When the young Frank Grimes proudly announced to his family that he had won a scholarship to take up a career in acting, his father scoffed at the idea. But, as Ciara Dwyer discovered, it was a decision that would take the actor out of Cabra and on to the very top of his profession.
ON A gloriously sunny Sunday morning, Frank Grimes paces up and down outside London’s National Portrait Gallery. It is an apt meeting place, considering he has spent a lifetime portraying other people. I spot the Dublin-born actor in the distance, a white-haired man with an energetic walk.
STAGE STRUCK: Cabra man Frank Grimes, who is in the middle of writing his autobiography, has appeared with many of the acting greats since his Abbey days but has never lost touch with his roots
Minutes later, we are ensconced in a cosy ltalian cafe. I sip a cappuccino and settle into my chair as he begins to tell me his life story. Unmistakably an actor, his resonant voice resounds around the room. He doesn’t so much tell a story, as act it out, doing all the accents and faces. It is wonderful stuff, for here is an actor who doesn’t save all his seed for the stage.
Grimes is in the middle of writing his autobiography, so he has spent a lot of time looking back on his life and marvelling at the journey he has made. Boy, has he lived.
Born in Cabra, the young Frank was inspired by a teacher who loved Shakespeare. Later he became smitten by the brazen attitude of The Beatles whom he saw in the Adelphi. (John Lennon told the audience to shut the f **k up.)
Frank went on to train at the Abbey School of Acting. Having sat in the gods of the old Abbey Theatre at the Queen’s, he was mesmerised by the theatre world, loving everything about it, even the smell of the place.
He hounded them for an audition. On the day director Frank Dermody gave him an acting scholarship for the Abbey he went home to his father, chuffed with the achievement.
“He was sitting at the table, eating his dinner. I said, ‘Da, I won a scholarship to the Abbey School of Acting, I’m going to be an actor’.”
His father, Joe, didn’t share his enthusiasm. He put down his knife and fork, looked at his son in disdain and spat out the words — “Actors? Queers and whoremasters.”
Frank laughs at the memory. His father’s disapproval did not last long. A few years later, Joe went to see him in an Ibsen play in the West End and afterwards witnessed some women flocking for his famous son’s autograph. After Frank had signed his name, Joe took it upon himself to do the same.
“I’m his father,” said the Dublin train driver, proud as punch.
“ Whenever I see myself on screen now, it’s like seeing my father. It’s uncanny.”
Frank grew up in Annamoe Terrace, Cabra, the youngest of seven children.
“ I was a child of exhausted loins,” he says, referring to his late father Joe who was a bit of a performer, often singing in pubs.
But it was Dermody who saw the spark of acting talent in the young cub from Cabra. Apart from some Shakespearean monologues he had learnt at school, Frank had no audition piece and had never been on a stage before.
“ Dermody was a little man, about five foot one. He had an undershot jaw which gave him a look of real fierceness. He was bald-headed and kind of crazy, but after I did my bit of Shakespeare, he said, ‘Yes, yes, you’re an actor’.”
Were it not for Dermody’s belief in him, Frank knows he might have ended up working as an electrician in Dublin. He had left school early and worked as a messenger boy. But once he saw the acting gods on stage at the Queen’s, great talents such as Philip O’Flynn and Harry Brogan, everything changed.
He had a goal and a dream to chase. Add to that the presence of young screen heroes of the time, such as Marlon Brando, an idol with intense passion, and what young man wouldn’t want to be an actor. Frank followed his dream and as he says, worked his ass off. The first part he ever played on stage was a eunuch. Luckily, the roles improved.
His career soared. He has acted in iconic films such as Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far with Dirk Bogarde and worked with giants such as Ralph Richardson and Bette Davis and legendary director Lindsay Anderson. (While working on Anderson’s The Whales of August, a ravaged Davis showed him a photo of herself in a swimsuit in her prime — “Take a look at that,” she told him in that husky voice of hers, which he takes off.)
The delightful thing about Grimes is that he has stayed grounded. The more he talks to me, the stronger his Dublin accent becomes.
He refers to his father as ‘me Da’, and tells how he would relish the chance to act in the theatre in his beloved Dublin again; in particular he’d kill to do Captain Boyle. He may have left Dublin, but it has never left him.
