From the Archives: Behind the scenes with Tim Curry at 1974’s ‘Rocky Horror’ stage show
Before there was the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” film, there was the “Rocky Horror” London stage production that spawn such indie fanfare and cult-cred that eventually the lead actor, Tim Curry, would cross the pond all the way to Los Angeles to head up the American stage debut. Times writer Gregg Kilday was there in 1974 and interviewed the rising star during a “relatively undress rehearsal.” And the stories Curry shared, about glitter rock pageantry and the backstage reactions it sometimes inspired, were fantastic. This article was originally published on March 17, 1974.
His pants legs rolled up as if to impersonate a pair of pedal pushers circa 1955, muscular calves straining against black, fishnet, tottering dottily on towering silver-sparkled heels, Tim Curry weaves unerringly though the calculated confusion of a relatively undress rehearsal.
In his role as Frank N Furter, a batty mad scientist, half Auntie Mame, half Bela Lugosi, Curry pounces upon the two bewildered ingenues who have wandered onto the stage of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Clasping his hands with delight, he gives them the twice-over-lightly, spending rather more time on boy-Brad than girl-Janet, before exclaiming with theatrical abandon, “It’s not often we receive visitors here — let alone show them any hospitality!”
Whereupon — has Frank just uttered the magic word? — Rocky Horror himself, a sort of I-was-a-monster-teenager, jolts to life up in the rafters, the accompanying piano breaks into a ’50s rocker and the rehearsal moves into high gear.
For just a moment as Tim Curry changes into street clothes, exchanging his high heels for clogs, there remains the possibility that the flaming camp he displays onstage is not that much of an act.
“You know,” he advises the photographer who has just requested he smile, “a photographer in London once told me to say ‘Lesbian,’” and as he completes the sentence, he segues into a grin, a trick that apparently works only if your accent or your armature is of British manufacture.
But the grin quickly recedes into a far less disarming smile and by the time Curry finds himself seated in a booth at Musso & Frank’s, what outrageousness he brings to the performance has given way to the simple, amused bewilderment of a first-time visitor to Los Angeles.
“Poor Al Pacino got his,” he fatalistically notes, as he tells of watching the billboard outside his room in the Chateau Marmont while a weather ad for “Serpico” gave way to a gleaming advertisement for “The Great Gatsby,” a sobering reminder of just how fickle the American public can be.
A timely lesson, considering that by Thursday night when “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” officially opens at the Roxy Theater on Sunset for an open-ended run before moving on to Broadway, Curry will have an American audience of his own with which to contend.
The 27-year-old-actor admits that it was not without a few trepidations that he undertook the leading role in “The Rocky Horror Show” some months ago in London.
“But,” he quickly adds, “I just thought it was such a good part, people would know you were acting. I mean, obviously, if you brought it off, you brought it off as an actor and not as a rent-a-freak.
“And, in fact, I’ve done a lot of television as a result of ‘Rocky Horror.’ For the last four months, I’ve done television during the day. I just finished a BBC series on Napoleon in which I appear as Josephine’s son and get to age from 17 to 30” — a proper enough counterpart to the less easily described character Curry plays by night.
“He’s kind of an extremist, Frank,” Curry rather affectionately explains. “His life is devoted to… extremity.
“He wants to create the perfect man, though I suspect that’s only one of his obsessions. He does say that it’s his favorite obsession, so there must have been others that have been discarded along the way.
“He says he’s a transvestite transexual, whatever that means. I don’t play him as a transexual. But he’s a fairly complex guy. He just takes anything he can get. He’s not fussy, really. Though I think he’s something of a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.”
Frank’s proclivities aside, and despite its drag-rock-camp connotations, “The Rocky Horror Show” was voted best musical in 1973 by the London drama critics, a selection that either attests to English imperturbability or reflects “Rocky Horror’s” place in the tradition of Christmas pantomime and glitter rock.
As Curry explains, the show grew out of its author, Richard O’Brien’s, “obsession with naivete.”
“He’s always liked teenage culture, really. He sort of collects Marvel Comics. He likes plots and narratives — you know — honest entertainment.”
Staged by Jim Sharman, the show was originally booked for a four-week run upstairs at the Royal Court Theater.
Immediately attracting “a smart, hip audience,” the run sold out without a hitch, except for the final night, when, with such luminaries as Mick and Bianca Jagger and Elliott Gould waiting in the audience, it was necessary to cancel the show.
“Rocky couldn’t go on. You see, we use a lot of glitter in the show and Rocky wears more glitter than anyone else, really.
“— I don’t know if I should be telling you this,” Curry interrupts himself demurely.—
“Well, Rocky got some glitter down his trunks and it set up an irritation. When we arrived at the theater, he was standing in the shower and the show couldn’t go on.”
The irritation salved, the show did, however, move to King’s Road to an abandoned cinema, where it has been playing for some months now, spawning both an American and an Australian company.
For Curry, the son of a Methodist minister who began his study of the theater at the University of Birmingham, it is all one of those odd turns of fate in a career that he had originally expected would build quite slowly through a long apprenticeship with an English repertory company.
But, denied admission to the Birmingham Repertory Theater because he was not a member of Actors’ Equity, Curry was forced instead to strike out for London where, late in 1968, he joined the cast of “Hair.”
“I couldn’t make up my mind whether to be a singer or an actor,” he says. “Although in ‘Hair’ they never let me sing that much, because the score was fairly high and I didn’t have a high enough voice.
“I was offered things, recording contracts, offered to join groups. But as I thought about it, I got rather snippy. No, no, no, I decided, I want to be an actor.
“I treated ‘Hair’ like a drama school. You were always able to rewrite your part. You built up your physical presence. And because everyone was competing for attention, you learned quite quickly to make your presence felt.”
After 15 months with the show, Curry had graduated to the part of Woof, the boy whose hear belongs only to Jagger — “He was really the most sympathetic character, the nicest to play” — and he was ready to extricate himself from the tribe.
Fortuitously, he was offered a part, that of a hippie, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of David Mercer’s “After Taggerty.” Since the “Hair” actors often found themselves faced with such typecasting, Curry accepted the part but soon moved on to the Royal Court and, later, the Glasgow Civic Repertory, where he was allowed a greater variety of roles.
“None of it was planned, really. I just knew I had to take risks. Life is like acting in that way. You’ve got to take risks. If you take big risks, it’s then up to you whether or not you pull it off.”
“Eventually, I’d like to go back to where I left off. Back to the Royal Court or perhaps to the new National Theatre under Peter Hall.”
As Curry speaks, a huge burst of thunder shakes the restaurant, rattling the plates and bringing a halt to the conversation.
“Another omen?” Curry asks. “You know, when we first opened in the Royal Court it was on a night like this. Lots of thunder and lightning. It worked wonderfully for the play. Either the Lord was on our side” — and then the son of the Methodist minister pauses for just an instant — “or else he was terribly displeased.”
Let’s do the “Time Warp” again:
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