In the rendition of country hit “Act Naturally” that The Beatles included in the British edition of the album Help, Ringo Starr sang: “They're gonna put me in the movies" They're gonna make a big star out of me / We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely / And all I gotta do is act naturally / Well, I'll bet you I'm gonna be a big star / Might win an Oscar you can never tell / The movies gonna make me a big star / 'Cause I can play the part so well / Well I hope you come and see me in the movies / Then I know that you will plainly see / The biggest fool that ever hit the big time / And all I gotta do is act naturally”. I don’t think Ringo dreamt of the day he’d raise that little statue of the golden dude with the sword between his legs, but it does seem clear that, egged on by the reviews of A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964) who remarked on how he was “a natural” before the camera, he was able to convince himself that he was, in fact, an actor. This is how, after escaping from a sect that wanted to offer him up as a sacrifice to the goddess Kali in Help! (Richard Lester, 1965), he decided to dive head first into the celluloid world.
Nowadays if a journalist dares to ask Ringo about his time as an actor, he’ll happily speak of life in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! And even of his work during the late eighties on children’s T.V. shows of a railroad persuasion: as a narrator on the kid’s series Thomas The Tank Engine and of his role as Mr. Conductor in Shining Time Station. He may, however, fail to make mention of the fifteen films (short film above, full film below) in which he acted between 1968 and 1985. It’s as if they had never existed. A perfectly plausible explanation would be that he himself is conscious of the fact that on the whole, the end result was somewhat disastrous. Of that, and that to speak of his roles as a Mexican gardener, as the Pope, as a Teddy Boy or as a slobby caveman takes him back to a stage in life shrouded in alcoholism. So, to coincide with Ringo’s 75th birthday, let’s take a look at some of his most memorable roles (for better, for worse or for the worst).
CANDY (Christian Marquand, 1968)
His first role would arrive in the form of this hilarious raunchy comedy complete with traces of LSD and based on a Terry Southern novel. The cast was rife with big names along the lines of Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Walter Matthau, John Huston, Charles Aznavour or James Corburn. In his search for the meaning of life, or something along those lines, Candy Christian, the adolescent nymphet played by Swede Ewa Aulin, ends up inevitably immersed in a series of tumultuous sexual scenarios; always with guys who are as randy as they are psychotic: a poet, a military man, a doctor, a guru and… Emmanuel, a Mexican gardener who, judging by the name, the moustache, the idiocy and the comical pidgin accent, could so easily be mistaken for the psychotronic father of Manuel from Fawlty Towers (however, let us not forget that Manuel was from Barcelona).
THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (Joseph McGrath, 1969)
Another off the wall comedy, another story by Terry Southern, another carousel of big names. This satire on capitalist society is only saved from plummeting to the abysmal depths of disaster by a solid performance from Peter Sellers. His character, the richest man in the world, decides to prove to the laconic drifter he has taken under his wing (Ringo) that “everybody has a price” thus he takes amusement in playing pranks along the lines of paying a policeman to swallow a fine, paying the Oxford rowing team to sabotage the race against Cambridge or paying two boxers to kiss during the Heavy Weight title fight. All hell breaks loose on an exclusive cruise on which Roman Polanski plays a drunk, Yul Brinner plays a theatrical transvestite, Christopher Lee plays a waiter-stroke-vampire and Raquel Welch plays a priestess who, by the beat of a drum, drives a hundred half naked female slaves. Ringo doesn’t clash, although he pretty much just hangs around with an air of “I really couldn’t give two sheds about any of this”.
BLINDMAN (Ferdinando Baldi, 1971)
In the wake of the Beatles’ separation, Ringo stopped shaving and grew out his hair to ride off into the sunset in this wild spaghetti western about “the sex slave trade”. In this film he plays Candy, the brother of a Mexican “bandido” who has got his hands on 50 women supposedly on their way to Texas to reunite with their husbands, who were miners. A blind gunman (who doesn’t miss one fucking shot) and who is determined to abide by his contract to get them safely to their last port of call will promptly come to their rescue. For the occasion, Ringo recorded a track by the same name along with his friend Pete Ham, guitarist of the band Badfinger; you can give it a listen in the video posted above.
200 MOTELS (Frank Zappa y Tony Palmer, 1971)
Please don’t bother taking offence to this, but this film seems to me to be one of the biggest mental hashes of Frank Zappa’s career. A disjointed series of gags, animations and live performances, oversaturated with (at the time) cutting edge special effects (triple exposure, solarisation, speed ups and slow motions) that tries to capture the madness of life on the road for a rock musician and that is quite frankly, pretty hard to soak up in one sitting. Ringo appears in the roll of Larry the Dwarf and characterised as Frank Zappa.
