CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
DENNIS GROSVENOR

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 6, September 1995.

Dennis Grosvenor has had an extensive career in television and theatre from 1968 through to the present. In Sydney recently TV Eye talked with Dennis about his lead roles in two major programs of the 70's: Sen. Det. Michael Deegan in Homicide and Jebbie Best in Chopper Squad.

 

What was your first television role?

My first TV appearance was in a show we had many years ago called The Unloved. It was a half-hour video show about juvenile delinquents, and I played an illiterate juvenile delinquent with Colin Croft playing my father. I did have a small job before that, but it didn't have any lines - I hadn't had much acting experience actually, and this agent that I fooled into taking me on rang me up one day and said "I have a job for you - you'll be playing a drug addict in an episode of Contrabandits". And I thought "Well, this is going to require some theatrical dexterity which I'm sure I don't have!" But when I turned up on the set I found the drug in question was opium, and I didn't have any lines. There were about six other actors playing opium addicts, and all we had to do was lay on beds and look stupid. And I took that as the criteria for the rest of my career, I just hung around and looked stupid!

Did you do much television work before Homicide?

I did a few things actually - I was in the episode of Homicide that Les Dayman was written out of (ep. 161 'The Pay Off'), and I did a few Matlocks and Division 4. I only did one other episode of Homicide before I went in as a cop - I was playing a baddie, I was always playing a baddie or a juvenile delinquent, which basically everybody did. I must have done about three Matlocks, and probably the same amount of Division 4. I worked in the original series of Boney which we made here in New South Wales, and I was a guest artist in Shannons Mob, I can't remember if that was before or after Homicide. I also did a lot of stuff for the ABC, things like Behind The Legend and the Norman Lindsay Festival.

During research of the various programmes, we found your name didn't appear much before Homicide.

No, that is not unusual - I wouldn't be surprised if I had a starring role in something - it quite often happens to me. I've done a couple of things where I've been the lead, but when it comes on television they omit one name and it's always mine, or they put me at the bottom of the credits and the bit part players at the top. I did an episode of G.P. recently, and usually they have a couple of guest stars in the show, but in this particular one it was only me. So I had to carry the load that is usually spread over two or three actors on my own, but when they advertised the ep on television they omitted my name. Each time they show the promo for the episode they usually say "guest starring so and so", and any Joe Bloggs usually gets a mention, but here I am working my butt off and no credit. It always happens to me, it's the story of my life, so I'm not surprised there are no credits anywhere.

Homicide was your first regular role - how did you get the part?

I think it was largely to do with Loretta Crawford, Henry Crawford's wife, who was doing casting at the time. For some reason she saw an episode of Division 4 or something that I had done, and she liked it. I was called down initially for a screen test for, I think it must have been The Box, and I gave a lousy screen test - which quite frankly I usually do, I'm appalling at these things - so I didn't get the part. But Loretta didn't give up hope on me, and when the Homicide part came along she called me down for that. I went down with another actor who has since become a close friend of mine, John Clayton, who is now in Police Rescue. The two of us went down together, and the air conditioning in the aircraft affected my throat and lowered my vocal range, which worked in my favour. I was also rather tired at the time I got to do the screen test, so I wasn't nervous. Therefore it appeared that I had a rather becoming lower register vocal range, and seemed confident. I think the screen test was opposite Bud Tingwell, and I remember Bud saying at one time that probably one of the most important attributes an actor can have is confidence. So I seemed to have a lot of confidence simply because I was tired, and I got the job!

When you joined Homicide as a regular did you notice any major changes from your earlier guest appearances?

I was aware of the difference because I had seen the episodes and the changes on television. It was terrific that it was not only all colour but also all film, and I do think the standard of film acting and film technique had risen dramatically by that time. I honestly believe that Bud Tingwell had a lot to do with that. I think that Bud brought back to Australia with him a lot of technique and a lot of experience that the rest of us took from him with positive effect. The show as a whole was very slick and polished, and I'm not taking away from those who wrote, directed and produced the thing, or from the other performers, but I really do think that Bud Tingwell had a lot to do with many of us learning a lot about film technique. I certainly did.

