On the Mischief-Making Hugh Griffith

I am a huge fan of the antic Welsh character actor Hugh Griffith (1912-1980). My favorite performance of his, and the one that first made me take notice, was his kinetic loose-cannon turn as Squire Weston in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), which is kind of at the storm center of all the sorts of movies Griffith was associated with 1) zany 60s comedies; 2) period pieces; 3) adaptations of literature. With his toucan beak of a nose and his bulging eyes (which were either differently sized or cock-eyed, I can never quite tell), he was an animated cartoon of a man, but he had classical chops and had played great Shakespearean roles like Falstaff, Prospero and Lear onstage. Boy, would I like to have seen those performances. Griffith’s older sister Elen Rogers Jones (1908-1999) was also an actress.

Griffith was a late bloomer. Originally a bank teller, he was nearly 30 when he was accepted to RADA, but had put that dream on hold to serve in World War Two (he served six years, with tours in India and Burma). A supporting role in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) with Alec Guinness would point the way to the kind of madcap vehicles he would be known for a decade and more later. Meantime he appeared as the title character in Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera (1952) with Laurence Olivier, Lucky Jim (1957) with Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael, and the Broadway adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel (1959), for which he was nominated for a Tony. In in 1959 he won an Oscar for his role as Sheik Ilderim in the remake of Ben-Hur. (Though there is no more Welsh a name than Hugh Griffith, the actor was frequently cast as Arabs and Jews. The following year, for example, he was Exodus). But he also rocked a convincing tri-corner cap and similar period garb, and thus Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Tom Jones (1963), The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Oliver! (1968), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Wuthering Heights (1970), The Canterbury Tales (1972), Luther (1974), Casanova & Co. (1977), Joseph Andrews (1977), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) with kindred spirits Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Wacky and strange comedies with more contemporary settings included How to Steal a Million (1966), Oh Dad Poor Dad Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1967), and Grand Slam (1978). There was also a late career stretch of horror films for Griffith: Cry of the Banshee (1970), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), and Legend of the Werewolf (1975). His last film A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (1979) was also one of the last for David Niven.

Much like fellow Welshmen (and pals) Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas, Griffith had a problem with the drink, and was reportedly plastered during the shooting of Tom Jones, which isn’t the slightest bit surprising to anyone who has ever seen it. He was known for carousing and cavorting during his shoots. The most famous occasion was an incident when he ran around the halls of the George V Hotel naked during the making of the film How to Steal a Million, with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging over his schlong, with the word “not” crossed out. Griffith was not yet 68 when he passed in 1980.