Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lionel Jeffries - What a Character! Blogathon

Lionel Jeffries was one of the most delightful and unique character actors to ever grace the British cinema. Bald, bewhiskered and bumbling he was an instantly recognizable actor in over 100 films, and however brief his appearances he was always an asset in comedies, thrillers, and dramas alike. Whether he be Grandpa Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the inventor Cavor in First Men in the Moon, Jeffries excelled at playing charming crackpots and inquisitive and spirited characters.

Unlike Terry-Thomas who exaggerated toothy eccentrics for comic effect, Jeffries portrayed peculiar personas in a compelling and queer manner which made them strangely believable. His characterizations were of people that you might find and meet one day. Lionel Jeffries brought an element of reality to every character he portrayed. 

"I was constantly rewriting the words of the characters I was given to bring them a comic humanity. Most of the people I played were caught in desperation. In their hearts they knew they were failures - but they would never admit it, even to themselves."

Jeffries was born on June 10, 1926 in Forest Hill, London. As a boy he attended Queen Elizabeth Grammer School in Wimborne Minster, Dorset while his parents worked in a mission in London's East End with the Salvation Army. 

At the age of 19, he received a commission in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, serving first in Burma, where he worked for the Rangoon radio station and later with the Royal West African Frontier Force where he rose to the rank of captain in 1945. After the war he trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where one short year later he won the Kendel award for his acting and writing. He felt out of place at the Academy however, being the only bald student among the bunch. He had lost all of his hair before the age of 20! Perhaps the war had that bad of an effect on his head. 

"Of course I was upset. Tried a toupee once, but it looked like a dead moth on a boiled egg". 

Upon completing his schooling in the early 1950s he quickly embraced the film medium and plunged into a series of roles in some memorable British comedies and spy thrillers in spite of being told by his agent that he was too young for character parts and not good-looking enough for leading man roles. His baldness certainly put him at a disadvantage but he took his egghead and used it to his advantage instead. 

One of his first film roles was a small part in Hitchcock's marvelous little thriller, Stage Fright ( 1950 ). Roles in Windfall and The Black Rider followed but then he hit a rough patch and as his agent predicted, parts were hard to come by and few and far in between. In 1953 he turned to stage and appeared in the Westminster Theatre production of Carrington VC with Alec Clunes. Stage was not his cup of tea and although he did a few more productions he quickly stepped out of the stage scene and was not behind the floodlights again until 1984, when he played Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly! at the Prince of Wales theatre in London. 

One day, in early 1955, he attended the cast audition for The Colditz Story and with holes in his shoes he walked away with the third lead to Eric Portman and John Mills. From then on he was always in demand for his quirky characterizations, often playing an officious policeman or bungling crook in these early roles. Some of his most memorable parts of the 1950s included the inquisitive reporter in The Quatermass Xperiment, Gelignite Joe, the diamond robber in Blue Murder at St. Trinians, Major Proudfoot in Law and Order, and a prison officer in The Two-Way Stretch, a Peter Sellars comedy. Jeffries also appeared in a number of dramas and crime films including the suspenseful Vicious Circle with John Mills, Hour of Decision and Man in the Sky with the always competent Jack Hawkins. 

It was in the 1960s, however, that Lionel Jeffries reached his comedic peak, first with his role of a priest in the wacky Bob Hope spy flick, Call Me Bwana, then as key suspect Captain Rhumstone in Murder Ahoy, and lastly in one of my all-time favorite roles, as the highly-strung Professor Cavor in the delightful Charles Schneer/Ray Harryhausen adaptation of H.G Wells' First Men in the Moon featuring Edward Judd and Martha Hyer. Here, Jeffries plays a reclusive scientist who invented a paste that combats gravity and, not wanting to dilly-dally with simple everyday uses, intends to launch a sphere into space on a voyage to the moon. 

Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon was another film that featured Lionel Jeffries in a similiar role, but that same year he starred in one of his most memorable films - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Jeffries gladly accepted the role of Grandpa Potts, Caractacus' travel-loving father, even though he was in fact six months younger than Dick Van Dyke. 