You were the last regular cast member to join Homicide. Did you have any inclination then that it would be cancelled after a year or so?

No, I didn't. I assumed it would be running forever, but then I didn't go down there thinking I would be in it forever. In my immaturity at the time - and I don't mind saying this because it has taken me many years to grow to adulthood, and I've really only left my adolescence now - but in my immaturity I was always discontent, which in retrospect was wrong, but I was, and I was always looking for something else, wanting to go somewhere else. It wasn't long before I felt frustrated. I felt there was not enough demands upon what I thought I could do and give to the show, instead of accepting the formula and the way that it was, and simply sitting back and continuing to learn and enjoy the experience of being fully employed in what was quite a high quality show. But I would say that without any word of a doubt that my immaturity was a stumbling block for me and it was unfortunate.

So if Homicide kept going you wouldn't have stayed with it?

No, probably not. I still recall quite vividly the day the producer told us it was closing and I would be out of work, and I didn't mind at all. Not because I didn't like the show, just because I was restless, and I had a lot of energy that I wanted to try out in other avenues.

Is there any Homicide episode that stands out in your mind, perhaps as a favourite?

I suppose obviously 'The Fireworks Man', which is the first one I did, and there was another one called 'The Last Season', about a murder amongst a group of shearers in the country, and I thought that turned out rather well. There are a number of them, but those two stick in my mind.

What about the movie 'Stopover'?

I didn't do much in 'Stopover' actually, I was only in the background in that. Which I suppose was one of the causes of my irritation a lot of the time, and Gary Day has probably said this to you too. Gary describes it as 'taking sandshoes to forensic', well that's his line not mine, but we did spend a lot of time in the background.

'Stopover' was a weird episode of Homicide.

Igor Auzins directed that, didn't he? Igor used to do the weird ones. If they weren't weird Igor would make them that way!

Do any other anecdotes come to mind?

An interesting thing about the opening sequence in Homicide, where I kick the bag, is that I broke my toe doing that. I had a hangover - that's the sort of stupid thing you would do in those days, you would stay up until the early hours of the morning knowing you have a 7 o'clock call, and you would go to work! It was a stupid thing to do - here I am about to do an opening sequence to be shown every week, so what do I do? Bright boy goes out the night before and has a curry with friends and too much wine to drink, and gets into bed at 3 o'clock in the morning! Then I had to be on set at 7 o'clock to shoot that, and consequently I broke my toe - it served me right! You can see the pain on my face - we did that over and over again, that kicking of the bag, and I was in agony - not only was my head aching, but so was my toe!

Did you go straight from Homicide to Chopper Squad?

I went almost straight to the pilot episode. I did a play after I came back to Sydney, and then within a month or so they asked me to do the Chopper Squad pilot, and that was supposed to go ahead in that same year, which was 1976. After the pilot was shown and had a reasonable sort of response, I was waiting to get word to start the series. When it came I remember I went up the road with my wife and bought a bottle of wine to have with a meal at home, and I slipped on the way back and smashed the wine bottle, and I assumed that was an omen. And it was, because the following day I got a call from the producers to say that they had postponed the show for at least a year. So in between making the pilot episode and the series I sort of hung around only doing little bits and pieces, and because the pilot had been shown on television I think people assumed I was fully employed, and I didn't get offered any work. I had virtually nothing to do for a year, then they started the series.

Were there many changes between the pilot and the series?

Yes. Some of the cast who did the pilot didn't do the series. The producers had changed too - it was going to be Roger Mirams and Channel Ten, but by the time we did the series Reg Grundy had taken it over.

Do you know why that happened?

I have my suspicions, but they're highly political and I wouldn't want to put them into print.

Were the production standards at Grundy's much different than Crawford's?

No, it was all film and it was a pretty good crew of people, although I do think the pilot episode was pretty rough and ready, but it was a pretty good professional crew once we started the show.

