Bonar Colleano: From Sawdust to Smash-Up

In the international world of circus, our normal procedure of hyphenating identities can become an absurdity. Take for example Bonar Colleano (Bonar Sullivan, 1924-58) who was, technically, Irish-Australian-American-British, and not the slightest bit, as the name might imply, Italian. Older Brits know Colleano as a movie star of the postwar period, but as I don’t believe I’ve seen or heard of any of his three dozen films, my point of interest is his origins and his untimely demise.

Much like the famous movie stars of the Lupino family (the best known being Ida), Colleano was from a family of acrobats. His uncle, the most famous, was tightrope walker Con Colleano, first man to perform a somersault on a highwire, whom we wrote about here. The Colleanos were Irish-Australian and took the Italian name because that was common among acrobats at the time. Later they toured the U.S. with shows like the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, which is why Bonar was born in New York City. In 1934, when Bonar was 12 the family moved to London to take an engagement at the London Palladium, and so it was that he performed in music halls for years. When World War II broke out he served by entertaining troops with his family. In 1941 he appeared in the West End revue Piccadixie. He began appearing in films in 1945, and was frequently cast as American servicemen, since the accent came naturally to him.

In 1946 he married Austrian-born actress Tamara Lees. In 1949 he played Stanley Kowalski in the West End premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Laurence Olivier and co-starring Vivien Leigh, his most critically acclaimed role. In 1950 Colleano had an affair and fathered Robbie McIntosh out of wedlock (McIntosh was to become the drummer of the Average White Band). This naturally led to the end of Colleano’s marriage to Lees in 1951. Lees worked mostly in the Italian film industry, where she amassed 50 film credits, thereafter. In 1954 Colleano married actress Susan Shaw, with whom he fathered Mark Colleano, who also became an actor.

In 1958 Bonar was appearing in the West End production of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He was driving home from a performance one night with his friend the actor Michael Balfour, when he crashed his Jaguar, resulting in his own fatality. At the age of 34, he left the earth in a manner not dissimilar from James Dean or Ernie Kovacs. Given that he was born and raised in a family of daredevils, it’s not so surprising. Fortunately, Balfour survived the crash, to appear in bit roles in movies like Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Oblong Box (1968). Colleano’s widow descended into alcoholism in her grief and it effectively ended her film career,

To learn more about variety arts history, including British music hall and circus, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous