Victor Spinetti BiographyVictor Spinetti Biography
Richard Burton called comedian, author, poet, and raconteur Victor Spinetti "the most underrated
actor in Britain." Paul McCartney described him as "the man who makes clouds disappear."
The eldest of six children, Vittorio Georgio Andrea Spinetti was born on September 2, 1929 at Cwm,
a mining village outside Ebbw Vale in Wales, where his Italian father, Joe, ran a fish and chip
shop with his Welsh mother. At Monmouth School, where Victor's English master noted the boy's
"dramatic instinct", he was a bright pupil, coming top of his form and winning prizes.
Artistically-inclined from an early age, Victor entertained his friends with impressions of people
he had heard on the radio, from George Formby to Adolf Hitler, and only gave up piano lessons out
of embarrassment because the woman who taught him was afflicted with chronic flatulence.
As a teenager, he joined the Ebbw Vale Playgoers' Society, which was short of men with an English
accent. For his National Service, Private Spinetti was confirmed A1 even though he was deaf in one
ear, but in 1948 was admitted to a TB hospital with a pleural effusion. After a question in the
House of Commons by his local MP, he was invalided out of the Army on a full disability pension of
£2 10s a week.
Having proved unsuitable to take charge of the family chip shop, Spinetti enrolled at the Cardiff
College of Music and Drama and, to eke out his grant, performed in the evenings in local shows.
A South Wales agent, Betty Kellond, spotted him and offered him work, not all of it theatrical;
his early bookings included a job looking after the classical pianist Solomon when he appeared
at the Llanrwst Eisteddfod.
After joining a Welsh concert party in 1953, and appearing in revue at the Irving Theatre, London,
three years later, Spinetti made his West End debut in 1958 playing four different roles in
Expresso Bongo at the Saville. This led to his being cast in two parts in a production of
Candide at the same theatre.
After his first London booking, Spinetti was offered words of encouragement by Bud Flanagan,
"You've got it, son," and shortly thereafter joined a provincial tour of South Pacific, in
which a fellow actor in the chorus introduced himself, while naked in the dressing room, as
In 1959, after working in a strip club off Leicester Square, introducing a nude act, Spinetti
auditioned for Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and, having appeared in Make Me An Offer
at Wyndham's Theatre, flew to New York to play the IRA officer in Brendan Behan's The Hostage.
After a run on Broadway, the play went on a US tour, but not before he and Behan had climbed to
the top of the Empire State Building to conduct a memorial service for King Kong.
Recalled to London, Spinetti took over as Tosher in Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be
at the Garrick Theatre, and, as the loud-mouthed drill sergeant, appeared in Oh What A Lovely
War! at Wyndham's Theater in 1963, Littlewood's West End hit.
He was a key performer in the show's transfer to Broadway in 1964 and his performance earned him
a Tony award.
Spinetti recalled he was not prepared for his Tony. "I won a Tony Award but when Carol Channing
handed it to me, I knew immediately that I didn't want to make one of those grisly acceptance
speeches ... I made it in Welsh. As I still don't know a word of Welsh, this was my usual
gibberish. The audience was bowled over."
In 1966 Spinetti played Felix opposite Jack Klugman's Oscar in Neil Simon's comedy The Odd Couple
at the Queen's Theatre in London.
One of Victor's most challenging theatre roles was as the principal male character in Jane Arden's
radical feminist play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven which played to packed houses for six weeks
at the Arts Lab on Drury Lane at the end of 1969. He also appeared on Broadway in The Hostage
and The Philanthropist.
Victor also directed Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, including productions staged in
When Spinetti was invited by Laurence Olivier to direct a play based on
John Lennon's books A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write which was performed
at the Old Vic in 1968, the project involved working closely on the original script with Lennon
himself. "Eh, Vic," Lennon suddenly announced, "let's go somewhere warm", and within hours Spinetti
found himself whisked to Marrakesh.
He related in his autobiography, Victor Spinetti Up Front, which was published in 2006, that for a
time in the late 1960s he was scooped up into Princess Margaret's social circle. She was guest of
honour at the London premiere of the film Staircase in 1969, which Spinetti attended at
the invitation of its star Richard Burton, who was accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor. Afterwards at
the Savoy, while the Princess monopolised Burton, Spinetti consoled Miss Taylor, who was wearing a
particularly large diamond ring. Victor said the Princess remarked, "How vulgar, but I'd love to
For millions of Beatles fans, Victor was probably best known and beloved for appearing in the first
three of the Beatles films.
