig” and Willie says “We’ll get Cavendish to make a survey”. Later, Richard Attenborough tells the assembled escape committee the direction of the first tunnel. John Leyton as Willie says “But that’s over 300 feet, Roger”. Attenborough then asks Cavendish “Did you make a survey, Dennis? and Cavendish replies “Only a temporary one, sir. I make it just over 335 feet”. To which Attenborough replies “Let me know when you’ve got an exact one”).
JL – And the last shot was us getting on the boat, on that big boat.
RH – Yes, going up the gang plank as you had just escaped ………..
JL – That was the last shot of the film. I was with Robert Stigwood and he took me on as an actor. And then the singing took over. And in 1961, which wasn’t long after Biggles. because when I’d been doing Biggles, I got quite a big following of teenage girls.
RH – Yes. So that led to the singing?
JL – Yes.
RH – I never knew that.
JL – This huge following and I think Stigwood being a businessman said “Hello, there’s a market out there” and he said “Can you sing?” and I said “Well, yes, yes, I can sing. Whether I can sing professionally or not is another matter, but yes sure, I can sing”. When I went to see John Sturges ………..
RH – Did Robert Stigwood put you up for it effectively or did they approach you as you were a popular singer?
JL – I said to Robert Stigwood, “Look it would be quite handy to have representation in Hollywood and he agreed. He said yes. He said, obviously that’s where the film industry is basically, and also it would be good to have a foothold over there for the music side of things. And so, he found an agent for me in Hollywood and the agent in Hollywood knew John Sturges and put my name forward to John Sturges, the director, to see me when he came to London to cast the British stars. So, I went up to see John Sturges, that’s how I got to see John Sturges.
RH – Was it your first film role or had you done anything before…………?
JL – Yes, first.
RH – I read somewhere that you made an appearance in DANGER WITHIN, which is another prisoner of war film with Richard Attenborough? You were playing a small role?
JL – No, that was when I was at drama school and I used to do small roles and extra work to help pay the fees. But anyway, I went up to see John Sturges at the Savoy Hotel where he had a room and I was ushered into this room and all these people were sitting around a desk. John Sturges was a very nice man, a lovely man, and we talked and he suddenly said “Do you know who Charles Bronson is?” You’ve got to remember back then, him and Steve McQueen …
RH – Were virtually unknown, weren’t they? Yes. And they all went on to be Superstars.
JL – And I said “Well actually, Mr. Sturges, sir, I have seen THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and I believe Charles Bronson is the one with the children, isn’t he?”
RH – Yes, that’s right.
JL – Charlie is a big strong guy. He said “Well, I think you’ll be perfect for a character called ‘Willy’ who goes through most of the film with Charlie”. I think the two of you ………..
RH – Will hit it off?
JL – Kind of contrast. Charles a big rough guy, you’re a ‘pretty boy’ (laughs). So, you will look good together. He literally threw the script. He didn’t throw it at me, he threw the script across the desk. “There you go”, he said. “Willie. Willie the Tunnel King. Welcome aboard”. And I thought “Wow!”
RH – You got the role instantly?
JL – “Don’t you want me to audition or anything like that?” I thought. I kept my mouth shut. I thought, “Is that it? Wonderful!”
RH – Fantastic!
JL – And I walked out of the door with a script under my arm and the role of Willie.
RH – That’s fantastic ……… I hope it’s not a rude question, but could I ask how much did they pay you to do THE GREAT ESCAPE? Was it thousands of pounds, then?
JL – No. (Pause as he thinks). I know you might find it odd but I actually can’t really remember. No, It wasn’t anywhere near. You have got to remember it was ’62 and I have got a feeling I was paid £500 a week.
RH – And then it’s a question of how long did it run? How long did it film?
JL – That was for six months. How many weeks in six months?
RH – Yes. So 26. So £13,000? (For comparison, research shows in 1963, an average male teacher would earn £1,244 per year)
JL – It was 1962.
RH - £500 a week was a lot of money. You could buy a house for £13,000?
JL – Oh, yeah. You could buy a house in London for that.
RH – So it was quite a lucrative role then?
JL – Oh, yeah. On top of that, I never touched any of it, because I used to get these expenses …………
RH – Yes, they are called ‘per diems’ aren’t they?
JL – I never understood what that meant.
RH – It means “per day”.
JL – Oh right, well I used to get this per diem. So, I thought what am I going to do with all this money, this cash. So I kept hold of that as well.
RH – Did you come back to the UK and buy yourself a car as soon as you got back or something? Fascinating. What was it like staying in Germany with the other cast and crew? Did you share a chalet with somebody or ………….?
JL – No, I started off in a hotel. Then Charlie Bronson wanted a flat because his wife was coming over. I saw quite a lot of Charlie, we saw each other off screen.
RH – So you were good friends off screen as well as on?
JL – We’d go to the nightclubs together.
RH – What was he like?
JL – Oh, Charlie was ……….. he didn’t hold back on his opinions or anything like that. He was bit like he looked, really. But he was alright, yeah. I got on with him very well.
RH – He went on to be the highest paid actor in the ‘70’s.
JL – Did he?
RH – Stuff like DEATH WISH and stuff like that. He became America’s highest paid actor. What’s your memories of Steve McQueen?
JL – Just to finish off with Charlie, he was offered a flat. Then he decided “No, I’ll stay in the hotel because my wife’s not coming over now”, so I took the flat. So, I had a flat in a very fashionable, student type area in Munich.
RH – You filmed in Munich did you?
JL – Yes. The whole thing was filmed in Bavaria.
RH – Yes. I knew it was Munich studios. There is a town like Geiselstat?
JL – Geiselgasteig. Getting to Steve ………….
RH – I’d read that he could be quite awkward on the set?
JL – Well, I never had any scenes with Steve. And I don’t think anybody complained about him in front of the camera.
