Michael Sheard is a veteran actor who has appeared in hundreds of films including Force 10 From Navarone (with Harrison Ford), Escape to Athena, two Indiana Jones films and of course The Empire Strikes Back. He’s also known in the UK as the bow tied teacher Mr. Bronson from the TV show Grange Hill. He’s had countless roles on all kinds of TV shows ranging from Dr. Who to The Avengers. He has four books under his belt and promises more to come. Above all, however, Michael is a gentleman and a fun person to talk to. He took a little time out to answer some questions about his life and career. (Original posting: January 1, 2004)
The name Sheard is actually your mother’s maiden name. Why did you adopt it?
Several reasons. There was a guy called Anthony Perkins around at the time and I wanted to be me! I really did think—and it’s been proven—that Sheard is more distinctive and memorable. My dad was very happy with my suggestion. I changed my name legally just before I married my wife (AKA “Dearly Beloved”) because it was too complicated having two names.
You served in the Royal Air Force as a young man. Did you see any action and did you do any acting during that time as well?
No, I was a very humble national service man and it was obligatory to do two years national service at that time. Had I taken the option to be deferred I’d never have done it. It was stopped a year after I started. So no action, just service at an airfield in North Devon. The RAF said I spoke well, so they made me a telephonist! No acting but, I did direct a couple of plays which was great fun.
Tell me about the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and why you decided to go there.
I was lucky with my school: great dramatic department and great girls too. Read my books! By the time I was ready to think about a career, I ‘d played lots of leading parts with the school players, Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Lear for two. There was no questioning I was going to be an actor. The only place to start was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on London’s Gower Street. I applied and was offered a place the following autumn, six months before I left school. I say this with modesty—a wee bit difficult for me—but I’ve not heard of a candidate being offered a place so far in advance. I did two pieces of Shakespeare at the audition and that was never heard of before. You normally have to do a modern piece and a classical piece as well, but I knew no better and I still got in.
What were your very first television appearances in the UK and the USA?
I think it was in a long ago TV series called Dixon of Dock Green where I was run over by a hit and run driver. Either that or it may have been a TV special with Shani Wallis, she who played Nancy in the movie Oliver. If it was the special, then I sang, along with others, “They Call the Wind Maria.” As for my USA debut, that’s not so easy to remember but I think the first time I was seen on American TV was in an early episode of Dr. Who. Later, I did several bits and bobs over the pond and I’m doing a movie there again shortly.
Many people in the USA are not aware of your vast range of work. They don’t know who Mr. Bronson is and have never seen an episode of Grange Hill, one of your most popular stints as an actor. Can you give your fans in the USA a little taste of the show and what you did on it?
“Now, pay attention!” Mr. Maurice Bronson was a fearsome deputy school headmaster. Well, he always wanted to be the headmaster but that was never to happen. The part was much better with him wanting it. It was an excellent series and should have made its way to America. Perhaps it will someday. I did the show for five series. It’s now thirteen years since I left and I’m still recognized on the street and asked to do “Skool Daze Discos.” Mr. Bronson is an institution and I loved playing him.
Are there any plans to release Grange Hill on DVD?
If not, there should be! Most everything else I’ve done is either out or coming out on DVD. I’m sure Grange Hill will follow.
You’ve been in many episodes of Dr. Who. Have you been contacted at all? Would you like to see a full-fledged feature film with a wide release?
Great! No, I have not been contacted yet. It’s too early, I suppose but keep an eye on my site for any details should they come to me and I’m involved somehow. I certainly would love to see a feature film made, particularly if I’m in it!
Who would you like to see as the new Dr. Who?
If not me? Oh yes, it has been suggested, but it’ll not happen this time as they need an international star’s name. I think a woman would be very interesting. Judi Dench perhaps?
Is there any one role you’ve turned down that you regret not taking?
I don’t often turn parts down. Well, perhaps now I do, but certainly not in the past. I did turn down the tiny part of Lenin in a play for the BBC, I think it was. The part was played by Patrick Stewart and look where he is today! Now, I know he was seen on Broadway in a play and that’s what got him the Star Trek role, but it makes a nice story. Actually, I’d not have enjoyed Pat’s part in Trek, I don’t think. Not enough variety.
When was the very first time you saw yourself up on a big screen in a theater with a crowd?
We’re talking of the great big silver screen, right? My first movie was with Rod Taylor and Christopher Plummer and it was called Nobody Runs Forever. I had but one line and I thought I was superb! The atmosphere at the opening, certainly as far as I was concerned, was electric.
There’s a wee bit confusion here! Apart from the odd wide shot, nothing of my parts in either Raiders or Last Crusade was cut. It’s simply that the weather got in the way on Raiders. The unit had to go filming in Tunisia and I had a TV series starting in Scotland. My part was cut in Raiders, but it was never actually filmed. Herr direktor said, “I’ll find you something else, Michael.” And he did, in Last Crusade as Hitler.
You’ve played Adolf Hitler so many times now, it must be old hat to you. Does playing that character ever get to you?
When I was first offered that part, I asked my Dearly Beloved—who happens to be of Jewish descent—if I should play him. She replied, “Don’t be a stupid idiot. You’re an actor – act!” Lock the atrocities in a metaphorical cupboard, then you have a fascinating madman to play. That’s my answer. Hitler was not a large part, but everyone remembers the scene and that is what’s important!
Have you been contacted at all about a fourth Indiana Jones film? It looks like it’s going to happen.
Not so far but if something does happen, I’ll be sure to let you know.
So now it’s the late 1970s and you’re contacted about a sequel to Star Wars. Had you seen Star Wars then and did you like it?
Yes, I’d taken my eldest son to see it and we both enjoyed it very much.
Were you interested in the role of Admiral Ozzel or was it just another paycheck?
It was just another part which happened to fit very nicely between two others. I am, and was then, a working actor. An actor who’s had some wonderful parts along the way. Mind you, Ozzel did have a rather good death! I’m delighted, too, at what Star Wars has done for me, convention-wise. Why, I finally have my own action figure coming out after all these years! You lot out there had better buy them like mad!
How long were you on the set of Empire?
Heavens, it was “a long time ago,” literally. I think I was associated with it, off and on, for about a month. That must be correct because that’s how much time I had between those two other jobs.
What did you do between setups and takes to keep the atmosphere light?
The atmosphere was great. We all knew each other and most of us hadn’t met for some time so there was lots to talk about.
How was Irvin Kershner?
Irvin directed my scenes—and damn good he was, too. He had the confidence to say that my death couldn’t be improved on after just one take! It was hard on the knees!
Did you and Dave Prowse ever have any off screen fun?
I have to say that I don’t recall any funny things. I remember Dave as being very professional—the other actors still had to react to his lines.
You have not been contacted by Lucasfilm at all regarding Episode III, correct?
No, I’ve never confirmed anything and have not been contacted. The producer, I’m told, was asked on TV if Ozzel would be returning and he said, “No comment.” That’s about all I know. Mind you, even if he did come back it wouldn’t be me playing him. I could play my father now!
What’s the best thing about being Admiral Ozzel?
Being invited all over the world to meet lovely folk. In case I’ve not made this clear, I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to play him.
What do you think of the Star Wars prequels?
Oh dear, I knew there’d be a question like this! Let me simply answer thus: they will never take the place of the originals. The first three were really unique. I wonder what people would think, however, if the prequels had actually been made first.
Your books are very successful. Are there any new books in the works?
I was asked to write what became Yes, Mr. Bronson and a best seller about ten years ago. It was a great success and I was asked to do another, Yes, Admiral. I very much enjoyed writing and it became a form of relaxation for me, so lo and behold, Yes, School’s Out followed. I like to think a new volume will be published every two years or so, depending on my availability. Therefore, Yes, It’s Photographic! has just been delivered to the publishers! Look for it in 2004.
