Tim Curry, a career retrospective

Profile Tony Sokol 2/3/2013 at 11:32AM

Tim Curry’s first role is iconic, but it’s just one portrayal in a diverse career defined by risky choices. Rocky Horror brought the gay lifestyle into public acceptance, but it also unleashed an influential talent (and got me laid in high school).

I was fifteen when I muscled my way into mimicking the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter for the Friday night slots at Teaneck’s Cedar Lane Theater. I’d seen it a few times at the Waverly and then on Eighth Street and there were always dozens of people who donned fishnets just to be in the audience. Everybody wanted to be Tim Curry. Even Riff Raff. My corset was a cheap, tacky knock-off, covered by leather strips. My stilettos were actually cut high-heel sneakers that had been painted, but my girlfriend did my makeup and my tattoo, done by my good friend, the artist Joe Bohmer, was perfect. I was replaced by a sexy young lady who had perfect ensembles. I pointed out that she was a hot chick in underwear, I was in fucking drag. She didn’t get beat up on the way home. Most Frank N. Furters on the midnight circuit were women. They wanted to be Tim Curry. Even Columbia.

 

I saw Tim Curry at the Bottom Line and the Ritz and immediately made my keyboardist learn “Birds of a Feather” and “Sloe Gin.” I bought all his albums, including his cover of the Supremes’ 1964 chart-topper, “Baby Love,” and recorded whatever concerts were simulcast on the radio. I only missed him by two performances in Amadeus. I sought out Three Men in a Boat and all his films, which weren’t always that easy to find. I only recently got to see The Life of William Shakespeare and The Shout, which I’d learned about at Jerry Ohlinger's, on youtube. Tim Curry began on stage and takes the stage wherever he plays. He is unrecognizable in some of his best roles, burying himself under trowels of makeup for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Stephen King’s It and in full-tilt demonic reconstruction in Legend, but he projects his innermost frailties as well as his characters’ most shallow aggression through the pancake and foam latex.

 

Tim Curry was cast in his breakthrough role as Dr. Frank N. Furter after auditioning for the part of Rocky with a raucous rendition of Little Richard’s 1955 classic "Tutti Frutti." He was playing in Barry Reckford’s Give the Gaffers Time to Love You in the upstairs experimental theatre space of London's Royal Court Theatre. Director Jim Sharman transformed the role from a German-accented peroxide blonde doctor in a white lab coat to the upper class Belgravia-accented transvestite mad scientist with an electric knife who took the stage and was preserved on film. Curry knew Richard O’Brien, who wrote the play, music and lyrics to The Rocky Horror Show, because they had both appeared in British versions of the musical Hair. O’Brien wigged out in the touring company. Curry let it all hang out at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London as Woof and whatever characters he’d fill in for when actors were “too stoned to appear.”  Curry said he lied and cheated his way to his role in Hair, charmingly circumventing equity rules. Curry played Dr. Furter in New York and in Los Angeles at the Roxy, run by Lou Adler, where the Doors played and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention recorded a classic live album. Roger Ebert said Curry was the best thing in the film because he seemed to be having the most fun, despite the fact that “smiling made his face ache” and that the film also launched the careers of Susan Sarandon, Meat Loaf and Barry Bostwick. It also starred Charles Gray who had played Mocata in the Hammer horror classic The Devil Rides Out and some James Bond work. After living the character for so long, Curry believed he said all he had to say about cross-dressing mad scientists and avoided talking about Rocky Horror for years. He felt that the hype around the movie distracted people from his acting. He said he became chubby and ordinary looking to avoid the idolization of fans.

 

Tim Curry was born in Grappenhall, England on April 19, 1946, the son of a Royal Navy Methodist Chaplain father and school secretary mother. Curry had been a boy soprano from the age of six and acted in school plays before entering Birmingham University to graduate with honors in drama and English in 1968. After peeling for Hair, Curry got dressed and acted in the Glasgow Citizens Theater and the Royal Court Theater in London in such plays as After Haggerty, Lie Down I think I Love You, The Baby Elephant, Life of Galileo, The Maids, Cinderella and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After doing Rocky Horror on stage from 1973 to 1975 and making his film debut in the movie version, Curry returned to Broadway in the role of Dadaist Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award and New York Drama Critics Circle Award-Winning Travesties. Curry was nominated for a Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play Tony Award for channeling Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the original cast of Broadway’s Amadeus, which included Jane Seymour. He lost to Ian McKellen who played Mozart’s nemesis, Antonio Salieri. Curry also kept himself busy with work on British Television, appearing on several TV shows including Tom Stoppard’s Three Men in a Boat with Stephen Moore and Monty Python’s Michael Palin, Blue Money, which had been written specially to spotlight Curry’s mimicry and singing and Rock Follies of ‘77. Curry bullied Oliver Twist as Bill Sykes on television and found a favorite role as Jeremy Hancock in The Ploughman’s Lunch. He portrayed the bard in the mini-series Life of Shakespeare in 1978. It was produced by ABC, but the network thought it was too violent for American audiences and didn’t run it. (You can see it on youtube; I’m watching it right now.) Also in 1978, he appeared with Alan Bates and John Hurt in the feature The Shout.