RH – I think there is one scene with you and him, where, it’s the fourth of July celebration and you’re all serving the hooch and you’re all partying just before the tunnel, Tom, is discovered.
JL – Yes. Steve was not very happy on the film, because, quite frankly, I and others, wondered what he was doing on the film because his character was actually fictitious and it was superfluous.
RH – Yes, he’s in the cooler most of time, isn’t he?
JL – Yes. James Garner was the scrounger, Donald Pleasance was the forger, Charlie and I were the tunnellers. Attenborough was in charge of it …………..
RH – Yes, Big X.
JL – And somebody else was the tailor, but Steve? Hilts?
RH – What was he doing?
JL – But he obviously took the role and in the initial script which I read, I thought this is a nice role which I’ve got, thank you very much. Where’s Hilts?
RH – He escaped by train initially and it was his idea to come up with the motor cycle chase? That’s what I read. Do you recall that?
JL – I don’t know. All I can tell you is that he was very unhappy because his role was not developing and his agent came over from Hollywood and he was going to walk off the film.
RH – Oh, blimey.
JL – But, well, Steve was mad on bikes, motorbikes and fast cars. Including being a racing driver, he’d done that.
RH – Yes.
JL – And I don’t remember, all that business of the bike at the end of the film. I don’t remember reading that and I think that was put in for Steve because you’re going to steal the film, that bit on the bike.
RH – And to some extent he does, doesn’t he? Because it made him a big star, THE GREAT ESCAPE.
JL – It did. Eventually, when the film came out, basically, it made him; It set him up. But, if you look very carefully at the film, it might need me with you, to show you, you’ll actually see Steve dressed up as a Nazi, chasing himself. Have you seen that?
RH – I have seen that.
JL – You know where it is?
RH – Yes, I think I do, I think I do.
JL – He has a way of riding.
RH – Because you did, I saw an interview with you, where you said that after they finished filming you did the motor cycle jump yourself? With James Coburn and people like that and they all had a go? Did Steve? Because it was done by Bud Ekins?
JL – Yes, Bud Ekins.
RH – Did Steve do it after hours, off set or not?
JL – Well, when we did it. I did it with ……… I know Jim Coburn was there. Do you remember him on his bicycle?
RH – Yes.
JL – Jim was very tall. And he looked, I thought he looked so funny on that.
RH – It was a sit up and beg type of thing, wasn’t it?
JL – It was all set up there. And we were hanging around there and there was somebody in charge of the bikes and everything.
RH – Were you there the day they filmed the famous jump?
JL – No, I wasn’t.
RH – But you were there afterwards?
JL – Yes. It was afterwards, after they filmed. There was a ramp. If you remember rightly, if you watch carefully, you’ll see Steve go into the ramp.
RH – Yes, that’s right, he goes down towards the dip and it cuts towards the other angle and Bud comes up.
JL – Steve was my height and Bud was about 6 foot 2.
RH – How tall are you then, John?
JL – Well, I have shrunk a bit now.
RH – What were you then?
JL – I was about 5 foot 10, 5 foot 9 and a half.
RH – So Steve was that height?
JL – Yes he was that height and so was Charlie. We were all roughly the same build. So, we really did it once, but it was actually quite easy (laughs)
RH – Yes, with modern day stunts and special effects, it perhaps doesn’t seem as good as it was, but at the time, nobody had done that, nobody had done a jump.
JL – I remember at the premier, which was at the Odeon in Leicester Square.
RH – Oh, did you attend the premier?
JL – Yes.
RH – Fantastic.
JL – I remember at the premier, Terry Stamp – remember Terence Stamp?
RH – Terence Stamp, yes.
JL – He came up. There was an interval in the film in those days, I don’t know if there still is.
RH – No, no, I have never seen it with an interval. Where did they end the first half, then? When Tom was discovered or ……..?
JL – I think so, yes.
RH – Because that’s quite a good place to end the first half.
JL – Terence Stamp came up to me and said I really like the relationship with you and Charlie.
RH – Well, it was good, yeah.
JL – And I thought, he didn’t want to make it too friendly because otherwise it would look as if we were ………. We didn’t want it to look gay.
RH – No, I understand.
JL – So I said to Terry “I hope it doesn’t look too friendly”.
RH – If I may say so, I think your best scene is, you know where he is in the tunnel, he’s claustrophobic and has to come out and you persuade him to go back down. Your saying “Danny, when you left Walsaw, you came to fight, to fight the Germans”
JL – Yes, by the window.
RH – “And you can do it again, Danny ……. All you’ve got to do is go through that tunnel …………” And it’s a fantastic scene! Did you do that in one take?
JL – Yes, one take.
RH – One take? So, it wasn’t just ………… did John (Sturges) say “Take it again, do it again?”
JL – No, we did it in one
RH – And he said, that’s great?
JL – We did it and John Sturges said “Cut. That’s great. We don’t want to do that again as we won’t get it any better”.
RH – That’s fantastic! In the tunnel, how do they film you digging? Are you in a studio, four foot off the ground in a three-sided sort of box ………….?
JL – Yes.
RH – With earth above and below?
JL – You have got it exactly right.
RH – The camera pans along ………………..?
JL – It was a big studio, stage and the tunnel, when they shot, was three sided.
RH – And then when they shot down it, they put the fourth side in, then they could shoot down it?
JL – When it collapsed on me, I looked at this earth and I said to John, I said, “There is going to be somebody to get me out of here?” (laughs).
RH – So, they really buried you in it?
JL – Oh yeah. And he said …….. he was quite funny because he said “Don’t worry, John, if we have any trouble getting you out, what we have done is that we put a lot of cork in with the earth and you should be able to breathe”. And I said, “John, that’s theory, I SHOULD be able to breathe ………….” (laughs). But anyway, Charlie actually got me out. They filmed him pulling me out.
RH – Then you came out coughing and spluttering, so that was genuine?
JL – Genuine. That was all genuine. It was all over my face and up in my mouth.
