I’d just like to riff off the post Mark put up this week on Chris Malcolm. On Sunday afternoon, I got the word of his passing from Boston Star Wars collector Frank Rich. I immediately contacted my lifelong friends from The Rocky Horror Show in London and asked my daughter Emily to tweet our condolences. I had worked with Chris on Rocky in the mid-70s several years before we found ourselves on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back in 1979.
Well-built and well over six feet, Chris was a ruggedly good-looking Canadian, actually a Scot, who was a mainstay of our North American acting community in 1970s London. On Empire, we had a handful of North American (that is, Canadian and American) actors. While Chris had garnered his acting chops earlier in the mid-60s at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1979 he was known for his performance in Rocky, a recognition that probably will endure through the ages, along with his galactic fame as my Echo Base colleague Zev. As most should know, Chris created the matinee-idol role of Brad Majors in Richard O’Brien’s cult classic—easily the defining musical theatre event of the decade and an important 20th century milestone in English-speaking culture.
A lot of Rocky talent were actors who had appeared several years earlier in the West End production of Hair, another musical theatre milestone, but of an earlier time. Rocky itself originated in the Royal Court Theatre on Sloane Square, home to George Bernard Shaw and, in the fifties, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men whose kitchen sink dramas revolutionised British theatre.
Although a sixties person myself, I’d argue that The Rocky Horror Show will prove more of culturally significant milestone than Hair. It was an ongoing theatrical event through the seventies that has since shaped both music and fashion to this day. Whereas Hair was a derivative theatrical expression of the hippie movement with all of its sixties-era music and fashion, Rocky predated punk and actually drove the direction style would take in the seventies and the decades that followed. To make the point, Rocky inspired Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood who brought us the Sex Pistols and punk. The Rocky wardrobe mistress, Yasmine Pettigrew, actually would find replacement costumes at their “Sex” boutique, just down the King’s Road, and I think Vivienne was temporarily credited at some later point in the run for costumes. Though certainly not a punk himself, Chris was very much a part of the Rocky phenomenon and was key to keeping the stage show’s legacy alive into this century as a co-producer of U.K. and world tours and the revivals in New York in 2000.
Rocky originally ran at the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court in 1973. The show subsequently relocated down the King’s Road in Chelsea to an empty cinema, the Chelsea Classic and finally to another, the Chelsea Essoldo at the corner of Old Church Street. Revamped by the Royal Court-originated stage lighting and sound company, White Light Electrics (for whom I worked at the time), into The King’s Road Theatre, Rocky ran at this venue (now the Cineworld Cinemas) for the rest of the decade and served as one of London’s happening spots.
I joined Rocky in April 1974, just after Chris left along with Tim Curry and the other members of the original cast. The only original cast member who then remained was Little Nell as Columbia. By day, she was shooting the film version. Rocky was and remains a great family, like Star Wars. In the seventies, it had tens of thousands of loyal fans. Now, they number in the millions. In the mid-70s, fans would dress up and return again and again to The King’s Road Theatre. Audiences would include celebs that ranged from Robert Morley to Keith Moon, whom I remember one particular night holding up the lobby bar as if he were just one of the lads.
During this time, Chris Malcolm would return to play Brad when available, as did other original cast members, notably Richard O’Brien himself as Riff Raff and Patricia Quinn as Magenta. Sometimes it would be for an odd night. Sometimes it would be for weeks or months until the producers, Michael White and his assistant Robert Fox, could do the permanent cast changes. It was very much a free-form scene.
As for Star Wars, Chris was absolutely right in noting to Mark the problems we had on Empire filming the snow-speeder interiors in action in front of the blue matte screen. It did indeed take days and days—four weeks to be exact. Chris would frequently join Mark Hamill, Dave Prowse and myself for lunch as we’d chew over our show-biz war stories. But between the two of us, our conversations would always return to Rocky and who was now doing what.
When I last saw Chris at Celebration VI in Orlando, I was wearing my black White Light polo shirt with the “WL Electrics” logo which he recognized. Warm smiles exchanged over great days past. Throughout the convention, I was careful to direct fans his way for a two-fer. See, with Chris Malcolm, you were getting to experience a piece of two epic entertainment histories: Star Wars and The Rocky Horror Show. And Chris Malcolm was a larger-than-life “science fiction, double feature” star in both worlds. So, Brad, Zev, until we see each again on the other side…
May the Force be with You.