Expresso Harvey

I recall seeing the film ‘The Manchurian Candidate in the early 90s and my mind being simply blown as a result. The storyline had twists and turns galore, with the dialogue top drawer. I also admired the direction of John Franknheimer, loving the camera angles he achieved and the claustrophobic atmosphere created that pervades the movie.

It also had a stellar cast headed, I guess, by Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, who is great in the role, but it was the work of the British actor Laurence Harvey that really caught my eye. He was a revelation as US army soldier Raymond Shaw who is brainwashed during the Korean War to then, years later – spoiler alert – make an attempt on the life of a presidential candidate, therefore leaving the field clear for the vice president, who happened to be married to Shaw’s domineering mother, the opportunity to run for the top job.

I’ll leave out the ‘what happens next’ details to allow you to seek out the film, which I urge you to do if you haven’t seen it already.

I use the word revelation when referring to Harvey, simply as I only knew of his work back then, from his previous role as hustler Johnny Jackson the late 1950s UK film ‘Expresso Bongo.’ The film was very much a vehicle for the then-burgeoning career of a young Cliff Richard, but Harvey is all over it.

These two films couldn’t have been more different, the latter a bit slapstick froth really, capturing the early days of rock and roll in Soho, with the former a high-level psychological drama of the finest order.

Laurence Harvey appeared in many films over the years, constantly popping in up in a variety of roles, from British kitchen sink dramas such as ‘Room at the Top’, to Hollywood classics like ‘The Alamo’ and the plain odd such as ‘The Magic Christian.’

His birth name was Laruschka Miscah Skikne and he was actually born in Lithuania in 1928 to Jewish parents (his Hebrew name being Zvi Mosheh). The family moved to South Africa when little Laruschka was only five years old, settling in Johannesburg. Harvey then served in the South African Army – entertainment section – during the Second World War.

He joined RADA in London to study acting, but within only a few months he was leaving the lessons behind, finding work first on stage and then in film. How he came to be known as Laurence Harvey is open to debate, but it appears the department store Harvey Nichols was used as the basis of the adopted surname.

He picked up a two-year film deal with the British Picture Corporation in 1948 and he toiled away in various low budget UK flicks before Hollywood came calling for him to appear in ‘Knights of the Round Table’ in 1953 and ‘King Richard and the Crusaders’ in 1954.

He played the character Joe Lampton in the box office success ‘Room at the Top’ in 1959, a role for which he was nominated for both BAFTA and Academy Awards. The film was well received in the US, making his name there. In the same year, the aforementioned ‘Expresso Bongo’ was also released.

John Wayne personally selected Harvey for the part of William Barrett Travis in ‘The Alamo’ in 1960 and he went on to star opposite Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Butterfield 8’ for which Taylor won her first Oscar. Taylor and Harvey would become firm friends for life as a result of the film.

1965 saw him co-starring with Dirk Bogarde and Julie Christie in ‘Darling.’ His attachment to the film enabled it to gain it financial backing.

In a drastic change of role, he played himself performing the soliloquy from Hamlet whilst performing a striptease in the 1969 film ‘The Magic Christian.’ Yes, you did read that right…

Laurence Harvey died from Stomach cancer aged just 45 in November 1973 and was buried in Santa Barbara, California.

From the outside looking in, Harvey could often appear cold, almost distant in some of his various roles. He once said of himself,

‘I’m a flamboyant character, an extrovert who doesn’t want to reveal his feelings.’

For me, he left behind a varied and healthy body of work during his short life. Work that is still being discovered by some, and is fondly remembered by those who know it well.

The Mumper of SE5