What did you think of the scripts?

Oh, I never used to think about them, I just used to do it. Quite frankly, you cannot sit back and make literary critical judgements of the majority of stuff you do, because if you had half a brain and you didn't have to make a living, you wouldn't do it, because you wouldn't want that to be your epitaph. Some of the rubbish you end up doing, and I'm not necessarily putting Chopper Squad into this category, will haunt you, and people tend to remember that. If something is on at 2 o'clock in the morning, some friend or associate or someone who knows you vaguely always sees it, and it usually is the worst thing you've done. But the decent stuff nobody ever sees, and they'll never remember you for it. Most actors can't sit back and make quality critical judgement on what they've been offered to do, and if they think they can they're kidding themselves. Some can, but they're very, very few.

General consensus of Chopper Squad seems to be that the show was very good technically, but was let down by the scripts.

In fairness, Baywatch is obviously a steal from Chopper Squad. I don't know if Baywatch is made by Paramount Pictures, who distributed Chopper Squad overseas, but somebody saw it, there's no doubt about that, and they obviously thought this would be a great idea for Malibu. Looking at some episodes of Baywatch you can think that you're looking at an updated, classy version of Chopper Squad. There are situations in Baywatch, which is being made many years after Chopper Squad, that are absolutely ludicrous, and make Chopper Squad look like Elizabethan drama in comparison. So I don't care that much if people say Chopper Squad was corny. You've got to remember that this was 1977, and it wasn't made for arts graduates or people with degrees in English Literature, it was made for kids and young teenagers. And in comparison to something like Baywatch, which has millions of dollars spent on it and is being made currently, it doesn't stand up too bad at all.

The stunt work in Chopper Squad is particularly impressive.

Eric Oldfield and I took a lot of pride in doing those stunts ourselves, although there were obviously areas where they wouldn't let us do stunts. There was one scene where I had to crawl out of the helicopter and hang from the framework underneath, which I'd done a number of times in various situations, but in this particular scene it called for me to then drop down onto the deck of a moving motor boat. I wanted to do this, and fought to do it, but they wouldn't let me and I became fairly angry about it. Grant Page, the stuntman, ended up doing it, but when he did he broke his ankle. So it was right that I didn't do that. There were actually a number of injuries on Chopper Squad.

Why were you so keen to do your own stunts? Most actors would be quite happy for someone else to do the dangerous work.

Well, that also has to do with youth and immaturity, everybody wants to prove something, and I always had more energy than was good for me. And you took pride in the fact, although you got no more money for it. In retrospect it was stupid that we did that.

When you were doing the first series was there any intention to proceed with a second series?

Look, I tell you with this series you didn't know what you were doing from one week to the next. When we finished the second series nobody bothered to tell us not to come back for a third, they just assumed we'd all drift away, nobody officially said "that's the end of the show", that's the way we were treated. There was quite a lapse of time between the first and second series too. Unlike Homicide where you film throughout the whole year, we just filmed 13 episodes and then they sent us away, like they do in the States I suppose, and then we came back six or seven months later and started the second series. The fact is the television channel hadn't got behind the series ever, I think it was on for about six weeks when they first released it then they pulled it off, then they chopped and changed it around. It rated well and became popular in all its repeats. I discovered years later that somewhere like Adelaide repeated it 8 times. I went over there to do a stage show and kids who were not born when we made Chopper Squad were waving to me in the streets saying "Chopper Squad!, Chopper Squad!". I've lost count of how many times it has been repeated in Britain, but by the time it was shown there we had all dispersed, and nobody got the chance to do a 'Kylie Minogue'!

Looking back, do you have any preference for Chopper Squad or Homicide?

Not really, I like them both for different reasons. Taking away the fact that there was no great artistic satisfaction in Chopper Squad, it was nevertheless a very enjoyable, albeit dangerous show to do. There were times when we did stuff in winter and you would be frozen stiff, but also you did stuff in more reasonable weather. A lot of time was spent in pleasant locations, and for someone with an excessive amount of energy it was good to let it out in speedboats and jumping out of helicopters, pretending to be a hero.