RH – Oh, dear oh dear ………… and was that one take, or ……………? “Do it again, John!”
JL – I said “I’m not doing that again!”.
RH – Did you have to do many scenes again and again? Do this three or four times?
JL – No.
RH – So John Sturges was a ‘one take’ sort of guy?
JL – Yes, I mean, it was a good cast and they were very professional.
RH – Oh yes, there has never been a film like it, with that cast. Incredible cast!
JL – There were no sort of prima-donnas or anything like that. Everybody got on. Everybody knew their lines. John Sturges was hugely professional. Special effects and just the whole crew, knew exactly what they were doing.
RH – Did they build the camp?
JL – Yes.
RH – So was there really, I don’t know, 20 huts?
JL – What happened was, so I am told, at Geiselgasteig, they had a lot at the back but the trouble is, the lot was covered in pine trees.
RH – Right.
JL – And Sturges was desperate to film this in Bavaria. They were going to do it originally in California, but he wanted to do it there and so he said to the people who matter, he said we want to cut down the pine trees to build the camp because it would be perfect because the original camp …………….
RH – Was in pine trees?
JL – Was in pine trees. And they ummed and ahhed and ummed and ahhed and eventually they said, right, well we will allow you to cut down part of the pine trees to build your camp, provided, when you’ve finished filming, you plant twice as many.
RH – That’s fair enough, isn’t it?
JL – And so, that’s what happened really and they did. I’ve actually been asked back by the studio, I guess about 10 or 15 years ago and all the trees are all there, you can’t recognise it. There are trees everywhere (laughs).
RH – So how many huts would they have built? Would they have built everyone real or are some just two sided?
JL – No, they were all there.
RH – So they were all solid? So you could wander around them and they could film any angle? How incredible.
JL – Most of them weren’t used.
RH – Yes, yes. And obviously the insides are shot at Munich Studio?
JL – Yes.
RH – So you never shot inside a hut?
JL – No. The inside where Danny – Charlie – starts the tunnel ………….
RH – Number 17 ……………..
JL – That was in the studio. In fact, most of the interior shots, well, all of the interior shots, were in the studio. We didn’t use any of the interior of the huts on the site. Yes, it was six months filming.
RH – The film has been a huge influence on me. I saw it when I was about six in 1971 on telly and I remember writing to the BBC round about 1979 to ask them the dates it was shown. I’ve got a letter from the BBC confirming what dates it was shown and then I wrote to all the cast for autographs and I’ve got autographs photos of Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson – and Steve McQueen never replied, Donald Pleasance, Gordon Jackson ………….
JL – Did you write to me?
RH – I did write to you but it must have never got to you ………….
JL – When was that?
RH – I’m talking about 1978/79 ……… Angus Lennie, David McCullum and I have got signed photos of everybody and what happened was, I have got a Steve McQueen web site called’ The Steve McQueen Film Poster Site’ and somebody who’s a big fan of your concerts e-mailed me and said “I’m going to see John Leyton in concert next week, do you want me to get him to sign a GREAT ESCAPE photo for you?”. And they had a scene from THE GREAT ESCAPE and they must have seen you and you wrote “To Roger, best wishes, John Leyton”.
JL – Have you got that?
RH – This person posted it to me, about 20 years ago and I have now got a signed photo of you.
JL – Which photo is it? Do you remember? Probably me with Charlie?
RH – I think it’s you and Steve McQueen when Steve’s serving the alcohol and you’re just coming up with your cup and he’s just sort of serving the hooch. It’s that one.
JL – Oh, yes.
RH – I’ve got all the Germans, I’ve got Robert Graf, whose Werner, Karl-Otto Alberty, who is the Gestapo guy who catches Richard Attenborough.
JL – Robert Graf, he was Werner wasn’t he, he was a nice man.
RH – Was he?
JL – Very good actor. Sadly, he’s gone. I have a front of house poster at home.
RH – Is it the actual poster? The full size poster? So you’ve still got the original poster have you?
JL – Yes.
RH – Did you get it signed by the other cast members?
JL – No, I didn’t.
RH SHOWS JL AN IMAGE OF THE ORIGINAL POSTER FOR THE GREAT ESCAPE
JL – That’s the one I’ve got.
RH – So you have got the original poster?! There’s your credit. (RH points to the name “John Leyton” on the poster)
JL – My children – well, they’re not children any more – when they were teenagers I think, they found it, in Soho here, in a shop. They bought it for me. I don’t know where they got the money from, it’s quite valuable.
RH – Five thousand quid for that now.
JL – Is it really?
RH – Well, it’s such an absolute film classic, isn’t it?
JL – Yes, and that’s been up in the house.
RH – You’ve got it framed on the wall somewhere?
JL – Yes. Everybody else named on the poster has passed away. Everybody’s gone and I’m the last person standing.
RH – Well, it’s fantastic to get your name on the poster, isn’t it? Considering the cast. What was Richard Attenborough like to work with? You did “Guns at Batasi” with him?
JL – Yes and that was the next film I did.
RH – Right. And he’s the Regimental Sergeant Major in that?
JL – Yes.
RH – A brilliant performance!
JL – I went up to see the director of “Guns at Batasi” and we talked and unlike John Sturges who said, “Oh here you are, here’s the script, welcome aboard”, John Guillermin, who directed “Guns at Batasi” said “Right, I’d like to test you”. “Do a film test and I’d like you to do it with Brit Ekland” who was originally in it.
RH – That’s quite a nice little treat.
JL – I thought why on Earth do you want me to do that? Johns Sturges didn’t want me to do a film test. Film tests are quite expensive, you know, it cost quite a bit of money to do a film test. I thought just look at “The Great Escape”. Why bother to test me? I didn’t say that. I thought, if you want to test me, fine. So, I tested with Brit Ekland, that’s the second time I tested, after Biggles, so I got that role. But, of course, Brit Ekland only lasted a week. Peter Sellers ordered her off the film. Apparently due to my reputation with leading ladies! (Laughs).
