Viewers of American drama over the past decade will probably recognise actor Alan Dale as a stern, hard-hearted, often untrustworthy businessman or politician; these are his stock roles in hit shows including The OC and Ugly Betty. So it is slightly surprising to find him playing a grail-hunting bumbling king of England in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Matthew Amer met the former Aussie soap star to discuss his latest career move.
Let’s get it out of the way. For eight years Alan Dale played Jim Robinson in hit Australian soap Neighbours. It is the role that made him famous in Britain and it is a character for which he is still recognised today. But a lot has happened since he left Ramsey Street in 1992.
It sounds like an overstatement to say that Dale has appeared in every major American drama to make it big in the UK in the last decade, but then you look at his credits. Since 2000, he has appeared in ER, The X Files, The West Wing, CSI: Miami, 24, The OC, Ugly Betty and Lost. It is hard to think of another member of the Neighbours alumni, except pop pixie Kylie Minogue, who has had greater success since leaving the series.
Having recently been killed off yet again, this time in Ugly Betty – it is a habit that follows Dale around – he is hungry for a new challenge, hence his arrival on the Palace theatre stage, where he makes his West End debut as King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spamlot.
“The truth is, I’m more like this guy in real life than I am any of the characters I play,” says Dale about his legendary alter-ego. He is right. For a start he has a cheeky, teasing sense of humour lacking from many of his on screen personas, and while for them career is everything, he doesn’t take his own too seriously.
We meet at the end of a long day’s rehearsal for Dale. “I’m just starting to work with these leggy girls, which is a little disconcerting for a red-blooded male,” he says as he pops a couple pills. There are colds going about among the cast and the last thing he wants is to be ill for opening night.
"What did I have to lose, I’m driving a f***ing milk truck"
His career does not include a great deal of stage work, though he has briefly appeared in the West End before, when the cast of Neighbours performed at the 1988 Royal Variety Performance. “It’s all a challenge,” he smiles, “but it’s all such fun. It’s a buzz. If I pull it off it’s a great buzz. If I fall flat on my face, well, nothing ventured nothing gained, that’s all.”
This theory could be a mantra for Dale’s life, which has seen him show overwhelming self-confidence and take huge chances with the promise of great reward. Yet when he describes these life choices, Dale expresses a logic that makes every decision seem so obvious and easy.
His career in entertainment actually began as a milkman. Listening to the radio as he worked his round one morning, he heard the presenter walk out on his show. The minute he finished his deliveries, Dale drove to the station and told them that he could do a better job than the outgoing DJ. Three months later they gave him an afternoon slot. “What did I have to lose,” he says, “I’m driving a f***ing milk truck.”
He used exactly the same technique at a television station to similar effect before leaving his home on New Zealand’s South Island and heading for a land of opportunity: “New Zealand was about 3 million people in those days; you didn’t expect a lot of production to be done. I thought ‘I’m going to try in Australia and see what happens.’”
The decision to leave everything and everyone he knew behind proved instantly to be the right choice. By 17:00 on the day he arrived in Australia he had an audition for Young Doctors – he would stay in the television show for three and a half years – a commercial for Shick razors and a new radio job.
It would be easy to pass this off as good fortune; he was lucky that such opportunities have come his way. There is an element of truth in this, but Dale’s career has been fed by making himself known, putting himself in the right position to accept the opportunities when they arise, and always recognising the silver lining rather than the cloud. “Every bad thing that’s happened, apart from Mum and Dad dying, it’s always led to something better. Always. At the time you get upset, but when you look at it all over a long period of time it’s hard to be negative about it,” he explains. It is that attitude that has spurred him on when producers have insisted on allowing his characters to meet their maker. Every time he has been killed off, he says, he has been offered a better job with better pay.
"Their attitude is ‘We’ve paid you, now f**k off.’ My attitude is ‘You put my face on something, pay me every time you do it"
As we chat in a meeting room at the top of the Palace theatre, Dale chooses to sit in front of a desk, rather than behind it in the position he is most often seen on television. As he sips a cold beer at the end of the day, talk turns to his roots. “I’m a big loud Outer Antipodean,” he says, and it is hard to argue.
