One day in the late 70s when I was living in West Hampstead, I caught a bus down to Swiss Cottage, found an old fashioned barber’s shop and sat in the chair with instructions to “Take it all off. I want to look like Yul Brynner.”
Not particularly odd you may think but remember this was pre-EastEnders days, pre-Mitchell brothers’ shaved heads that amazingly made it look cool to be completely bald. This was at a time when the best known bald man in Britain was David Nixon the TV magician.
Five minutes later I was out on the Finchley Road looking at my reflection in every shop window as I walked home. What the hell had I done?
It wasn’t actually my idea to go completely bald; that had come from a friend of mine, Jonny Whetstone the lead singer in The Look. One night down at The Marquee he had suggested that I tackled my severely receding hairline by going the whole hog and shaving the lot off. “It’ll look great,” he enthused. “Like a punked-up Blofeld from the Bond films. The girls will love it.”
And like a mug I fell for it.
But, as I reasoned, what was the worse thing that could happen? If it looked terrible, I could always regrow my limited thatch back again.
Back in my flat I was reading that day’s Evening Standard when an advert caught my eye with such severity that I almost ripped the page in my double-take. It read...
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There I was recently sheared, exactly 5ft 11ins high and here was a film company seeking that exact person. This seemed too good to be true. Was it fate? I quickly dialled the number.
After a few preliminary questions about whether I was male (yes), completely bald (yes) and 5ft 11ins tall (yes) - I was told to report to Shepperton film studios the next morning at 9 o’clock where I would be given further instructions. Before she hung up, the woman went on to say that travelling expenses would be fully reimbursed.
The next day found me at Waterloo station at 8am. It was a particularly wet morning and I had to fight through dozens of incoming commuters to find my platform. I jumped on the train and off we went.
After a moment or two I started to notice that nearly everybody in my carriage was a man of about my height and completely bald! Some were dressed in jeans and trainers, others looked like they had just come from a City trading floor in their pin-stripe suits and Turnbull & Asser shirts. Most were ignoring everyone else and just staring out of the window, their reflection doubling the number of shiny pates on the train.
I had no idea that there were so many bald young men in London. It was only later that I discovered that most of them had had their heads shaved the previous afternoon having seen the advert in the Evening Standard. Such is the draw of the film business. London barbers must have done a roaring trade the previous day.
The ten bald men in my carriage, however, were nothing compared to the fifty or so shaved egg heads that all got off the train when it finally pulled in at the little station of Shepperton.
We all followed like sheared sheep to the station entrance and someone asked the guy in the ticket office where the studios were. He pointed to a hand-written sign in a transparent cover clumsily tied with gardening string to a lamp post. The sort of thing people put up when they’ve lost a pet dog or cat. It had a badly drawn arrow in red felt pen and the words BALD AUDITIONS THIS WAY.
We walked along the pavement. The rain was lashing down.
There was a lot of moaning from our crocodile of Kojaks but a major film was a major film and if you had to walk in the pouring rain to be in the damned thing then that is what you had to do.
Fifty yards down the road was another sign drawing-pinned to a wooden fence. And then another a bit further along harpooned on the twigs of a hedge. Eventually the trail of red arrows led us all the way over the motorway bridge, past local shops and houses until we reached the perimeter wall to the famous film studios.
The two guards at the security gate made a quick check to make sure all present were totally bald (one man with a full head of hair wasn’t allowed in despite his protestations that he would be shaving it all off once he’d got the job).
We were then directed to a tiny windowless room called an ‘Audition Suite’. In fact it was a long cupboard where the vacuum cleaners, brooms and buckets were stored by the studio cleaners. Anyway there were a few chairs in there and a production assistant popped her head in every now and then to make sure everyone had a cup of tea.
By this time our numbers had swollen to well over a hundred and some people were having to stand in the corridor. Assistants scurried about with clipboards making sure that everyone was reimbursed for their expenses. Rail tickets were waved in unison as proof of that morning’s travel and one or two held up a petrol receipt.
There was one smartly dressed French man who claimed he had flown in from Paris the night before after a friend in London had seen the advert in the Standard and phoned him. He wanted full reimbursement for his air ticket and nearly got it too. Unfortunately he over-egged his pudding. Realising he was on to a good thing, he decided to add on helicopter transfers and even lengthened his journey as having flown first from Athens to Paris!
After twenty minutes or so an assistant squeezed himself into the room and asked us all to gather round (not difficult in that space) and to listen to what he had to say. The movie was Flash Gordon, the director was Mike Hodges and the producer was the legendary Italian Dino De Laurentiis. They were looking for twelve bald men to play twelve bald robots in the film.
We looked at each other in horror. There were over a hundred of us going for twelve jobs. This would be a fight to the end. And to be honest everyone in the room looked pretty mean with their shaved heads.
The assistant explained that the producer Dino De Laurentiis was looking for a certain type. He wanted a strong face, average body but above all no hair. Diction didn’t matter because all the bald robots would be mute androids who would hum. There would be no dialogue.
We were assured that Mr De Laurentiis would personally handpick the twelve with all his experience gained in thirty-five years of international movie-making.
Next, we were told to stand down for 10 minutes and then the producer would come and meet us. The assistant left the room.
There was an instantaneous rush to follow him. Thuggish looking men who had got up early and come to the studios to find they now had only a one in ten chance of being picked were colliding with each other to get into the Gents and make sure they were looking their best.
As they jostled for position in front of the only mirror, suddenly for the first time that morning they were talking to each other. “Get out the way mate, I was here first,” “He won’t pick you, your nose is too big for a humming robot!” and “Has anyone got a Philishave?” could be clearly heard.
Eventually, back in the cupboard, we settled down and awaited our Master. The man whose expert decision could change our lives - Dino De Laurentiis. The giant of the film world. Unfortunately when he swept into the room surrounded by his four minders, hardly anyone could see him. The minders were all at least six foot dwarfing his slight frame. But it didn’t matter, here he was, the great Italian film maker. The man behind the Fellini classics, the man who gave the world Barbarella and the remake of King Kong.
And what method of selection would this great wise man of cinema use? We waited with bated breath.
“I’ll take you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you and you…” he said as his finger pointed to twelve astonished but grateful egg heads. He then swept out of the room followed by his entourage. He had been inside the cupboard for the best part of fifteen seconds.
There was an instant angry reaction from the hundred-odd bald men who hadn’t been selected. All they had now to look forward to was a wet walk back to the station.
The assistant’s voice nervously tried to rise itself above the hubbub. “Right, thanks everyone for coming. The twelve that Mr De Laurentiis pointed at will remain; the others can go.”
I was one of the lucky dozen and went on to enjoy an extraordinary time at Elstree film studios doing my bit as a bald headed robot (humming variety) under the orders of General Kala (Mariangela Melato) and Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) in Flash Gordon.
One day Jack Nicholson, who was filming The Shining, came on to the floor to admire our elaborate spaceship set. He stood in the midst of us and asked “Did you guys shave your heads especially for the picture?”
Eleven heads nodded yes, but one head could not lie.