RH – Is that the case?
JL - It’s in his book. But we won’t go into that. (Laughs).
RH – You did Von Ryan’s Express?
JL – Well, Brit Ekland was then replaced by Mia Farrow.
RH – Right. And Mia Farrow was married to Frank Sinatra?
JL – Well, when I did “Von Ryan’s Express” we did the location in Rome, outside Rome. We did the interiors at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood and Mia was doing Peyton Place on the stage next door. So, she came in to see me. I knew her well from “Guns at Batasi”. Sinatra’s eyes lit up and I introduced her to Frank Sinatra.
RH – You did?!
JL – That day, the following evening, she called me up. She said “You’ve got to help me. Frank has asked me to Palm Springs for the weekend” and she said “Will you come with me?” I said “But he doesn’t want me to be there!” I said, “Anyway, I want to find work in this town. I don’t want to upset Mr. Sinatra”. And the rest is history.
RH – Yes, they married.
JL – Bizarre, absolutely bizarre. He should have come to me and said “What do you think, John? Shall I marry Mia?” and I would have said “No!” She didn’t come to me either and say “He wants to marry me”. I would have said “Don’t be ridiculous!”. I mean he was 50 and she was 18. She was 18 when we did “Guns at Batasi”, which was 1964 and that was earlier in the year. We did “Von Ryan’s Express” later in the year. So, she was 18 and he was 50, just turned 50. And I went to see him at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, after we finished filming.
RH – Did you get on well with Frank?
JL – Yes.
RH – Was he a nice friendly guy or was he the big I am?
JL - He was sort of like my Dad, very paternal. And I went to see him at Las Vegas, with Diana, my wife, she wasn’t my wife then. Nearly my wife, but not quite. I had no idea. We went to where the ‘Maitre D’ is, when you go into this big room, and I thought you had to tip people to get a decent table. But anyway, he looked down the list and got my name and he went like that a bit (demos surprise). I thought “What’s happened?”. But anyway, the place was packed, tables of 12, 14, 20 and he took us right down to the front to this little table, like this (JL indicates the table we are at). Even smaller, for two. Frank had obviously had a word. Then when he comes on stage, he sort of said “All right”. And everyone around ……
RH – Says “How do you know him?” (Laughs). Have you thought of writing a book, of your experiences? You’ve done and seen so much in your career …..
JL – Well, I have, I have thought about it. So many people have mentioned it. I don’t know. I’ve sort of steered clear of it.
RH – Did you keep diaries? Because that would really help with a book?
JL – No, no. A lot of people ask me about the singing side, with Joe Meek. Joe Meek was an extraordinary character. He was unique in terms of recording. He had a grizzly end. As you probably know?
RH – No, I don’t, what happened to him?
JL – Well, he was a troubled man and at the age of 37 he was continually rowing with his landlady. He had this recording studio. He had a maisonette over a leather shop in the Holloway Road in North London and he was continually rowing with his landlady – this is how I’ve read it, anyway – because of his noise, upstairs. The landlady she owned the leather shop. And I was in America at the time. Joe had three, four number one hits if you count ‘Wild Wind’ as well. He was the first independent record producer, which was quite an achievement in those days. He was very talented. But all said, he was a troubled man. He was gay, but that doesn’t matter, who cares. He was troubled. He had a bit of a temper on him. I got on fine with him.
RH – Of course, homosexuality would have been illegal then, I suppose? In the mid 60s? Until 1967?
JL – Yes. Anyway, to cut a long story short, one of the rows, the landlady, as I understand it, came up the stairs to complain and for some reason, I have no idea why, there was a shotgun in the studio, where he lived, which I think belonged to one of the singers he was managing or something. Anyway, he turned the shotgun on his landlady and killed her outright, then turned it on himself.
RH – Blimey. Shot himself?
JL – Yes.
RH – What year was that? Early 60s?
JL – It would be mid 60s (*Research shows it was on 3rd February 1967)
RH – Of course, he would have hanged – until 1965.
JL – I imagine so. He shot himself and that was the end of that. But he was a Phil Spector of music, England’s answer to Phil Spector.
RH – Yes – Of course Phil Spector did a murder. Do you have any “Great Escape” memorabilia, other than the poster? Did you get to keep your costume, or anything from the film at all?
JL – I always regret this.
RH – Did you keep your script?
JL – No.
RH – You didn’t keep your script?! So, what? Just in the bin?
JL – Yes, I suppose it must’ve done. God knows.
RH – Dear, oh dear, I bet you wish you kept it?
JL – I could have got it signed by the cast.
RH – Imagine that?! It’d be worth a bomb. Signed script, signed by everybody.
JL – I regret that terribly but at the time, I didn’t know, we didn’t know, it would be such an incredible film.
RH – Of course you wouldn’t know about video or DVD (in 1963) or the constant repetition of film sales. It’s ephemeral, isn’t it? It’s released at the cinema. Maybe it gets re-released three or four years later at the cinema, but apart from that, it’s gone.
JL – It wasn’t ….. but it seemed to become a bigger success, the longer the years went by.
RH – The Christmas repeats. It was shown at Christmas and it was shown at Christmas again and it’s become a beloved ‘Christmassy’ film, even though it’s not about Christmas, but it’s because it’s been shown time and time again – and also, it’s a fantastic film, isn’t it? Even my brother, coming down here said, I was chatting to him about “The Great Escape” and even he said, it’s a fantastic film – and he’s six years older than me.
JL – I don’t know. The leather jacket that Frank Sinatra wore in “Von Ryan’s Express”. He didn’t want it. I could have said “Can I have that?”
RH – There’s that iconic scene at the end of “Von Ryan’s Express” where he is chasing after the train and of course, he’s shot by the Germans – and it’s so unexpected, isn’t it? Because in those sort of films, Frank, got away.
JL – You did see the film?
RH – I’ve seen Von Ryan’s Express, yes.