In 1978, Tim Curry recorded his debut rock album, the eclectic Read My Lips, which was produced by Bob Ezrin with Michael Kamen and included a stellar cast of musicians, like Dick Wagner, Nils Lofgren and Bob Babbitt. He had recorded several songs for Lou Adler’s Ode Records that wouldn’t be heard until the release of Rocky Horror box sets. Read My Lips was a wildly divergent collection of cover songs such as Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” a very dramatic version of Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and a reggae version of the Beatles’ “I Will.” Alice Cooper and Lou Reed guitarist Dick Wagner appeared on the album. So did Joe Venuti, the father of jazz violin, Max Kaminsky, who played with Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw, Ernie Watts, who toured with the Stones, and The Regimental Pipers and Drums of the Forty-Eighth Highlanders of Canada for the 1864 oldie from Henry Clay Work, “Wake Nicodemus.”

 

Curry took a break from acting in 1979 to record and tour behind his second album, Fearless, for which he co-wrote most of the songs with the producers. (I’m still trying to work out the chords to “Something Short of Paradise.” Suggestions?). Fearless was produced by Michael Kamen and Dick Wagner and was recorded with Curry’s touring band as well as much of musical personnel on Read My Lips. David Sanborn played sax. Fearless made it to the top 75 of Billboard’s top 200 album charts and the cocaine-era single “I Do the Rock” reached number 91 on the American Billboard Hot 100. “Paradise Garage” also charted. He covered Joni Mitchell again with a version of “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” made fun of himself on “Charge It,” and stripped himself emotionally on Wagner’s “SOS.” A&M Records released Simplicity in 1981. It only had four Curry-co-penned numbers, but both the title song and “Out of Pawn” could have charted. He covered Squeeze, Martha and the Vandellas, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Screaming Jay Hawkins and The Zombies. The Best of Tim Curry was released in 1989. Curry toured America with his band through the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. Tim Curry sang the part of the prosecutor in Roger Waters' 1990 production of The Wall in Berlin and appeared on “Sound of Sinners” on the album Sandinista! by the Clash. He also did a mean Mick Jagger on Saturday Night Live and rocked The Tracy Ullman Show.

 

Curry worked on the material for his third and final album Simplicity while playing the DJ Johnny LaGuardia in the kinda-punky cult film Times Square with Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado. Times Square is Bikini Kill’s favorite album and provided a great soundtrack. Tim Curry got to work with film legend John Huston when he played Rooster Hannigan in Hollywood’s “last big musical,” Annie. Curry next appeared on stage in as the Pirate King in Joe Papp’s version of The Pirates of Penzance at the Drury Lane Theatre, for which Curry took formal singing lessons and won the Royal Variety Club award for Stage Actor of the Year. Curry took up residence with the National Theater of Great Britain for most of early 1980s to play Bob Acres in The Rivals in 1983, MacHeath in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and Theodore in Dalliance in 1986 before skipping out for a national tour of Me and My Girl from 1987 to 1988 and relocating to Los Angeles.

 

Curry took a short time off from the theater to play Darkness in Ridley Scott’s Legend, along with Tom Cruise and Mia Sara, and as the house butler Wadsworth in Clue, with Hollywood’s comedy elite. Curry and his prosthetics (Curry sat for six and a half hours daily for his makeup) were singled out in Legend. Cinefanstastique magazine said the film was worth watching “for the last twenty minutes.” Clue, written by John Landis and released with three different endings that played in different theaters (a fourth ending was filmed, but director Jonathan Lynn cut it because, "it really wasn't very good. I looked at it, and I thought, 'No, no, no, we’ve got to get rid of that.’”), wasn’t a hit when it first came out, not even making back its $15 million budget on initial release. But Clue has gone on to become another comedy cult classic for Curry connoisseurs. The film brought together a phenomenal ensemble that included Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Colleen Camp, Howard Hesseman, the GoGo's Jane Wiedlin, and Lee Ving. Carrie Fisher was originally supposed to play Miss Scarlet but pulled out to get treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Curry was quoted as saying that everyone in the cast had a blast making the film except for Madeline Kahn, who didn’t want to be there despite inspired improvisations such as “I hated her, so much, it, it, flames, flame, flames, on the side of my face, breathing, breathle- heaving breaths, out of the side of my head.”

 

Esconsed in LA, Tim Curry took the television role of Winston Newquay, a corrupt record producer for Dead Dog Records, on the 1989 season of CBS’s Wiseguys, which starred Wanderer Ken Wahl. This has always been singled out by his fans as a highlight of his work. Curry spent 1989 and 1990 in New York playing William Hogarth in The Art of Success for the Manhattan Theatre Club before returning to film to play alongside Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October. Curry followed this with another role that added to his cult luster, Pennywise the Clown, in the TV miniseries, Stephen King’s It. Curry has only talked about this role once, in issue #99 of Fangoria. He admits he likes playing villains, but was never the horror aficionado that Richard O’Brien was and admits to loving Lon Chaney, the father of movie makeup. Calling his role “completely irredeemable,” Curry admits to the characters’ mental cruelty. “I remove a child’s arm so he bleeds to death. So that’s up there.” In the interview Curry says he personally feels “that what is the most horrifying is the moment of decision behind somebody’s eyes when they decide to kill somebody, rather than a pint of blood and a pound of latex.” In the article Curry also says he finds Stephen King to be “an extremely entertaining writer” and wishes he were in the film version of The Shining. “He certainly gives actors plenty of opportunities.”