It's surprising that some filming took place in winter.

Yeah, we did run into winter. The second series I think we started in August, which is a freezing cold time of year, and the first day's work was in the water. Another episode, I can't recall if it was the first series or the second, we finished in the middle of June. Guest artists - poor old guest artists always had parts where they had to be rescued from the surf or something, and sometimes in freezing cold water, and you'd see them up there waiting for their turn to come and be 'rescued', and you could see them thinking "Why did I take this bloody job!"

So you would have been wearing T-shirts pretending it was summer?

Exactly - pretending it wasn't happening. Physically it was a very demanding show.

You wouldn't have had that problem with Homicide.

Not as such, but sometimes we had water sequences in that too. I remember a sequence in Port Phillip Bay in the middle of winter where Gary and I had to jump in the water. An episode of Matlock I did years ago we started on a quite warm sunny day, although it was wintertime, so I just threw on a short sleeved shirt for the sequence. But the following day it was snowing, and for continuity that's how I had to dress for the rest of the episode.

Were there ever any encounters with sharks on Chopper Squad?

Oh yeah, we did see sharks from time to time, I remember one day there was a whole school of hammerhead sharks swimming off Palm Beach just beyond the break. After lunch we were out there doing part of a sequence. It's only a matter of luck that nothing happened.

A good friend of mine, Maggie Blinco, came up and did an episode which called for her to fall off a yacht, and then I had to get her back to land (ep. 4 'A Dream Before Dying'). We were quite a long way out at sea, and I said to Maggie 'Are you sure you don't want a stunt person to do this?', and she said 'Oh no, I don't mind doing it'. So the time to film the sequence came, and Maggie went over the back of the boat into the water, and I dived over and swam to her, and by this time the yacht disappeared and the camera boat and everything was gone, and we were out in the middle of the ocean by ourselves.

As I was talking to her I saw this long black shape in the water, about six foot long and a couple of feet below us, gliding around. I thought "Damn! a bloody shark! I better not tell Maggie because she'll panic", and then the helicopter came and hovered over the top of us sounding the siren! I thought "Bugger it! The helicopter has seen the shark and is sounding the siren to warn us". Then the damn thing flew away and left us there! By this time I was starting to get really worried, and Maggie started to get a look of concern and said "When is that pick up boat coming to get us?" I said "It will be here soon, don't worry!"

Anyway, we were out there for some time, and this shape kept moving and hovering around here and there, and then finally the pick up boat came along. I quickly got Maggie and pushed her up over the back into the boat, then climbed in myself ripping my feet out of the water, and as I did this big smiling Maori face broke from the surface of the water. It was a stuntman we had, Rangi Nicholls, in a black wetsuit! And I said "Bloody hell! Was that you down there?" and he said "Yeah mate! I knew you'd think it was a shark, and I was going to pull your leg, but I thought I'd better not!" As it turned out Maggie had known about it all the time, and she didn't tell me because she didn't want to worry me!

They usually sent a stuntman down in scuba gear, usually Rangi, to look out for sharks when we were doing water sequences. And what he used to carry was a Bowie knife! What the hell good was that going to do against a bloody shark?! We bumped into a couple of fishermen one day after we'd been filming just off Palm Beach and they said "You're a bunch of fools jumping in and out of the water here - we call this shark alley!"

So if Chopper Squad continued you would have been happy doing it?

I would have stuck with it if it had gone on, yeah.

I confess to a self-deprecating irony in my statement about simply hanging around and looking stupid. Mistakes excepted, I've always worked very conscientiously in all I've tackled as an actor. Now I'm moving in other directions and that part of my life is effectively over, in retrospect I would say I've made some silly moves and done some silly things. I've also done some very good things; unfortunately, the good tended to pass entirely unnoticed. Ned Kelly's final words come to mind: "Such is life".