Most Irish people know Frank Grimes from two of his early roles. He was the young Behan in the original production of Borstal Boy, which was directed by Tomas MacAnna. It went on to Broadway and won a Tony award. (Frank was nominated for one too.) Then in the late Seventies, he played the role of Fr O’Connor in Strumpet City, the young do-gooder priest who hardened and sacked the homeless Rashers Tierney. Recently, he was Barry Connor in Coronation Street and on August 13 he will be back on our television screens, on the BBC, in Doctors, playing, as he says, “a grizzled misanthrope”.
Frank has lived in London for many years but his Dublin accent is still strong. Some people warned him that he would end up just playing Paddy parts. He proved them wrong, especially as his role in A Bridge Too Far was the British intelligence officer. He describes a lot of his roles as “sensitive young men who cracked under the strain”.
But it was Borstal Boy which catapulted him to the big time. As a young man on Broadway, he was the toast of the town. Having played the part in Dublin, he got a fan letter from Katharine Hepburn, who was filming A Lion in Winter at Ardmore Studios.
He tells me that the role suited him. Here he was this workingclass lad from Cabra playing this working-class character on stage. As a young lad with a love of Shakespeare, he had had difficulty fitting in.
Naturally he was ostracised and went through some unpleasant rites of passage with gangs. This was perfect experience for his role and helped him excel at it. New York was a different world to this callow youth from Cabra.
“I remember Times Square was full of whores. There were so many of them, it looked like they were queueing for a bus.”
Everybody went to see Borstal Boy, including the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who seemed to take a shine to the Irish actor. He invited Frank to see him in Giselle at the Metropolitan Opera. By that time, Frank was married to Michelle Lohan, an Irish actress. ( They had two sons.) They had never been to the Metropolitan before and were thrilled to be going as Nureyev’s guests.
“Michelle got her hair done and I got my boots polished. We were brought into the centre of the Met and people in the stalls were turning around and looking up in our direction. Michelle and I noticed this. I’d got a lot of publicity from Borstal Boy and I’d been on The Merv Griffin Show. I was thinking, you’ve come a long way from Cabra.
“Margot Fonteyn was wonderful. But there was a woman to my right with a little boy on her lap and she was telling him the story of the ballet. It was annoying me and eventually I turned to her and said, ‘Excuse me missus, do you mind’. It was only then that I could see this was Jacqueline Kennedy. Jaysus. And I thought they were all looking up at me. That put me in my place. She smiled and shut up.”
This tale is typical of Grimes: endearingly honest. When he looks back on his life, he is frank about it all, even his failings. He confesses to having had a chip on his shoulder, as he was working class and a lot of the actors were from wealthier backgrounds.
But he made that rage work for him.
When he got a taste of success, he thinks he became a pompous pain in the ass, with an opinion on everything. Then he talks of losing his confidence on stage for a spell and his disappointment when a lead role in a Franco Zeffirelli film was no longer his.
On a personal note, he talks candidly about the shame of having an affair with an actress, whom he declines to name. It resulted in the breakdown of his marriage to Michelle.
“It’s not a part that one is proud of, but when the force of love or sex, whatever that is, comes along, I don’t think you can handle it. It’s like being in a hurricane.”
He went on to live with the actress for three years. When that ended, he met another actress Ginnette Clarke. They married and now have one daughter, Tilly. Now Ginnette works as an art teacher, and Tilly, having graduated from NYU, works as a costume designer. Frank and Ginnette live in Barnes, in London. He is now a grandfather too. He enjoys his life with Ginnette and says that it is a good marriage.
Every year for their birthdays, they give each other the present of a visit to a retreat centre for a weekend, to detox from life. But fear not, Frank is not some floaty hippy-dippy type. He is refreshingly down to earth and full of exuberance for life. When he is not acting, he plays bowls and he writes. He has performed in a few of his stage plays. Did London change him? “Of course it did. It took me out of my natural working-class environment and suddenly I was living in a cosmopolitan experience. I was playing Ibsen and Chekhov. It was an education.”
The boy from Cabra spread his wings and soared. Doctors will be shown on BBC 1 next Friday