 

Curry discovered voice over work by chance. He gave voice to the Serpent in a cartoon version of Creation. He was a natural; he had thousands of voices and voiced thousands of parts. He was every single villain on the Duckman cartoon series with Jason Alexander.  Curry won a Daytime Emmy for putting on the hook in Fox’s animated Peter Pan and the Pirates, he took over the role of the computer, MAL, in Captain Planet and the Planeteers after dwarf actor David Rappaport died. Along with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Curry had the long-standing role of Nigel Thornberry, the patriarch of The Wild Thornberrys. Tim Curry was Lord Dragaunus in The Mighty Ducks, G. Gordon Godfrey in Young Justice and he terrorized Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius as Professor Finbar Calamitous. Curry voiced characters for all three Rugrats movies, Scooby Doo and the Witches Ghost, Valiant, Fly Me to the Moon and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.  For Disney, Curry voiced Taurus Bulba on Darkwing Duck, Evil Manta on The Little Mermaid and a Beauty and the Beast Christmas movie. Curry voiced Bill Murray’s British lookalike feline in Garfield: Tail of Two Kitties. The somewhat cartoonish actor played Gomez in Addams Family Adventure, a swashbuckler in Pirates of the Plane, walked the plank in Muppet Treasure Island and slipped Lamb Chop some tongue on Saturday Night Live.

 

Best known for his expert villainous roles, Tim Curry always admitted a fondness for his role as the shy elocutionist Dr. Thornton Poole in Oscar, which starred Sylvester Stallone as mob boss Provolone, because he got to play a genuinely nice guy who actually gets the girl. The movie was a broad farce which also starred Pickle Guy Peter Riegert, of Animal House and Local Hero fame, another actor who shared his time between equally between film, TV and the stage. Curry was soon back to villainous form in roles like Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers, Farley Claymore in The Shadow and the Concierge in Home Alone 2. As Gaal on Earth 2, he used slave labor, killed about 20 people and terrorized the Glintz girl, Rebecca Gayheart. Tim Curry has taken dark to very dark levels, repeatedly playing the Prince of Darkness and playing psychopathically evil and unflattering roles. Just look at the grime on his teeth as Flynn aka "The Prince of Darkness" on a two-episode arc of Criminal Minds in 2011.  ("The question isn't why do I kill? It should be, why I don't kill everybody?"). He charmed Dan and Roseanne out of a bundle and Nancy out of her pants on Roseanne. The swine.

 

Curry was back on stage in Love Letters with his friend Annie Potts in 1991 at the LA Theater Club. He returned to Broadway in 1993 to nab his second Tony Award nomination for My Favourite Year, the love letter to 1950s live television. Curry swung from the rafters as Alan Swann, the character that the legendary Peter O’Toole played on screen. He sang the part of Scrooge at Madison Square Garden in A Christmas Carol in 2001. And then came Spamalot. Written by Eric Idle, with music by Idle, John Du Prez and Neil Innes and directed by Mike Nichols, Spamalot began its Broadway run at New York's Shubert Theatre on Valentine’s Day in 2005. It ran for over 1,500 performances, was seen by over two million people, nabbed 14 Tony nominations, won three including Best Musical, and made its money back in under six months, earning over $175 million by the time it closed on Jan. 11, 2009.  Curry starred as King Arthur. Hank Azaria, who plays so many characters on The Simpsons, played many roles like the French Taunter, a Knight who says Ni and Tim the Enchanter as well as his main role as Sir Lancelot. David Hyde Pierce was Sir Robin and Michael McGrath played Patsy in the original cast. John Cleese phoned in his role as the Voice of God. When he reprised his role at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End, Curry was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award as the Best Actor in a Musical and won the Theatregoers' Choice Award as Best Actor in a Musical. Tim also appeared in Eric Idle’s play What About Dick? at the Orpheum in Los Angeles in April 2012 with Eddie Izzard, Tracey Ullman, Billy Connolly and Russell Brand.

 

Tim Curry is a very private individual who gives away nothing of his private life other than he is a keen gardener, discourages people from entering show business, paints and has a dog. Speculation abounds but who cares, he is an entertainer.  He said less than three words when he appeared on Politically Incorrect. He is a consummate actor and performer. He’s the epitome of the old-style song and dance man, in a very modern career. He may be more known for his breakout role than any of his finer works, but that role did more than bring Curry into American and the world’s attention, it was highly influential. The Rocky Horror Picture Show did as much to bring the Gay lifestyle into popular acceptance as the Stonewall riots did. Studies show kids who grew up doing the Time Warp are less likely to Queer bash. It was just another acting job in a prolific series of extremely diverse portrayals done in every genre, style and medium for Tim Curry. He takes pride in the craft of acting of which he is a master. Did I mention his videogame work?

 

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