You’ve been a regular on the convention circuit for years. How is that for you? Do you enjoy talking to the fans?
Simple answer to this one. If you don’t enjoy conventions, don’t do them. I very much enjoy them and it gives me an opportunity to say thank you to a representation of the lovely folk who’ve been kind enough to write to me over the years to say how much they’ve enjoyed my work. I hasten to add that the previous statement is not meant to be pompous. It’s a simple fact, I love cons and meeting my chums. I’ve got a convention list as long as six arms. There are three movies on the go (one is a fascinating piece about the making of The Quiet Man) and if First Frontier with my lovely pal Claudia Christian doesn’t finally see the light of day, I’ll want to know the reason why!
What are some common questions you get at conventions?
“How did you get the part of Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back?” is a common one. The simple answer is: I was asked and I said yes. I’m also asked things like, “What’s it like to be part of the best film ever made?” To that I can say I don’t really know! I feel sure that we’d all agree (even George Lucas himself) that fantastic though they may be, there are flaws, even in the first three. Although Empire, in which I gave the best screen death ever (not my words, others have been kind enough to state that), is George’s favorite, too—or so he’s told me in the past.
Tell me one behind-the-scenes funny story you have that no one knows about.
It was a very hot day, that particular day at the studios. I was on my way down the stairs from makeup and, staggering through the door all but collapsing on the bottom tread, was this guy in a bounty hunter’s costume. “Hey, Michael,” he said from under his helmet, “I’ve got to get to makeup. Give me a hand up these stairs.” I helped him stand up and removed his helmet. It was my dear old friend, who I lovingly refer to as my “father” Jeremy Bulloch—Boba Fett from the original trilogy. With a helmet like that, who needs makeup! That’s of course a filming memory, but it sort of connects to conventions, through “father” Jeremy. So here’s a convention memory—or rather a Mr. Bronson one. You must remember that all attendees at these gatherings have to be over eighteen. I was at the bar waiting to have my drink refreshed. This very buxom young lady came up beside me, opened her school girl shirt, plonked her massive boobs on the counter and said “Will you please sign these, Mr. Bronson?” Bums and boobs are the craziest things I’ve been asked to sign over the years.
This goes back to Grange Hill. Mr. Bronson was a dinosaur and when we were discussing what he would wear, I felt that he would always be smartly dressed and thought that a bow tie would finish off the ensemble. He wore a suit and bow tie throughout the series and it became his “uniform” at conventions. The pins I’m given all over the world and I change them as I move from convention to convention.
As far as performances go, what do you think are your best, most important, worst and funniest performances?
Well, as for best: All of them! But dear Mr. Bronson rises very near the top of the list. Most important: Ozzel, Hitler, and Mr. Bronson. Worst: Ok, just one! Allo, Allo. Read the books to find out more! Funniest: I’ve done lots of comedy shows, but I’ll settle for that scene in Last Crusade as Hitler.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given to you?
Turn up at the film studio early, say good morning to the second assistant director so that he knows you’re there, then go to your dressing room and stay there. That way they’ll probably forget you and you’ll do lots of extra days! Or perhaps this: You should only try to make it as an actor if you really need to be an actor.
Do you ever see yourself retiring?
Actors are like soldiers: they never die, they only fade away. I’m most certainly enjoying directing, writing, conventions, and being able to pick and choose what roles I take. But retire? Moi? Never.
I had the distinct pleasure of creating Michael Sheard’s website for a number of years. He was a lovely gentleman and a fun person to collaborate with. Sitting with him at conventions and watching fans interact with him was always a treat. He always had a joke or a quip for everyone. He will be missed.
* This interview has been edited from its original form to account for Michael’s death in 2005.
(Original posting: January 1, 2004)