Guest Actor Biography
by Pete Stampede
John Bluthal was born in Poland in 1929, and raised in Australia, but is one of the unsung heroes of British comedy, ever-present in the 60s and happily still active today. Round-faced and friendly-looking, with a cascade of dark hair (grey now, but still intact) tightly kept in place, his start in life presumably resulted in his talent for mimicry; in his time, he's played just about every nationality, including his own—all three, to be precise!
After appearing with arch-goon Spike Milligan in the Australian version of Milligan's free-form stage play The Bed Sitting Room (and squeezing in a couple of radio shows with Milligan along the way), he came to Britain, initially for a few weeks, but in his own words, ended up staying for years. Through Milligan's contacts, he was soon working with major British TV comic talent of the time; he was a regular support in original Goon Michael Bentine's absurdist sketch show It's A Square World (BBC, 1960-64), also with Clive Dunn and Leon Thau, while guest appearances saw him rubbing shoulders with Sid James in Citizen James (BBC, 1960), Eric Sykes in Sykes, "Sykes and a Bath" and "Sykes and a Mission" (BBC, 1961), and most notably, Hancock (BBC, 1961), as one of several offscreen voices encountered by Hancock as "The Radio Ham". Bluthal also took part in the remake for record release of this episode, and "The Blood Donor" with Patrick Cargill; this record has been used so often, in clip shows and the like, that the popular misconception has come about that both episodes were in the radio version of Hancock's Half Hour, which by 1961 had actually finished. Bluthal was again heard but not seen in an episode of Hancock's next, disastrous series, Hancock, "The Early Call" (ATV, 1963), written by future Avengers scribes Terry Nation and Dennis Spooner.
He supplied the voice of the testy Commander Zero, among other charcter voices, in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Fireball XL5 (ATV/ITC, 1962-63); the Andersons often used Australian actors as voice artists, claiming they were better at doing American accents than the British. Staying with ITC, and moving into live action, he was in The Saint, "The Damsel in Distress" (ATV/ITC, 1964), and "The Happy Suicide" (1965), supposedly in New York, as a villainous talk-show host called Ziggy Zaglan, with Donald Sutherland as a red herring. He was an Italian in both The Baron, "The Long Long Day" (ATV/ITC, 1966) with Peter Arne, written by Brian Clemens under a pseudonym, and Man In A Suitcase, "Jigsaw Man" (ATV/ITC, 1967), a rare comedic episode of this good, but generally downbeat series.
Bluthal's film debut (with special billing on the opening titles, but misspelling his name!) was Dick Lester's The Mouse On The Moon (1963), as a daft scientist. A sequel to The Mouse That Roared, minus Peter Sellers and on a much reduced budget, it nonetheless demonstrated Lester's ability to create an odd but believable little world, for the duration of his film. It was Lester's last feature before his breakthrough with A Hard Day's Night (1964); Bluthal can be spotted in this, unbilled, as a would-be car thief during one of the (several) chase sequences scored to "Can't Buy Me Love". Always loyal to his supporting actors from early Goonish days, Lester used him again in The Knack (1965) as 'Angry Father', Help! (1965) as one of Leo McKern's politically incorrect Indian minions, and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966). In Carry On Spying (1964), Bluthal was a head waiter in a Vienna restaurant, who's actually a member of the dreaded enemy organisation S.T.E.N.C.H.; luckily for the free world, Kenneth Williams, Bernard Cribbins et al are on hand as agents of B.O.S.H. Later in the series, he was a Foreign Legion aide to an imported Phil Silvers in Follow That Camel (1967), and (unbilled) Sid James' tailor in Carry On Henry (1970, released 1971).
He was an M.I.5 man demonstrating killer gadgets, and a few scenes later, a casino doorman, in the multi-director, all-star, utterly dreadful (and worst of all, inspiration for Austin Powers) Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Roger Lewis' The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, one of the best biographies ever written IMHO, explains that originally, Sellers was to be the main star, and Joe McGrath, who had directed It's A Square World, was to be sole director; Bluthal told Lewis that at that stage, his character was meant to pop up in all sorts of odd places throughout the film. But Sellers' indulgent behaviour was already complicating the shoot, and culminated in an on-set punch-up with McGrath; after a stuntman separated them, Sellers announced he was going for a quick walk, left the set, and never came back. Shortly after, producer Charles Feldman dispensed with McGrath (and needless to say, Bluthal's role went the same way), and came up with the idea of different directors and stars, purely as a face-saving device. Just for the record, editor Russell Lloyd told Lewis that the director whose segment was most coherent was John Huston's, near the start of the finished effort, in which David Niven's Bentley looks familiar...
After Bluthal did an Armchair Theatre with Frank Finlay, "Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width" (ABC, 1967), in which they played, respectively, Manny Cohen and Patrick Kelly, two tailors sharing the running of a business and prone to stating their obvious differences, this became a sitcom the same year, with genuine Irishman Joe Lynch replacing Finlay. It ran well into the colour era, until 1971; unlike The Avengers, it was continued by Thames after ABC lost its franchise to broadcast in 1968. While obviously trading on the characters' nationalities for humour, it seems to have been less offensive than some shows in that line (it's never repeated). At a time when just about every British sitcom seemed to give rise to a film version, this followed suit (sorry!) in 1972, with Yootha Joyce added to the cast. None of those films from sitcoms made much of a showing overseas, but apparently this one did quite well in a limited showing in New York, where enough people could be expected to relate to the premise, after all.
