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Exclusive Memoir: “ZOMBIE”’s Ian McCulloch remembers co-star Richard Johnson

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FANGORIA is honored to be able to print this exclusive memoir penned by British actor Ian McCulloch about his late ZOMBIE co-star Richard Johnson. Have a read…

Richard Johnson sadly died recently after a short illness. He was 87.

I met him in 1962. I had just joined the Royal Shakespeare Company straight from university with no dramatic training. I was instructed to watch as many of the company shows as possible. When I saw him in “ The Devils”  I dropped my ambition to copy O’Toole or Finney and only wanted to emulate him on stage and off. He was simply magnificent.

He had everything. Face, physique, voice, intelligence, sensitivity, presence, wit and above all an abundance of talent. To me he made the so-called greats of his generation (and the present over-rated lot too) look like pygmies.

Nearly 20 years later we worked together in Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (aka ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS). In the intervening years he had married several times( including a brief marriage with Kim Novak with whom I believe he always remained on the best of terms),  made dozens of films, been CEO of a film production company with the above-named Finney, popped on and off the stage in one success after another and enjoyed a lifestyle that kept gossip columnists busy at their desks. He was seldom out of the papers as one romantic romp followed another.

ZOMBIE did not have the greatest of scripts but Richard manipulated it into being taken seriously giving every scene authority and colour. In the sequence where he was driving me in a Land Rover he extemporised in such a lyrical and poetic fashion that it reminded me of my days with the RSC.

When we arrived at Latina on location there were no caravans for the actors. It may seem ridiculous to be concerned about such minor things but I had learned that the top actors all had individual caravans and fought one another over their size and where they were placed on the set. Near the food wagon or as far away as possible from the loos.

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This was the first film where my own caravan had been included in my contract. I was disappointed but had no idea what to do about it. Richard quietly summoned the production manager and as I listened- and can remember all too clearly to this day- uttered five words in Italian. In English the seven word translation was “ no caravan-difficult to work tomorrow.”

The tanned production manager visibly whitened and a single smart caravan was waiting on set the next day. Although Tisa and I had also been guaranteed our own caravan Richard took sole possession and kept it until the day he left. I intended to take it over immediately but the same production manager had it removed the second Richard went. I tried Richard’s five words with no success and had to throw a very noisy, angry and demeaning wobbly ending with threatening to walk back to Rome there and then. Really silly of me as Rome was 50 miles away but the tantrum worked, the caravan returned later that night and although it was far too hot to occupy I stubbornly suffered the heat to try and make my point. I wished I had Richard’s authority.

During a break from filming my future wife came out to Rome and Richard could not have been kinder or more generous.

This side of his nature was all too apparent when the ZOMBIE gang – Richard, Al Cliver, Ottaviano del Aqua and myself- attended horror conventions in the States. He had time for everybody sometimes  a difficult thing to do. Courteous, funny, entertaining, willing to add that extra anecdote or joke and simply adored by his fans. Inside and outside the conventions the three of them behaved like naughty children and I remember an embarassing evening in Cleveland when we were nearly thrown out of a restaurant for loudly singing our national anthems.

It was all too apparent that though he enjoyed these conventions he could not wait to get back to Lynne his fourth wife whom he equally apparently adored and of whom he was immensely proud. As he was of his children.  He was full of tales of their adventures and travels together with their ethnic company “Its a green green world.”

I enclose a snap of Richard as I would like to remember him taken at Orlando two years ago. That same grin that captivated thousands on screen and stage was there the following day as he watched me join the huge, noisy and smelly queue for economy before he ambled into the first class lounge.

But then he was a first class person and to me a great actor and I shall miss him.

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