JL – I didn’t do too well in that, I got killed (laughs). But Frank said, he insisted, his character must get shot at the end and die. He killed the girl from the railway carriage as she was trying to escape and would have given them away. Under the circumstances he had no choice, if I remember correctly, he shot her in the back as she was running away. As a result of this, he thought it was only right he too should be shot in the back when he was running after the train.
RH – It’s quite an unexpected ending to Von Ryan’s Express.
JL – Yes.
RH – So when you were making “The Great Escape”, at no time did you think, “Oh, this is probably going to be a film classic”?
JL – No.
RH – It was just a job as far as you were concerned? I’m earning five hundred quid a week here, this is brilliant.
JL – It’s just a job. Well, there had been other prisoner of war films.
RH – It was a big genre, wasn’t it? “The Colditz Story”, “Danger Within”, “Stalag 17”
JL – Yes. I was in “Danger Within” as well.
RH – As an extra? So, in fact, prisoner of war films is your thing, isn’t it? “Danger Within”, “Great Escape”, “Von Ryan’s Express”. You’re the go to guy for prisoner of war films.
JL – After “Guns at Batasi”, 20th Century Fox wanted to sort of give me a three film contract.
RH – Right.
JL – And so, they said, for the first film, my agent told me, for the first film of the contract they wanted me to do a role in “Von Ryan’s Express”. It’s not the greatest role, but they want to do it, go and see them. I said “All right, I’ll go and see them”.
RH – Was it “Not another escape film …….” – Was it that sort of feeling?
JL – Well, it was another war film. I’m going to get type cast. I didn’t really want to do – and that’s what I said to the producers – I said “I don’t really want to do it, I’m sorry”. I was sort of half way out of the door, having said I’m not going to do it. I would sooner wait for something – a) – a little better – and b) – not another war film. And, I didn’t know at the time, but purely as an afterthought really, I said “Who’s playing Von Ryan?” And they said “Frank Sinatra”.
RH – And you thought “I wouldn’t mind doing that!” (Laughs)
JL – At that time, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra were huge. You know a Frank Sinatra film, they are going to spend a lot of money on it and it’s going to be a pretty good film. And they said “Frank Sinatra is playing Von Ryan” and I said, “OK, I’ll do it” but I shouldn’t have done it, because, it’s very sad actually, as the next film in my contract, they never did fulfil the contract. Because the next film they wanted me to do would have been the really big film that would have broken everything for me. It was a film, you probably remember it, called “The Blue Max”.
RH – Yes! George Peppard! Were you up for that role? No way! You were up for the lead?
JL – Yes, George Peppard. At one stage, it was mine and I was really looking forward to this. I thought this is the one.
RH – Starring role. Big Film. Big budget.
JL – And then the money – it wasn’t being solely financed by 20th Century Fox – I think there was some private money coming in and they were concerned. They wanted a bigger name than mine.
RH – How disappointing!
JL – They cast George Peppard.
RH – Was he much of a big star then? Had he done the one with Audrey Hepburn? Breakfast at Tiffany’s? (Breakfast at Tiffany’s was 1961, The Blue Max was 1966)
JL – Yes, he had done that and various other things. He was kind of on the way up. He was nearly there, whereas I was all round here. In fact, they changed the role. They made the character older. I can’t remember the script now, but I read the script and this young guy had come out of university really. It was a lovely character because he became totally enamoured with his aeroplane, a bit like Biggles, I think, in a way. Again, of course, it was another war film, a World War One film.
RH – But this time, a leading role? That’s the key thing, isn’t it?
JL – And that didn’t work out, unfortunately, and that was a great disappointment. Well, who knows where it would have gone? Well, there you are.
RH – Did you find fame a bit of a curse? In the sense that you couldn’t sit down at a table in the 60’s without somebody coming over and going “Mr. Leyton, will you sign this for me?” and all that. It must have been a hassle, mustn’t it?
JL – It was a bit. The main problem was young girls.
RH – Just throwing themselves at you?
JL – Well, yes.
RH – So you’re fending them off?
JL – Sometimes they would come at you. I couldn’t get outside. I had to be smuggled out. They would be screaming for you.
RH – Screaming for you? That must be good, at first?
JL – They would come at you with scissors, well, they want a button, a piece of your hair – and they are mad, absolutely mad.
RH – So you were an absolute ‘teen idol’ sort of thing?
JL – Well, yes. And it all started with Biggles.
RH – That’s really interesting isn’t it? And that led to the singing career and films? What’s the best thing you have done in your career? Do you prefer being remembered for the singing? The number one? Or “The Great Escape”? What do you prefer?
JL – There have been one or two moments in my career that are the high moments and one is on the acting side and one is on the singing side. “The Great Escape” was obviously huge – and “Johnny, Remember Me”.
RH – The number one hit? Yes. Were you surprised when that got to number one? Did you think this is not going to do it?
JL – What happened was, I was quite sure or confident it would be a top ten hit.
RH – It’s quite haunting, isn’t it?
JL – Yes, it’s unusual. It’s a song that’s actually one of Joe’s better productions. Because Joe did a lot of, Joe Meek this is, a lot of his productions were a bit distorted.
RH – Who actually sings the line “Johnny, Remember Me?”
JL – That’s a girl called Lissa Gray and she was a trained singer.
RH – Oh, right.
JL – I used to say that I was on Lissa Gray’s record, but when we recorded that, Robert Stigwood, my manager, got me a guest role. I had done Biggles, that was all done and dusted, he got me a guest role in a television series called “Harper’s West One” (An ATV drama from 1961), which was about a store in London called ‘Harper’s’ in the postal district West 1, a bit like Selfridges. I got the role of a character called Johnny St. Cyr (pronounced ‘sincere’) and Johnny St. Cyr was a rock star and Johnny St. Cyr goes along to the Harper’s West One and opens the record department and then all sorts of things happen and then his wife finds out, but, Stigwood, cleverly said to the producers, John, meaning me, has just recorded a song called ‘Johnny Remember Me’. Why don’t you have John sing ‘Johnny Remember Me’ as the character’s called Johnny St Cyr, when he opens up the record department? They thought “That’s a good idea”.