Jeffries thoroughly enjoyed playing in wholesome children's films such as Chitty. He believed there were more wise children than wise adults and wanted to see entertainment geared towards children that adults could enjoy as well. In an era when society was bombarded with images of sex and violence Lionel Jeffries stood out for his gentler sensibilities. He was a devoted Catholic and deplored permissivism. Unlike alot of Hollywood marriages, Jeffries remained married to one woman, former actress Eileen Walsh, for over 59 years ( until his death ), with whom he had one son and two daughters. One day, his eight-year old daughter Martha came to him with a book she was reading - Edith Nesbit's delightful classic "The Railway Children" - and told her father "I think this would make a good film". Papa agreed and he promptly purchased a short option on the film rights for £300. 

He wrote a script that retained all of the charm of Nesbit's book and took it to Bryan Forbes, then head of Elstree Studios, to get his opinion of it. Jeffries and his wife had met Forbes at Richmond Hill, home of Sir John Mills, where they often socialized with the Oliviers, the Nivens, and the Attenboroughs.  Jeffries confined to Forbes that he "secretly harbored a longing to direct the film" himself. The Railway Children was indeed Jeffries first experience behind the camera as a director and it was a smash hit. The film, featuring Bernard Cribbins, Jenny Agutter, and Dinah Sheridan remains a cult classic in Britain, being shown year after year at Christmas Time. 

On the wake of its success, Jeffries was inspired to direct some more children's films but continually hit a stone wall when it came time to finding a producer. They were indifferent at best, and he came to the conclusion that "No one wants family entertainment anymore. They want explicit sex". Nevertheless he did find backers to several more productions, The Amazing Mr. Blunden ( 1972 ), Baxter! ( 1973 ), Wobbling Free ( 1977 ) and, his final film as a director, The Water Babies ( 1978 ). 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Lionel Jeffries turned to television, a medium which he had originally shunned years before because of its inferior production values. An appearance in the drama Cream in My Coffee altered his opinion and launched a belated career on the tiny tube. He had guest appearances in Inspector Morse, The Collectors, Lovejoy and portrayed grandpas in Rich, Tea and Sympathy and Woof!.

For years Lionel Jeffries was playing characters older than himself because of his premature baldness, but in these later roles, his age had finally caught up with his missing hair! Lionel Jeffries passed away on February 18, 2010 after several years of suffering from declining health ailments. He was 83 years old.

This post is our contribution to the What a Character! blogathon, a celebration of some of the most talented actors in Hollywood, the beloved "character actors". Don't miss visiting Once Upon a Screen or Paula's Cinema Club to view a complete schedule and find links to great posts on nearly fifty other great character actors. 


  1. If he did nothing else but "The Railway Children", the name Lionel Jeffries would be revered. That he continually delighted audiences for years is a bonus for us all.

    I loved finding out more about the gentleman through your insightful article. Coincidentally, Edith Nesbit was a favourite of my subject choice for the blogathon, Joyce Grenfell. It's a small world.

    1. Now that's something! Well okay, maybe not....Nesbit is embraced by many all over the world, and justly so too, her books are so entertaining! I can't wait to read your post about the "lovely ducks" lady.

  2. GREAT Brit representation ;-) and a wonderful addition to the blogathon! I honestly didn't even realize how many films I'd seen him in! Thanks so much for posting this!


    1. Isn't that interesting? It's often not until we read or write about an actor that we realize just how great their body of work is. We're glad you enjoyed our post!

  3. I am completely unfamiliar with Jeffries' work, but he sounds like a remarkable person. This I really respect about him: "Lionel Jeffries stood out for his gentler sensibilities." It's so refreshing to read about an actor who doesn't strive to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    Thanks for this wonderful tribute. I'm going to watch out for our man Jeffries from now on.

    1. Now that's the BEST comment we could hear - we just love introducing wonderful actors to others and we hope you'll not only spot Jeffries from here on ( look out for that recognizable face! ) but you'll come to appreciate his talent as much as we have. Glad you enjoyed our post!

  4. Bald actors were few, and most of them are unforgettable. Jeffries is the second one in this blogathon that I find out was in Stage Fright.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. "Stage Fright" contained alot of great character actors, no doubt because Hitchcock had a knack for using the best actors in his films!

  5. One of the best ever. Thank you for this wonderful post