"I was tired of doing well-thought-of cameos," Ian Holm says, explaining why he agreed to spend a year creating the role of British Intelligence agent Bernard Samson in the current PBS "Mystery!" miniseries "Game, Set and Match." "It's nice to do something arduous. Also, I thought I'd like to have a go in something as a gigantic lead."
Holm, 57, is probably best known in America as "Chariots of Fire" trainer Sam Massabini, a role for which he received an Oscar nomination. He was a member of the original "Alien" crew, and an office manager in "Brazil." Last fall, he played Gena Rowlands' priggish husband in Woody Allen's "Another Woman."
"I've never seen myself as a leading man, and I don't particularly want to be one," Holm says, sitting in his dressing room at Granada's studios in the Northern English city of Manchester. "I see myself maybe as a Paul Scofield.
"However, Bernard Samson is a good character. He's not benign like George Smiley of 'Smiley's People,' who disappears into the background. Bernard is quite recalcitrant and brutal in his statements. Len Deighton is very anti-Establishment."
"Game, Set and Match" is based on Deighton's popular spy trilogy: "Berlin Game," "Mexico Set" and "London Match." Adapted into a 13-hour series which airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on PBS, the complicated plot unfolds over a six-year period and takes the audience on a journey of treachery and deceit through Germany, Mexico, America and England.
"The series is very well researched, but I think Deighton is terribly locked into the 1960s," Holm says. "This is the 1980s."
True, but when Granada Television began putting the project together four years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policies were as yet unannounced. "Game, Set and Match" still seemed topical. Berlin, the setting for much of the series, had always been the focal point of the Cold War.
"Deighton writes about the bleak world of the betrayed and the betrayers," series producer Brian Armstrong observes. "But one thing struck me as unusual about his books. There's so much more to them than just the spying. His characters are curious, deep and interesting. They all have families and problems with the mortgage. They invite people round for dinner and then say to their wives, 'Sorry darling, I've got to go to Berlin to kill someone.' "
Armstrong insists that Holm was "a natural" for Samson even though he is almost 20 years older than the character as written. "We talked to other actors," he says, "but Ian is the one we felt secure with. We knew we'd have a performance with legs."
Holm grudgingly admits that, yes, perhaps Armstrong was correct in his assessment. "I think it's fair to say that Bernard Samson is as near as dammit to me," he says softly. "Our voices are exactly the same, and our characters are similar. There are no silly walks, no wigs, no fake noses. There is a discreet dye job to cover up my gray hairs and make me look younger, but it tends to come off in the rain."
The experience of basically playing himself has been a pleasant challenge. "I enjoy working toward the essence of doing nothing," he says. "All I have to do is think the right thoughts. I don't feel I'm playing a character."
For the record, Holm has been married several times and has five children. Born a doctor's son, he insists he was never good at academics and chose acting for lack of anything else. He spent 14 seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and worked his way up to such leading roles as Romeo, Henry V, Richard III, Ariel and Malvolio. In 1967, he won a Tony Award on Broadway for "The Homecoming."
However, in the mid-1970s his theatrical career came to a crashing halt when he developed a bad case of stage fright during a preview of "The Iceman Cometh."
"I ended up with this fear of a live audience," he remembers. "I did go back on the stage once after that. I now can't or won't do theater.
"Actors are always saying that the live audience is what's important. For many years I felt that way, but now I love film. To be able to do 13 hours of it in 'Game, Set and Match' is such joy."
Holm may have a chance to continue his espionage experience. Deighton is in the midst of writing another trilogy--"Hook, Line and Sinker"--about Bernard Samson. The first book, "Spy Hook," is already on the best-seller lists.