If you remember the 1970s British situation comedy “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em,” you might recall the accident-prone Frank Spencer. Spencer, in failing to navigate the simplest of life’s daily tasks, was last seen on 18 Mar. 2016 in a one off-special titled “Sport Relief Special.”
Fans of the long running British soap opera “Coronation Street” would have been correct if they had thought they had spied Crawford make a brief appearance as Rover’s Return patron in a 1998 televised episode.
While it was nice to see the return of the Spencer family for this one episode, I must admit I wanted more. Spencer was played by the multi-talented Michael Crawford, CBE.
Crawford, born in Sheerness, Kent, England on Monday, 19 Jan 1942, is an accomplished English actor, comedian and singer. Further to his film and television appearances, the Sheerness born actor is well-known for treading the boards as a thespian on both London’s West End and New York City’s Broadway theatre districts.
Raised by his mother, Doris Agnes Mary Pike, and her parents, Montague and Edith Pike (née O’Keefe), Crawford’s accomplishments cannot be understated.
Arthur Dumbell “Smudge” Smith was killed, aged 22, on Friday, 6 Sept. 1940 during the Battle of Britain, less than a year after he was married to Doris. Over a year later, Crawford was born, the result of a short-lived relationship. On his birth certificate, his name reflects that of his mother’s surname, the one she took when she married her first husband.
While the 1962 Philip Leacock directed period war drama “The War Lover” is one of Crawford’s earliest big screen productions, it was in the 1958 Cecil Musk directed family musical “Blow Your Own Trumpet” that Crawford made his film debut as musician Jim Fenn. In the same year, Crawford also appeared in the Darcy Conyers directed family dramedy “Soapbox Derby” as Peter Toms.
Both “Blow Your Own Trumpet” and “Soapbox Derby” were made in association with Britain’s Children’s Film Foundation.
As an aspiring thespian, Crawford made his first appearance on stage in a school production of Benjamin Britten’s “Let’s Make an Opera.” The production, also referenced as “The Little Sheep,” was specifically composed by Britten to introduce children to performing opera.
In the production Crawford was cast in, he portrayed the title role, Sammy the Little Sheep.
Not long after “Let’s Make an Opera” opened, the production was transferred to London’s Brixton Town Hall. With the larger audience capacity of the town hall, it was better suited to accommodate the number of people that had wanted to attend the performances.
Even though Crawford was unsuccessful in his audition for the role of Miles in Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” the composer was significantly impressed with the actor’s audition that, in 1955, the Sheerness born actor was cast in another production of “Let’s Make an Opera.”
Alternating with fellow thespian David Hemmings, who had previously been successful in being cast as Miles in “The Turn of the Screw,” Crawford could be seen at London’s Scala Theatre playing Sammy.
Continuing his association with Britten written productions, in 1958, Crawford was hired by the English Opera Group. He was tasked with creating the role of Jaffet for Britten’s opera, “Noye’s Fludde.” A one act opera, “Noye’s Fludde” premiered on Wednesday, 18 June 1958. The narrative of the opera is based on the biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood.
Prior to this point in his career, Crawford had been working under the name Michael Ingram. It was brought to Crawford’s attention, with the existing the television news anchor man Michael Ingrams, confusion might become a significant issue. With the newsman being registered with British Equity, and the similarity of the names, mix-ups between the two men would have been inevitable down the line. This is when Michael Ingram officially became Michael Crawford.
During the next few years, with a wide repertoire of performances including André Birabeau’s French comedy “Head of the Family,” Neil Simon’s “Come Blow Your Horn,” Francis Swann’s “Out of the Frying Pan,” William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “Coriolanus,” and “Twelfth Night,” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Crawford quickly established himself as being a proficiently talented stage performer.
While there is no doubt many people have heard of the Sydney Newman created action crime drama “The Avengers” featuring characters such as John Steed (Patrick Macnee), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), Catherine Gale (Honor Blackman) and Tara King (Linda Thorson), it is easily overlooked the 1960s show was a spin-off of the lesser known police drama “Police Surgeon.”
Unfortunately for anyone looking for experience this earlier Newman created television drama, the only episode that has survived to this day is the 1960 John Knight directed “Easy Money” where Crawford can be seen playing Jim Clark.
One of Crawford’s most unforgettable characters arrived on British television screens in the early 1970s when the actor donned the long grey coat of Frank Spencer for the situation comedy “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.” The character, quintessentially synonymous with Crawford, made the actor a household name.