RH – So great publicity?
JL – They got in all the trade papers with it because you didn’t get pop music on television in those days. It was before all those Juke Box shows, Six-Five Special, etc.
RH – Bit before my time, those.
JL – Anyway, so I duly signed. I played the role of Johnny St. Cyr, I duly sung “Johnny Remember Me” on the show.
RH – So that was the boost it needed?
JL – I was living at home with my father then and he said to me, “I’ll go down the record shop first thing tomorrow morning, about 10 o’clock, I’ll go down there and I’ll buy a couple of records to get it off, to get it going” (laughs). And he came back about 15 minutes later and said “I couldn’t buy any of the records, they’ve all sold out!”
RH – Fantastic. So, then you knew it was going to be a hit? This was going to be big, yes?
JL – I thought “Oh, hello, here we go” and suddenly I was a pop star. That was quite something because I was inundated and they found out where I lived.
RH – How do you live your life with that sort of fame? When people are at you all the time?
JL – I don’t know, you have help obviously, with the staff at Stigwood’s office.
RH – But it must be difficult for your fiancée and wife, as you go through life, when you are being hassled by other people?
JL – I didn’t know Diana then, 1962, oh yes, I did, I did meet her then, sorry, but we sort of, I don’t know, she just sought of accepted it – screaming girls.
RH – So you’ve been married fifty odd years?
JL – Yes, I got married when I was when I was 29 and that was in 1965, so if you can do the maths.
RH – You’re 86 did you say, so 57 years?
JL – I was born in ’36, I was married in ’65 so 29.
RH – Because if you make it to 60 years married you get a telegram from the Queen, because my parents did. (RH explains how that was organised).
JL – I came from a broken home. My parents split up when I was five and I was shunted all over the place.
RH – Oh dear. or dear ………..
JL – Yes, so, but my marriage lasted well. It got through Hollywood and all that ….. (laughs).
RH – Yes – You’ve had a fantastic career, though, haven’t you? Being a singer and an actor. It must be hard to be famous in both?
JL – It’s strange how the singing picked up again.
RH – Didn’t your tour in the ‘90s, with the 60’s with Marty Wilde?
JL – Yes. Solid Gold Rock ‘N’ Roll. Joe Brown was on the show.
RH – When did you last sing professionally then?
JL – Just before my 80th birthday.
RH – You were still singing then??
JL – But then the ears …… if I get a lot of noise, the ears go.
RH – And that’s from all your days with the amplifiers and all the music?
JL – Well, the ears were damaged, that’s the problem. It’s not old age, deaf or hard of hearing, it’s damage and that’s unfortunately worse with getting old but the ears were damaged and I couldn’t pitch anymore. Otherwise, I would still be doing it, I suppose. But there was a huge interest, sort of 20 years ago, in the 60s, with the Beatles music. The ‘Solid Gold Rock ‘N’ Roll Show’, we must have done about eight of them.
RH – Did somebody contact you and say “Do you fancy coming out of retirement?”. How did it work?
JL – Well, I was contacted by Capital Gold, which was the radio station, and they said “Would I appear at the Albert Hall?”
RH – And did you say “I haven’t sung for 20 years!” (laughs).
JL – No, actually I said I haven’t sung for 30 years! They said we’ve got a wonderful orchestra. I said “Orchestra? What do you mean ‘Orchestra’? I usually sing with 4-piece bands!” Anyway, it was a 12-piece orchestra. I said “Yes, I’ll do it”. I don’t know why I said yes, I’ll do it, but I did, and that kicked it all off again.
RH – Because you have been acting recently? I saw you were in some film a few years ago?
JL – Oh, I just did a bit of cameo stuff.
RH – How did that come about?
JL – Oh, somebody was directing a film about Stanley Kubrick (Colour Me Kubrick – A True…ish Story 2005) and they were assistant director on ‘Guns at Batasi’ and they said “Would you do a cameo role? Would you just come in and do this?” I said “Oh really?” They said “Oh, come on, I’ll put you up at Brown’s Hotel up the road (we are meeting in Piccadilly). I’ll give you good money. You can give it to charity if you like. Do what you like with it”. So I said “Oh, alright”. So, I did that. Actually, I’ll tell you exactly what. I came up to London for a day and I sat in a restaurant, a bit like this, somewhere and they treated me very well. I had tea and things. I said my line. I went home again and I got a cheque for £2000 (laughs).
RH – Not too bad for a cameo, was it? Did you keep in touch with Charlie after ‘The Great Escape’? Send Christmas cards, that sort of thing?
JL – Briefly.
RH – I suppose it fades away, doesn’t it?
JL – It fades away. Yes, I didn’t really keep in touch with any of them, actually.
RH – Well, I suppose you go your own separate paths?
JL – I’ve been in touch with David McCallum lately as I was doing something for ‘The Great Escape’.
RH – A commentary?
JL – No, I know. Triumph Motor Cycles. They have, they don’t actually own it, an individual owns it, the bike that Steve McQueen rode.
RH – I have heard about this. What I heard was that it had initially been scrapped but in fact it had been sold to a local German farmer and somebody found it in his shed in a real tatty state.
JL – Absolutely right.
RH - And it’s been re-conditioned, re-done up, so, I think a lot of parts are no longer genuine and they’ve got a brand-new spanking bike which is probably 90% new bits.
JL – It looks identical. And I went over. Oh, here we go, names again, there is a man on television ………….
RH – Guy Martin? He recreated the jump? Because you are on it (‘Guy Martin’s Great Escape’, a TV Programme)? I saw you on it.
JL – Yes, I was on that. They invited me out there and I went out there.
RH – So did you go out for a week or three or four days?