When they made their first film, A Hard Day's Night in 1964, the Beatles, with no previous
were not a little star-struck to find
themselves working with the likes of Spinetti. With his dark eyes, turned-up nose, short receding
hair, Italian looks and slightly pained expression, the extrovert Spinetti, who liked to style
himself "the Welsh wop", was already a familiar face on television and in the cinema, and knew or
had worked with Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier and many Hollywood stars.
Victor in A Hard Day's Night
Cast as a camp, nervy and irritable television director
supervising a live TV concert by the Beatles in front
of an audience of screaming girls, Spinetti immediately hit it off with the group, and found them
unpretentious, despite being in the eye of a media maelstrom.
"You've got to be in all our films," George Harrison told Spinetti, explaining that otherwise
"me mum won't come and see them because she fancies you." Spinetti was duly cast in the group's
follow-up film Help! in 1965, as a mad-scientist bent on acquiring the red ruby ring that
was stuck on Ringo Starr's finger, giving him lines like, "With a ring like that I could...
dare I say it? Rule the world!"
Although Help! was filmed on location in the Bahamas and in Austria, Spinetti did not
consider it a happy time. He said, "The spirit of invention that had seen us through A Hard Day's
Night had gone. Tiredness and sullenness permeated the shoot."
Back in London when filming finished, Spinetti found himself drawn into John Lennon's social
circle, with nights out with the Beatle in West End clubs and invitations to Kenwood, his mansion
Spinetti was present during at least one drugs bust by the police, and, at the urgent pleading of
Lennon's first wife Cynthia, dealt with hangers-on who had worn out their welcome at Kenwood.
Sensing that the Beatles' media honeymoon was over, and as Lennon became more absorbed by drugs,
Spinetti furnished him with an unexpected brand of distraction. At Spinetti's invitation and
expense, Lennon and his wife would slip into a box at a West End theatre to watch a light musical
On one such occasion, entertaining the couple to a production of The Desert Song at the
Palace Theatre, Spinetti also laid on jam "butties", a Lennon favourite. "You don't need hash,
do you, Vic?" asked Lennon. "You're permanently stoned on life."
Two of Spinetti's Beatles' film relics became collectors' items. The fluffy mohair sweater he wore
in A Hard Day's Night was put on display at a girls' school in Philadelphia, and his fur hat
from Help! was reportedly offered for sale on the internet for $10,000.
Victor with Paul McCartney in Magical Mystery Tour
He also appeared in a cameo role in the third Beatles' film, Magical Mystery Tour in 1967,
for which the Beatles asked him to reprise his role of the loud-mouthed drill sergeant from
Oh What A Lovely War!
Victor also made an appearance on one of the Beatles' legendary Christmas
recordings for their fans, Christmas Time (Is Here Again), the Beatles' fifth fan club recording in 1967.
It featured Spinetti in a tap-dancing duet with Ringo Starr. And in 1978, Victor made a cameo
appearance in the promotional video for Paul McCartney's song London Town, playing a mime at tea.
Spinetti's cameos with the Beatles raised his film profile. He subsequently landed a tiny but much
recalled role as a Swiss hotel desk clerk in The Return of the Pink Panther in 1974 in which, when
Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau inquires, "Der yer 'ave a rheum?" Spinetti queries simply,
In addition to his Beatles appearances and The Return of the Pink Panther, Victor has
appeared in over 30 films, including Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew, Under
Milk Wood with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Becket, Voyage of the Damned,
Under the Cherry Moon and The Krays.
In 1986, Spinetti appeared with Prince in Under the Cherry Moon.
Victor's many appearances on British television include
Take My Wife, in which
he played a London-based booking agent and schemer who was forever promising his
comedian client that fame was just around the corner, and the sitcom An Actor's Life
For Me. He also hosted the show Victor's Party for Granada TV.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, he toured in his one-man show A Very Private Diary, in which
he successfully blended personal reminiscences and anecdotes from his 40-year career.
In a newspaper interview in 2008, Spinetti said he was baffled by actors who turned down work or
refused to tour, telling drama students to learn "the three Rs: redundancy, rejection and resting".
He said, "If you can handle those, do it. Don't do it because you want something, but because you
have something to give."
Victor was the older brother of Henry Spinetti, a session drummer whose playing has
featured on a large number of prominent rock and pop albums, including
Ram and Choba B CCCP with Paul McCartney, and Gone Troppo with George Harrison, also appearing
at Harrison's memorial concert, "The Concert For George" in 2002.
Victor Spinetti was, for 44 years, the partner of Graham Curnow, who passed away in 1997. Victor passed
away on June 18, 2012.