Ian Hendry (1931-1984) was one of those character actors whose face is instantly recognisable in classic British fare like The Hill (1965) and Get Carter (1971) or appearing in a host of cult films including Repulsion (1965), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974). But to me, he will always be that guy who clashed with Vincent Price’s demented tragedian Edward Lionheart in 1973’s Theatre of Blood, and who ended up providing the black comedy with one of its most memorable lines: ‘He was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.’
Sadly, Hendry’s own exit from this world was no laughing matter. He died on Christmas Eve 1984 aged just 53, just a few months after appearing bearded and hoarse from throat surgery in an episode of the UK TV soap Brookside (his final role). Author Gabriel Hershman’s biography, the first about the actor, traces the poignant and turbulent story of the charismatic Hendry’s self-destructive life that was blighted by alcoholism.
And it is Hendry’s drinking that dominates the book, which draws on the recollections of the actor’s friends, co-stars and contemporaries, including Judi Dench (who attended the same drama school in 1953), Ronnie Fraser (a long-time co-star and drinking buddy) and Wanda Ventham (Hendry’s screen wife in The Lotus Eaters), as well as the assistance of the actor’s daughter, Corrie, and nephew, Neil, to address Hendry’s illness head on and get to the core of what made the actor tick: his pratfalls (he loved the circus and always wanted to be a clown), his self-deprecating humour and his ability to ‘deliver the goods’ every time. The roll call of testimonies is impressive, but one voice is noticeably missing – Hendry’s third wife, Sandra, whose own side of the story would have been equally illuminating.
Many dark clouds dogged Ian throughout his life, but no more so than the tragic death in 1972 of his second wife, the actress Janet Munro (who had her own demons to deal with), that continued to haunt him well into his relationship with Sandra. It’s a heartbreaking Burton/Taylor-esque tale that Hershman covers with great sensitivity.
As a rising star in the 1960’s and one of Britain’s ‘thirstiest thespians’, Hendry’s career trajectory was often compared by the press of the day to that of fellow ‘hellraisers’, Richard Harris, Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, who got all the big breaks while Ian’s floundered.
Bad decision-making, luck or the bottle aside, Hendry was without doubt a fantastic actor and his crowning film achievement was in Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), set in a British military prison in North Africa during World War II. In this searing indictment of institutionalised brutality, Ian played a sadistic sergeant. It was his finest hour and should have led to better roles, but it didn’t, except for him to be typecast as a heavy or to play second fiddle to a young Michael Caine in 1971’s Get Carter.
While international film stardom eluded the actor, Hendry was always staple TV viewing and his legacy is probably that he became one of Britain’s greatest television actors. It started out with Police Surgeon in 1960 and The Avengers in 1961, opposite Patrick Macnee, and culminated in the 1972 BBC drama, The Lotus Eaters, in which Hendry played a self-loathing alcoholic expatriate in Crete. Greatly echoing his own life, The Lotus Eaters would give the actor a new lease of life in the 1970s, But it was short-lived and came too late. It was his swansong as a leading man.
Gabriel Hershman has crafted a fascinating, informative read that is both sad and humorous in its depiction of Hendry as an actor, husband, smiling clown and functioning alcoholic. While I found the use of capitals to get some of the key themes across unnecessary, it didn’t detract from the passion that comes through. This well-researched biography also makes compulsive reading (I couldn’t sleep knowing I had three chapters left to read) and it’s prompted me to seek out some of Hendry’s other films and TV roles. It’s just pity, however, that many of his early roles are now missing believed wiped. And it is criminal that Sidney Lumet’s The Hill has yet to receive a proper home entertainment release in the UK. Time to change that, I think…
Author Gabriel Hershman has his public Facebook page [here]
Check out the official fan website for Ian Hendry [click here]