Popeye is Going Straight


The problem for Bernard Bresslaw is that he cannot go on being saddled with Popeye goonery for all time. Not that he's ungrateful..."The Army Game gave me a heaven sent opportunity to show myself off," he says. But he has no ambition to go on looking stupid for the rest of his career.

And Bresslaw welcomes the opportunity to push home the fact that he was trained at RADA - and is really a straight actor It's a reminder, you might say, which constitutes his line of defence against those who see him only as the dim witted character he made so famous.

"Few people realize," he says, "that I'm a serious actor. Now I feel the time has come to convince the public that I should change my act."

Private Popplewell may be a feeble-minded goon, but Bernard Bresslaw is nobody's fool. Thoughtfully, he told me: "I left The Army Game because I felt I'd had enough. I can't go on being Popeye. Not that I'm frightened of being unable to change. I just have to face the fact that the next year or so will be a new test for me."

Bresslaw takes his acting seriously. If you refer to him as an overnight success he will remind you that he's been in the business for eight years. he owes much of his big-time success to scriptwriter Sid Colin and comedian Max Bygraves, now one of Bresslaw's best showbusiness friends.

It was Bygraves who was largely responsible for giving Bresslaw his first big boost on television. After watching Bresslaw on "Who Goes There?" Bygraves got cracking in influential quarters and said: "We've got to use this bloke."

"I was as surprised as anybody," Bresslaw reflects with modesty. "I thought they'd got the wrong man. Next thing I knew I was appearing with Max on an ITV Saturday Spectacular. Then Sid Colin remembered my bit part in the Norman Wisdom comedy "Up in the World". On the strength of that he specially wrote a part for me in The Army Game and I was made."

Today, Bresslaw commands a salary which an accountant tots up for him. "I don't know how much I earn. That's the least of my troubles," he says

But Bresslaw wont' forget the lean days which followed the crucial time in his life when his headmaster told Bresslaw senior: "Bernard's a born actor. It would be a pity to make him do anything else."

A scholarship gave Bresslaw the chance he'd longed for. He went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for two years. Bresslaw was an earnest student - even at the ballet classes, though here the tall actor didn't exactly shine.

"Can you imagine it?" Bernard recalls. "Me - in tights. I used to fling myself about a large room going round in ever-increasing circles. Until it happened. I collided with a partition and knocked a great big dent in it."

Few people know Bresslaw was one of the founder members of the London Studio, Britain's official Method school. This gave him a chance to play one of the thugs in the London stage production of "A Hatful of Rain".

Bresslaw's biggest disappointment around about this time was his failure to join the Old Vic. A lover of Shakespeare, he did get an audition, but was rejected.

"I think my looks let me down. I never did make rep. Although they never said so, I think they were against my height more than anything."

Bresslaw proudly recalls the evening he tamed a tough audience of servicemen. "I was playing the head in 'The Hasty Heart'. And when I got to that tender love scene with the nurse, the lads started to cat-call. It was bedlam.

"But we rode the laughs. We quietened the audience. Why? Because we concentrated on giving them the reality of this poignant situation."

It's an experience upon which Bresslaw bases his logic about dropping Popeye overboard. "Don't you see?" he says. "I have to convince people I can do anything. If I go straight from now on, audiences will still laugh, but only until they get used to my new personality."