Photo: David Ho
Brian Cox Names Names, and One of Them is Princess Margaret
In this excerpt from his memoir "Putting the Rabbit in the Hat," the 75-year-old "Succession" star remembers the people he has loved and lost / BY Shinan Govani / January 13th, 2022
“I don’t believe that you have to live through tragedy in order to portray it, but it does help clarify things for you.” That’s Brian Cox’s story, and he is sticking to it in his wide-ranging new memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat.
The thunderous thespian – who let Zoomer into his life and his career for a recent cover story – is filing out the canvas some more in his book, starting with his somewhat Dickensian earlier years in Dundee, Scotland. “Besieged by the forces of tribalism,” as he calls it, and with no shortage of family trauma, Cox finds solace on the stage. Even later, after having conquered the London stage, there is the siren call of Hollywood, which he sums up this way: “I went from being a lead actor on the London stage to a supporting turn in Hollywood, and I did it with a big smile on my face.”
Oh, and how he worked. No shortage of parts and film fare followed – his filmography stretches from The Bourne Identity to Braveheart, and he has played everyone from LBJ to Winston Churchill. He was he the proverbial lion in the winter, doing the critically acclaimed HBO series, Succession, where he, as “Logan Roy,” reached cruising altitude in terms of the zeitgeist. Now, he is the stuff of memes.
Reflecting on his craft, and the many twists of life along the way, his memoir is as candid as it is briny. The 75-year-old details being propositioned by Princess Margaret in one passage, and names names in many others, like when he calls Johnny Depp “so overblown, so overrated.” He also spills the tea on playing Hannibal Lecter first, in the cult movie Manhunter. Before Anthony Hopkins. In this excerpt from from the second half of his memoir, he reflects on loss and the tick-tock of mortality.
There has, unfortunately and unavoidably, been a great deal of death in this book, the product partly of my own longevity but also the fact that my profession tends to produce what you might call extreme and obsessive characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, with whom I worked on 25th Hour for Spike Lee in 2002.
He was the sweetest, funniest guy but he had a darkness to him. It’s a matter of public knowledge that he had abused drugs and alcohol during his college years until, at twenty-two, he went into rehab and stayed sober for twenty-three years.
Clearly, he relapsed. Some years after the Spike Lee film, I did a couple of workshops with him. Whether he was back on the drugs then or not, I couldn’t say, just that he was very edgy and argumentative, not at all the delightful man I had met before.
Sure enough, in February 2014, Philip was found dead in the bathroom of his Manhattan apartment of an overdose, at just forty-six. Sometimes it feels as though there are actors who get caught up in the lifestyle, who get swallowed up by it. River Phoenix would be one. Heath Ledger another.
And then you get those whose passing is nothing short of a freak and hideously tragic accident. In that case the name that immediately springs to mind is Natasha Richardson. I was making a TV mini-series, The Day of the Triffids, which starred Natasha’s sister, Joely, when it happened. During a beginners’ skiing lesson while on holiday in Canada, Natasha had hit her head. Complaining of headaches shortly afterwards, she was flown direct to New York.
Joely left the Triffids set to be with her in hospital, and although Natasha was still alive at that point, she died two days later of an epidural haematoma, and Joely returned for work with the weight of recent bereavement hanging heavy upon her. On the evening of Natasha’s death, theatre lights on Broadway and in the West End were dimmed as a mark of respect. Meanwhile, on the Triffids set, Joely had to play a death scene. My death scene, in fact.
“Please don’t let her film the death scene, that’s just not nice,” I implored, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. In a world in which movies and TV trump everything in terms of importance, we had a schedule. And Joely had to film her scene (a fact that, when you think about it, throws Wolfgang’s wonderful accommodation of my request to leave the set of Troy for an entire fortnight into even greater relief).
There is a somewhat tragic postscript to what is already a tragic story. Just one year later, I was making Ralph Fiennes’s version of Coriolanus, which also starred Vanessa Redgrave, who was of course the mother of Natasha and Joely.
At the beginning of the shoot, Vanessa’s brother, Corin, died of a heart attack at fifty. At the end of the shoot, two months later, her sister, Lynn, died of cancer at sixty-seven. This was the same Lynn Redgrave whose wig I had regularly rescued from the litter bin of her dressing room when I was but a child, and to have that connection, to see these terrible Redgrave tragedies up close, was heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking.
During the writing of this book, we said goodbye to Christopher Plummer. I had first met Chris when I was playing opposite his wife, Elaine, in a BBC production of She Stoops to Conquer. As you may recall, I was overawed by Sir Ralph Richardson on that job, and when Christopher Plummer turned up the effect was the same. To me he was elegance personified, but the extraordinary corollary to that was that through Elaine I was introduced to the guy he worked out with, a character called Rusty Hood.
Rusty was a kind of minor stuntman in British movies. He had a basement flat in Earls Court, and on our workouts Chris and I would occasionally cross paths. I would always try to get away from Rusty’s as quick as I could on the days that Chris would be working out because Rusty’s really tiny apartment stank of the most appalling body odour and I was worried Chris might think I was responsible.
On the odd occasion that we did meet he would be so incredibly well dressed, just as if he were going on to lunch at one of London’s fancy clubs, and he simply either ignored or perhaps didn’t even notice the malodorous smell. In fact, thinking about it, in all my dealings with him he always had this air of undaunted grace. Never more so than when we worked together on Nuremberg.
To fellow Canadians he was more than just a celebrity. He was very much regarded as their royalty. He was also very much the product of that tradition of the great classical players of the past. From Garrick via Kean via Irving via John Barrymore via Larry Olivier via Paul Scofield. His career consumed him right to the very end. In fact, he was preparing to appear as Lear once again on celluloid. Apparently he could be heard by his wife Elaine quietly reciting his lines.
Chris died in Connecticut. Being no great fan of attending funerals, I didn’t go. Memorial services in England are fine, but the funerals themselves are always acutely depressing. Especially if they’re at Golders Green, which I find one of the most miserable places ever.
Another one, of course, was my brother Charlie. For while my three older sisters, Bette, May and Irene, soldiered on into their nineties, seemingly indestructible, Charlie was the first of us to go, of stomach cancer in 2007, aged sixty-nine.
I had always had a slightly complicated relationship with my brother. We had separate lives. He was much more working class than I am, with a lifestyle that encompassed his work—he ran a shop in Monifieth in Dundee—family and the pub. But he was a very funny man. He used to say that of the two of us, he was the actor in the family, and I think that in many ways he was right about that. In a sense his life was one long performance.
Excerpted from the book Putting The Rabbit In The Hat: A Memoir © 2021 by Brian Cox. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.