Bluthal's most notable contribution to TV comedy, though, was supporting Spike Milligan in all of his legendary Q series. Always described as innovative, groundbreaking, or just plain demented, Milligan's free-form sketch show is always cited in the same breath as Monty Python; the Pythons made no secret of having been heavily influenced by it, to the extent of specifically engaging the first three Q's director Ian MacNaughton (a former actor who'd been in "The Master Minds") to direct the Flying Circus. (Indeed, one Q5 sketch from 1969, about Russian agents using jokes as weapons, was almost identical to the "Funniest Joke in the World" sketch from the first Python episode later the same year.) But, in terms of departing from the build-up/punchline format, subversion of audience expectation and occasional inaccessibility, Spike's show made Python look like I Love Lucy, and at times really was a genuine representation of a fragmented mind. The deliberately half-finished sets, and costumes with "Property BBC TV" tags showing, allied to Milligan's habit of often giggling on camera, imparted an air of pleasant amateurishness that made the anarchy seem more unrestrained than Python's. Of course, this was wholly Spike's show - the supporting players were sometimes required to move out of shot while repeatedly chanting "What are we going to do now?"—but Bluthal's impressions, particularly of the dreaded Hughie Green, were good.
The series began with Q5 (BBC, 1969); Spike's next series, Oh In Colour (BBC, 1970), a batch of four specials, Milligan In Autumn (BBC, 1972), Milligan In Winter (BBC, 72), Milligan In Spring (BBC, 1973) and Milligan In Summer (BBC, 1973), plus a Christmas special, The Last Turkey In The Shop Show (BBC, 1974, with Carol Cleveland), may not have had the Q prefix but were from the same mould. As were, most definitely, Q6 (BBC, 1975), Q7 (BBC, 1978), Q8 (BBC, 1979) and Q9 (BBC, 1980); when BBC chiefs, for some reason, wouldn't let Milligan call the next one Q10, he gave it the deliberately obscure title There's A Lot of It About (BBC, 1982). Bluthal was in all of these, and The Melting Pot (BBC, 1975), a reputedly dodgy series with Milligan browned up as an illegal immigrant, and Bluthal as an Orthodox Jew; the first episode of this was the only one ever to be broadcast. He was also a regular in Milligan's last radio series to date, The Milligan Papers (Radio 4, 1985) although, typically unpredictable, Milligan announced he was less than satisfied with it while it was still running.
Bluthal also had several roles, as did all the support cast, in one of Milligan's few solo film vehicles, The Great McGonagall (1974); based on the life of the world's worst poet, but directed, again, by Joe McGrath, it was a real stinker, despite Sellers as Queen Victoria. This was the lowest ebb of Sellers' film career (he was actually second-billed to Milligan in this); not surprisingly, the same year saw him swallowing his pride and resuscitating Inspector Clouseau, something he had previously sworn never to do (mind you, so had director Blake Edwards) for The Return Of The Pink Panther (1974). Bluthal was in this, too, in probably the funniest scene, near the start as a blind beggar with a "minkey", actually the lookout man for a gang of robbers, who keeps the demoted, on-the-beat Clouseau distracted: "You see, I am a musician, and the monkey is a businessman...". Although Bluthal was credited on Revenge Of The Pink Panther (1978), his scene as a cemetery guard at Clouseau's supposed funeral, accosted by the man himself disguised as a photographer, ended up being cut.
Bluthal's occasional returns to Australia included a stint on The Mavis Bramston Show (1964-68), best described as an Antipodean would-be That Was The Week That Was; it's best not to mention his linking role as a professor in Fantasm (1975), a collection of sex shorts with additional naughty bits filmed in the US, except that it's understandable why he was uncredited (and why director Richard Franklin, later to make Psycho II, used a pseudonym). Australia was also where he did his only other starring sitcom, Home Sweet Home (ABC*, 1980-82); despite the title, he played an Italian Catholic! Several episodes of the 1989 season of In Sickness And In Health (BBC) were made in Australia, re-uniting him with fellow "Two's a Crowd" guest Warren Mitchell; Bluthal played a rich Australian relative of Alf Garnett's landlady, and needless to say, Alf wastes no time in establishing the superiority of "yer actual Mother Country". 1983 saw Bluthal, uniquely, turning up in both Superman III (1983), one of several favourite comics reused by Lester, in a scene made in Britain but set in Italy; and The Return Of Captain Invincible (1983), a superhero spoof starring Alan Arkin and a villainous, singing Christopher Lee, in a scene set in the US but made in Australia. (Got that?)
His most visible recent role has been as a regular, one of the eccentric parishioners of Dawn French as The Vicar of Dibley (BBC, 1994- ), a series I find rather twee, but that has its fans. Several fantasy films include a silly kiddie effort, Leapin' Leprechauns (1996), chiefly notable as a rare post-Doctor Who role for Sylvester McCoy; Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997); and the altogether grungier Dark City (1998), the last two made in Britain. At around the same time as Channel 4's most recent re-run of "Two's a Crowd", it was particularly nice to see him in the second episode of Jonathan Creek, "Jack in the Box" (BBC, 1997), which could just be a latter-day Avengers: he played Jack Holiday, of the title, a bitter, forgotten comedian whose apparent suicide is linked to a bizarre transatlantic murder plot decades before.
He was in the cast of Diana Rigg's acclaimed performance of Mother Courage at the National Theatre in 1995. His most recent film, in Australia, is a Greek production whose title apparently translates (even its own website doesn't seem too sure!) as Beware Of Greeks Bearing Arms (2000); I'm prepared to bet this sees him adding Greek to his list of nationalities.
*ABC in this case is neither the American network nor the defunct British one, but the Australian Broadcasting Company.
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