THAT’LL BE THE DAY (Claude Whatham, 1973)
Probably one of his more serious roles. In this drama set in the late fifties and conceived to showcase David Essex, adolescent pop idol of the times, Ringo plays the street wise chum of a wannabe rock star he works with on a fair ground. The story is loosely based on the song “1941” by his good friend, New York based singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and on the rocking early days in Liverpool of The Quarrymen (band formed by John Lennon that would eventually mutate into The Beatles) and Rory Storm & The Hurricanes (who Ringo would leave to join the former).
SON OF DRACULA (Freddie Francis, 1974)
You saw right, Ringo as Merlin the Wizard; and personal advisor to the son of Dracula, to boot. Filmed in 1972 (after Ringo directed Born To Boogie, his documentary on T.Rex), the starring role of this fiasco is left in the hands of Harry Nilsson, John Lennon’s bosom buddy at the time and who you may remember from hits like “Everybody’s Talking”, Midnight Cowboy’s main track. For the musical numbers, Keith Moon and John Bonham take turns on the drumming and we’ll find the likes of Peter Frampton (ex Humble Pie) along with the wind section of the Rolling Stones, Bobby Keys and Jim Price. Blood and sweat were shed trying to find a distributor for this little gem, it sat around for nearly two years until it was finally screened and it was never edited. As it happens, towards the end of the eighties, Ringo admitted that he had a copy on videotape sitting on top of his T.V., but that he’s never dared to watch it.
LISZTOMANIA (Ken Russell, 1975)
Tommy had not yet hit the screens when Ken Russell, one of the most irreverent, anarchic and music loving directors of all time, started filming this glorification of absurdity about Hungarian composer Frank Liszt (incarnated by a hap handed Roger Daltrey, from The Who), converted herein, into a glam rock star. Delirious fans, a pene giant penis, Wagner almost as evil as The Devil himself… Russell’s nightmarish film respected nothing and sexualised everything. For the role of no other than the Pope, he casted our mate Ringo, the soundtrack came from the hand of Rick Wakeman, ex keyboard player in Yes who that same year was busy organising shows on ice, complete with choir and orchestra, to showcase his new conceptual record on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It was almost like some kind of pissing contest. Heady days.
SEXTETTE (Ken Hughes, 1978)
So astonishingly bloody awful and embarrassing, you gotta see it to believe it. At the age of 85, scandalous sex symbol of the thirties Mae West, wished to perpetrate her tongue-in-cheek man-eater image with a self-penned comedy in which the entirety of the male cast peg it out of desire to slip her one. Amongst the fortunate: a German film director (Ringo), a sleazy gangster (George Hamilton), a diplomatic Russian (Tony Curtis), her new and sixth husband (Timothy Dalton) oh... and a whole athletics team. Alice Cooper plays a queer waiter and Keith Moon a fashion designer.
CAVEMAN (Carl Gottlieb, 1981)
Lost in no man’s land, somewhere between children’s T.V. and dumbass slap-stick comedy for stoners, Caveman at least served the purpose of introducing Ringo to the love of his life, the actress and ex “Bond girl” (The spy who loved me) Barbara Bach, with whom he remains happily married. Sans dialogue, bar the grunting, Ringo plays Atouk, a caveman “loser” who falls for the tribe’s alpha male’s missus. He also becomes a specialist in hallucinogenic berries and invents the fried egg (cooked “by geyser”) amidst clumsy, laughable “stop-motion” dinosaurs. Ringo turned up “merry” to the promotional interviews and limited his intervention to grunting. Film directed by the screenwriter of Jaws, no less.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Harry Harris, 1985)
We close our cycle on Ringo Starr by following the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Well, to be more precise, to the recreation of Wonderland that was knocked up in Pasadena (L.A.) for the filming of this CBS miniseries attributed to Harry Harris, who had directed several episodes of, wait for it, Bonanza, Kung Fu, Lost In Space and Falcon Crest. Considered a “camp” classic, in this version of Lewis Carroll’s tale the Mock Turtle is none other than Ringo Starr (no beard, see?). Perhaps the other members of the cast weren’t the best company to help him overcome his drinking habit (his own personal Jabberwocky) but they graced us with tender moments (which are pretty popular on YouTube) such as those portrayed by Telly Savallas (The Cheshire Cat) and Sammy Davis Jr. (The Caterpillar).