JL – Three or four days. And he was boasting he was going to jump ………….
RH – The small one and the big one?
JL – I did point out to them, in the film, the first barbed wire was there and the second barbed wire fence was there …………..
RH – And this one is about 6 foot and this one is about 18 foot.
JL – The one he did, they were like (indicates height) and I said “You’re cheating! You’re cheating!”. But anyway, the bike, I’ve got a photo of me actually sitting on the bike.
RH – And did that film that in EXACTLY the same location?
JL – Yes.
RH – So they lined up the scenery?
JL – Yes, absolutely the same.
RH – It must have been incredible being there again after all those years?
JL – It was. Absolutely extraordinary. And I went to Munich Studios. But the bike, and this was two years ago, was valued by Sotheby’s or somewhere at two and a half million pounds.
RH – Well, it is the most iconic motor cycle scene that you can think of, isn’t’ it? Trouble is, it just strikes me. You know HMS Victory, the ship? It’s been replaced part by part until eventually, it’s a 100% replica, because all the wood’s rotted away and it’s been replaced. And I just wonder if the Steve McQueen bike is a bit like that, where they have replaced this bit, replaced that bit, to the extent where it is 70% new and 30% original? What do you think?
JL – I think you are possibly right.
RH – Because it looks brand spanking new.
JL – They have got the number plate.
RH – Yes, the WH-13371. WH being “Wehrmacht”
JL – I sat on it and gave it a good look. It was just like I remembered it.
RH – Identical?
JL – Well, it certainly is the skeleton of the bike that did the jump. (JL asks RH how he got involved in Biggles and RH explains about the history of the Biggles books and how he got to interview Michael Palin for his www.biggles.com site. RH explains how the Michael Palin interview is on his website and with JL’s consent he will do the same for this interview – and also his memories of ‘The Great Escape’ for his Steve McQueen website – at www.stevemcqueen.org.uk and www.stevemcqueen.co.uk)
JL – I didn’t really see Steve McQueen, apart from having a drink. We went Go-Karting together.
RH – Did you? I bet he beat you!
JL – Well, actually, he lost it on a bend and he was sort of standing there on this bend, out of his Go-Kart and I lost it on the same bend and I careered into his Go-Kart and nearly careered into him. He thought it was hilarious. I was apologising. “Sorry, are you alright?” He thought it was hilarious.
RH – Was he nice and friendly?
JL – Yes.
RH – So, down to Earth?
JL – He was there with his wife.
RH – Yes, Neile Adams?
JL – Neile Adams. I don’t know if his children were there.
RH – No? His son, Chad, was born in 1960, so he would have been two and a daughter called Terry born 1959 (died 1998), so the kids would have been about 4 and 2, that sort of age.
JL – After ‘The Great Escape’, I went on tour in Australia and New Zealand, singing, with Adam Faith. Do you remember Adam Faith?
RH – Yes.
JL – Lovely man. I came back via Los Angeles – actually via Hawaii and Los Angeles – and in Los Angeles I promoted ‘The Great Escape’ on various television channels. I don’t think they knew who the hell I was. They played some of my songs from an album I did. I remember they played a song called ‘Fabulous’.
RH – Is that on your CD? (RH checks).
JL – Should be.
RH – Yes, there it is, track number 12. “Fabulous”.
JL – They played that and the woman, the hostess of the show said “Oh my God, you sound like Elvis” (laughs).
RH – Did you ever get to meet Elvis?
JL – Very briefly.
RH – Tell us the story! – How?
JL – I was doing a television series at MGM studios, over there. I was one of the regulars in it. Would you believe it was called “JERICHO” (1966/67) and what was it about? World War Two. (Laughs). Behind enemy lines.
RH – Typecast.
JL – Here we go again. And anyway, he was on the next stage, doing a film, I think it had a different name over here, but over there it was called “Spinout”, a lot of racing, car racing, stock car racing. And anyway, we sort of got to say “Hi, how are you?”.
RH – Did you get to shake hands or anything like that?
JL – Well, I was actually coming back from …. this story has been distorted terribly and became very embarrassing, because it was totally distorted by some journalist. Anyway, the truth of the matter is, I was coming back from the restaurant, MGM, and he had one of those sort of golf buggies that you could drive around the MGM lot.
RH – Which was massive?
JL – Yes and he was driving this and stopped and gave me a lift because he’s on the next stage. He knew I was on the next stage. This is how it got distorted. But the TRUE story of this is, as you possibly know, Universal and all the major studios, like MGM, they have tours, public tours, round the studio and every now and again they get to see a star, or a set that they know about.
RH – Yes.
JL – And I’m sitting in this buggy with Elvis and he pulls up because they are loading one of the stages with scenery, from the store and on my side, there was a coach load of tourists getting out of the coach, presumably to go and visit a set. Now, they saw me and they obviously recognised me from ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ and of course, this television series I was doing. So a few of them were “Oh, oh, oh, can you sign this?” so I am sitting there signing autographs and Elvis Presley is sitting next to me ………
RH – Getting ignored?!
JL – Getting ignored! He’s got his back to them talking to the guys putting scenery into the stage. Anyway, they then went and they finished with the scenery and we drove on. I get to sort of say “I was sitting next to Elvis Presley and everyone was asking for MY autograph and nobody asked him”.
RH - …… and they ignored him! That is an incredible story ………..!
JL – It’s a slight distortion of the truth, but it finished up by some stupid journalist saying that I was in a golf buggy, playing golf with him!
RH – But that’s a fantastic anecdote, isn’t it?
JL – I have always refrained from telling that story ever since.
RH – But it’s a fantastic anecdote! I am sitting next to Elvis Presley and they want MY autograph and Elvis gets ignored. That’s just fantastic!
JL – They actually didn’t see him. He was talking that way.
RH – What a fantastic story. You have GOT to write a book, John. You have got to write a book and get all these memories down.
JL – Are there that many? I don’t know.