Another production easily overlooked, featuring Crawford as wannabe superhero Woody Wilkins / Condorman in the title role, is the 1981 Charles Jarrott directed action adventure dramedy “Condorman.” As a nod to his “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” character, the poster advertising the 1981 film featured Crawford in his iconic long grey coat.
“Condorman,” revolved around eccentric American comic book writer and illustrator Woody Wilkins. In looking to assist a Russian woman defect from the then Cold War Soviet Union, CIA operative Harry Oslo (James Hampton) enlists the help of the comic book creator. Wilkins sees an opportunity to have his comic book creation transcend the pages of his publications and become something larger than life.
Even though the film had a poor reception at the American box office, with Crawford in the title role, the British cinema going audience flocked to see the actor take on a Stan Lee-esque character.
In the same year Crawford bore Condorman’s wings for Jarrott’s film, the thespian returned to the the theatre for Cy Coleman’s much acclaimed musical “Barnum.”
Cast in the original London production, Crawford took on the title role in Coleman’s musical, the illustriously famous American theatrical entrepreneur P. T. Barnum.
The original production, premiering in the British capital on Thursday, 11 June 1981, ran for no less than 655 performances.
Accompanying Crawford for this production was the English actress of film, television and theatre Deborah Grant. As well as being the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s favourite musical, “Barnum” was received positively within the live theatregoing community.
Further, with the casting of Crawford in the title role, there is an argument that can be made that the theatre community saw a significant swelling of audiences. This is of course in no small part due to the popularity of Crawford’s television character Frank Spencer.
Even though it was not surprising to see Crawford pick up an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical on the London stage, it is surprising this was his first one from this theatre related awards organisation.
Three years later, in 1984, a tour of “Barnum,” opening at Manchester’s Opera House, came to an end at the London West End theatre, the Victoria Palace. With a new cast of talented actors and singers, still spearheaded by Crawford, was seen in 1986 when the BBC produced a made-for-television film of the production. Relative to live theatre, it should be noted Crawford’s characterisation of the theatrical entrepreneur is the longest by a leading actor in stage history.
When speaking of Crawford, it would be remiss of any good entertainment journalist to not at least touch upon the role the actor has had with making composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work assessable to a wider audience.
If it were not for the chance meeting of Crawford and Webber at the final preview of the composer’s 1984 production “Starlight Express,” the “Barnum” actor might never have been considered for “The Phantom of the Opera.” Webber had apparently remembered Crawford from a performance of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon.”
Initially, with Webber’s preliminary approach to the creation of “The Phantom of the Opera” seemingly having a “rock opera”-esque vibe, Crawford was not attracted to the notion of appearing in the production. Webber had originally cast British rocker Steve Harley in the title role but after careful consideration, the composer abandoned this approach in favour of a more traditional operatic musical style Crawford was more comfortable with.
Various critics had expressed disbelief Webber would look to Crawford to headline “The Phanton of the Opera.” The musical, based on Gaston Leroux’s “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra,” was apparently considered to complex a narrative for someone of Crawford’s acting ability.
Any criticism of Webber’s casting choice was immediately admonished when on opening night in London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, Thursday, 9 Oct. 1986, Crawford begin his performance. Crawford was simply sublime in his execution of the role.
The way in which the actor gracefully articulated Charles Hart’s lyrics the Webber written song “The Music of the Night” put to bed forever any notion Crawford did not have the acting ability to take on such of magnificent character. The spectre of Frank Spencer would no longer haunt Crawford’s dramatic performances.
With critics aghast in wonderment of how they could have been so utterly wrong in their evaluation of Crawford’s acting ability, it should come as no huge surprise the actor earned his second Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Two years later, in 1988, the actor picked up the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Notwithstanding, any thoughts of more award accolades coming his way, in 1990, Crawford received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for “Distinguished Achievement in Theatre (Lead Performance).”
On Monday, 29 April 1991, after three and a half years and more than 1,300 spectacular performances, Crawford left the company. In acknowledgement of it being his final performance in the title role, during the Final Lair scene, Crawford adapted the Phantom’s line to “Christine… I love you…”
Liz Kirschner, hugely impressed with Crawford’s acting ability, convinced husband film producer David to seek out “The Phantom of the Opera” lead to voice Cornelius in his 1993 Charles Grosvenor directed animated adventure drama “Once Upon a Forest.”
The Faces of Michael Crawford
In addition to Crawford, other entertainment professionals born on this day include:
For a more comprehensive list of entertainment professionals born on the 19 January, click the provided link.