March 31, 1957: Theater bit player Sean Connery succeeds in his first leading role: Mountain McClintock in “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
By Spencer Lloyd Peet
On March 16, 1957, at the Colonial Theatre in New York, Rod Serling received an Emmy Award for best teleplay for Playhouse 90 production of Requiem for a Heavyweight. All together, it took five awards that night; Playhouse 90 received one also for best new series.
It tells the story of Harlan “Mountain” McClintock; a washed-up aging boxer, played brilliantly by Jack Palance. His hopes of ever becoming heavyweight champion of the world are soon dashed when he is told he can never fight again. Not only does his body take a beating, but his spirit too! Requiem for a Heavyweight aired on CBS, Thursday, October 11, 1956 to critical acclaim and remains one of Rod’s greatest triumphs.
“A play of overwhelming force and tenderness. An artistic triumph.” (The New York Times — Oct 12, 1956)
Unfortunately, most of Rod Serling’s pre-Twilight Zone scripts were produced for live television, making it impossible for anyone outside the US to see them. But thanks to the good ol’ ‘BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), the British public got a taste of his genius in their production for Sunday night theatre of Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Alvin Rakoff was brought in as director and producer. He was born in Canada graduated from the University of Toronto. He has written many original screenplays and is also a successful novelist. The work of both Rod and Alvin has brilliance, making him the perfect man for the job. His career in film and television has enabled him to work with some of Hollywood’s finest actors, including Sir Lawrence Olivier, Peter Sellers and Henry Fonda. He also directed Ava Gardner in City on Fire.
Warren Mitchell, better known as loud-mouthed bigoted, Alf Garnett, in the British television sit-com ‘Till Death Do Us Part, was cast as “Mountain” McClintock’s trainer Army, and George Margo played the fading boxer’s manager, Maish. The role of social worker Grace, originally played by Kim Hunter, went to the lovely one-time Doctor Who companion, Jacqueline Hill. But finding the right man to play the shattered fighter proved problematic.
Originally, Jack Palance was to reprise his role but he pulled out at the last minute, due to work overload.
ALVIN RAKOFF “I received a rather high-handed call from his LA agents saying Palance was not coming. I was stuck. It was not an easy part to cast. I spent the weekend auditioning everyone I could think of.”
Jacqueline (who became the wife of Alvin a year after the production), suggested that he consider casting bit-player Sean Connery in the leading role stating that, “The ladies would like it.” Considering Connery’s pretty looks and physique that wasn’t quite that of a heavyweight boxer, Alvin was not convinced. But with little time left, he tried Connery out.
ALVIN RAKOFF “His ability was limited. But his presence, stature and self-belief were evident.”
Alvin bit the bullet and gave the role to Connery, who was paid 35 English Pounds.
Like the original version, the BBC production of Requiem went out live, but had no commercial breaks, causing a problem for the actors when it came time for their costume change. Faced with this dilemma, Alvin telephoned Rod Serling and explained the problem.
ALVIN RAKOFF “‘I hear you write,’ said Rod. ‘You write the scene.’ I did. Sent it over to him for his approval.”
The scene he wrote was between two younger boxers, one of which went to another frequently used walk-on actor, Michael Caine.
MICHAEL CAINE “Sean had the lead in this while I had only a small part. This started a new anxiety for me; my contempories were forging ahead and I was still making no real progress.” (From his Autobiography “What’s It All About?”)
Everything was set; the players were cast and they were ready to role. Sean’s family in Edinburgh all huddled round the TV set to watch “their star” have his moment of glory. But in the studio tension was high, especially after head of BBC TV Drama, Michael Barry, pointed out to Alvin, “You’ve got your work cut out with that leading man”. He had nothing to fear. It transmitted at 8.50pm, March 31, 1957, and was a huge hit.
“He [Sean Connery] displayed a shambling and inarticulate charm.” (The Times)
“A producer of the quality of Alvin Rakoff is as sure footed as a cat.” (Daily Mail)
“Its hero, McClintock, is typical of the new kind of leading figure now popular with American television writers; the little guy in the big tough guy’s body.” (Radio Times)
“He [Alvin Rakoff] opened with a fight sequence that made my 17-inch screen look yards wide.” (Daily Mirror)
With his reputation firmly intact, Alvin Rakoff went on to direct and produce three more plays written by Rod Serling. They were; The Velvet Alley (with Sam Wannamaker), Nov ’59; The Strike (with Richard Harris), Feb ’60, which was re-titled, with Rod’s blessing, Come in Razor Red (as the word “Strike” has a different connotation in the UK), and A Town has Turned to Dust (with Rod Steiger). All except for Come in Razor Red were produced for the BBC.
ALVIN RAKOFF “My wife and I met Rod Serling and his wife [Carol] 2 or 3 times on various trips to California. He was a quiet man. Conveying a deep-seated intelligence, as well as ability. He was likeable, polite and pleasant.”
Sean Connery has become one of the most successful leading actors of our time, thanks to the foresight of actress Jacqueline Hill, to whom this article is dedicated.
Special thanks to Alvin Rakoff, for his valuable time and for sharing his memories via numerous emails.
IN MEMORY OF JACQUELINE HILL
(Dec 17, 1929 – Feb 18, 1993)
From: http://www.britmovie.co.uk/actors/c/005.html: “Sean Connery (1930-) b. Edinburgh, Scotland.
“Among a number of distinguished roles, including Vronsky in an adaptation of Anna Karenina and Hotspur in The Age of Kings, Connery played the demanding lead role of the derelict boxer in a live BBC version of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight (1957), a role created by Jack Palance in one of the key plays of American live television drama.”