RH – Your singing career, your ‘Great Escape’ memories, they’ll be an audience for this. Your anecdotes of Frank Sinatra, all your anecdotes, they are just fantastic.
JL – There was a funny anecdote. After the Sinatra (film). I saw Sinatra three times. I don’t know which one it was, it doesn’t really matter. I think actually, it was the first one, I can’t remember, but anyway, after the show he was out where all the gambling takes place ……
RH – Vegas?
JL – Yes, but Sinatra always had, he was always with lots of people. He didn’t like going out with two or three, he was always with …………
RH – Peter Lawford? Sammy Davies Junior? All those sort of people?
JL – They weren’t necessarily there, but there were always lots of people and I remember sitting at this table, in Las Vegas, having seen Frank Sinatra, and there was this guy sitting next to me and he said “What are you doing over here, kid?” because he had heard my accent. And I said I’m an actor and I have done a film with Frank. “OK” he said. And in my innocence, I thought the man was probably something to do with the film or music business, so I said “What do you do?”. There was a sort of slight silence. “What do I do?” he said. “I own Chicago”, he said “That’s what I do!” And I asked Sam Giancana (Born 1908 – Murdered 19th June 1975) the head of the Chicago Mafia, what he did for a living! (Laughs).
RH – That’s incredible! That’s an incredible story!
JL – I actually said what do you do. I was at another one with Frank Sinatra, I think it was the Jockey Club, there is a restaurant in New York, the Jockey Club. Anyway, once again, there were all these people at this table and Frank Sinatra was up one end and I was up his end and up the other end of the table was Jerry Lewis, do you remember Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis? And we were sitting there and Jerry left the table. I remember Frank saying “Where has Jerry gone?”. He was gone sometime and eventually Jerry Lewis came back to this long table and a little while, maybe a minute later, a waiter came up to Frank Sinatra – and it was in the days of telegrams – and he had a telegram and it said “Pass the salt – Jerry”.
RH – Ha! Ha! Ha! He was a great comedian, wasn’t he? Did Frank laugh?
JL – I can still see it now.
RH – John, would you sign my album for me, if I give you a pen? (John signs my CD cover to “Remembering John Leyton” “To Roger, Best Wishes, John Leyton”).
RH – Are you often asked to sign autographs, John?
JL – Yes, there are still a lot of, believe it or not, there are still a lot of elderly fans now, out there. Funny how it goes. It all started with teenage girls asking me for my autograph and wanting bits and pieces of hair and as the years went by, it would be teenage girls coming up to me and saying can I have an autograph for my Mum. And now it is not teenage girls but middle-aged women asking for autographs for their Grandma. (Laughs).
RH – What do you do in your retirement, John? Do much acting?
JL – No. I am totally retired now. I will tell you what I am going to do, which you might be interested in. I still get so many requests for ‘The Great Escape’. My life is spent signing ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Johnny, Remember Me’. I did do other things though!
RH – So do you have a set of photos at home that you are constantly signing?
JL – I do have photos at home.
RH – Do you charge £10.00 a shot? Or just sign them for free?
JL – Just for free.
RH – That’s ever so good of you. I’ll have to get you to sign a photo for me. If you’d be willing to do that - I’d love to get another photo of you.
JL – I had a request from somebody living in Berchtesgaden, an Englishman in his 30s, living in Berchtesgaden and, he sent a beautifully stamped addressed envelope with three or four pictures from ‘The Great Escape’ and asked very politely, would I please sign them to him, which I duly did and returned them. But also, in his letter to me for this request, he told me how he was now living in Berchtesgaden with his wife and how they run a tourist business where he took people to all the Nazi venues.
RH – Well, of course, Hitler used to live in Berchtesgaden, didn’t he? So, is it still there?
JL – The Eagle’s nest is still there. Goering’s house is there.
RH – So he just tours people around there?
JL – I just wrote back and said I’m fascinated with that era, I remember being thrown under beds by my parents. My mother, when my parents split up, we lived in Frinton-on-Sea in Essex, and in her infinite wisdom, she moved us into London, because of the threat of invasion, they would come up that side.
RH – So you were here for the bombing?
JL – Yes, right in the middle of the blitz!
RH – Well, my mother is from Battersea and she was in London throughout the entire war, she was born in 1932, so she has got loads of memories of the bombing in Battersea. She lived opposite Clapham Common.
JL – We lived in Swiss Cottage. We had guns in the tennis courts at the bottom of the flats. I remember the guns going off.
RH – So what year were your born in, John?
JL – ‘36
RH – So you would have been, what, 4 during the blitz, yes, 4 to 9? It was bad in 1940/41 and of course, you had the V1 and V2 bombs later in the war.
JL – I remember in London, your mother would remember, you would hear them coming over.
RH – Doodlebugs. Then the engines stops ………….
JL – Please don’t stop! Please don’t stop!
RH – Yes, my mum has told me about that.
JL – Unbelievable. And now, look what’s going on in Ukraine. (We discuss the current world situation).
JL – Anyway, getting back to Berchtesgaden, he has this tour and I said I’d be very interested in coming on one of your tours and he wrote back to say “I’d be delighted! Be my guest and I won’t allow you to pay”.
RH – Fantastic!
JL – I am actually going over there, in June, for a couple of days. Staying in a hotel in Berchtesgaden and I’m going to be taken around all these places.
RH – Are you going with your wife and family?
JL – Yes.
RH – Thank you so much for being so willing to come along and give up your time. It’s so good of you to come down especially and it’s been brilliant to hear your recollections, it really has.
JL – That’s alright. It has been a pleasure.
JOHN STARTED THE INTERVIEW TALKING ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCES ABOUT WORKING ON THE TV SERIES “BIGGLES” – YOU CAN SEE THAT HERE http://www.biggles.com
Transcribed and edited by Roger Harris - with grateful thanks to Mr. John Leyton
After the interview, John sent me the following two signed photographs!