He is both big and loud, a touch imposing; his face lends itself to seriousness, which is why he is often seen in high-powered roles. He chats with a frankness that is surprising and a little intimidating, yet his is not a threatening character. Whether he would admit it, he has the determination to give life a go, he knows what he believes and he is not afraid to vocalise it. It is this side of his character that made him a thorn in the side of the Neighbours producers and eventually led to his first memorable on-screen heart attack, when he was fired from the show in 1993.
Dale clashed with the show’s producers over money – image rights and residuals. The cast weren’t told, he says, about how successful the soap opera was in Britain for a year after it was first broadcast: “We found out about it because it was in the paper one day. There was this big story about the fact that Neighbours was a smash hit in London. We knew nothing, nothing, about it. They didn’t tell us because they knew that they weren’t paying us for that.”
He has other stories to tell about picture cards being placed in crisp packets without the actors’ knowledge and magazines being produced with performers seeing none of the profits. Dale put an end to this by ploughing $250,000 of his own money into his own publication, making money for everyone and even more for himself. “Their attitude is ‘We’ve paid you, now f**k off.’ My attitude is ‘You put my face on something, pay me every time you do it.’”
It is in his description of his time in and directly after Neighbours that his risk-taking character – which he disputes – comes to the fore. It takes a certain character to have the belief to put $250,000 of your own money into producing a magazine when you know little of the publishing world. It is that same character trait that moved Dale to invest in property when both he and his wife were unemployed; the value of the flats doubled in 10 years. And it is the same, determined, confident, ballsy attitude that saw a 54-year-old Dale head to LA to see if he could find work in America.
Dale sees it differently: “I think that a person’s got to be extremely confident to sit there and play it safe, to sit there and say ‘No, no I couldn’t take that risk, I’ll just sit here quietly.’ I reckon you’ve got to be really confident that what you’ve done so far in your life is enough to set you up for the rest of your life. I looked at it and thought ‘S**t, if I don’t do something else then I’m going to get to an older age and I won’t have any energy left because I’ll have given up. I’ll be sitting here playing safe and I won’t have enough money to pay the bills and I won’t be able to travel the world. I’ll just have to live quietly on what I have left.’” He leans close to deliver his verdict on that scenario in a conspiratorial whisper: “F**k that.”
“I really genuinely say,” Dale continues, “that when you look at the things that I’ve done, most people say they’re big risks, but what’s the downside and what’s the alternative? Sitting around the place being a has-been.”
"When you look at the things that I’ve done, most people say they’re big risks, but what’s the downside and what’s the alternative? Sitting around the place being a has-been"
The mere fact that this year Dale, at 60, will be appearing in both a blockbuster Stephen Spielberg movie – Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull – and in the West End is proof enough that he is certainly no has been. “Life’s a great big adventure,” he beams at the thought, “especially for me. I love it. I love the adventure of it.”
He certainly loves spending time in London, though admits to watching more of the Six Nations rugby than he has other West End shows – “I obviously cheer against the English for everything, but there’s a deep love, passionate love for everything English, coming from New Zealand; it’s just a little outcrop really” – yet he won’t be moving over here any time soon: “I know the way that your press are, and if I was to come here and stay for a long time then you guys go ‘Your career’s over, is it? You didn’t make it in the States, so you’ve come here, have you?’ It’s the exact opposite; because I’ve done well in the States they’ve got work here for me and I love it here.”
The work he refers to is not solely clip-clopping around the Palace stage with his Knights of the Round Table – a gig he refers to as “just insanity; two hours of insanity. At a time like this in the world it’s probably the best medicine” – but also ITV mini-series Midnight Man which will be broadcast later this year, and a guest star spot in Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood.
What all three UK jobs have in common, apart from their location, is that they have a defined timescale and are not open ended series. There is no chance that Dale can be killed off unexpectedly, as has happened a number of times previously. In fact, Dale laughs, when he was killed off in Ugly Betty, the production company used exactly the same music to accompany his death as had previously been used when he met a watery end in The OC. It was fitting as both deaths came about in the same fashion, a heart attack, which was, of course, how he died in Neighbours.
“It’s funny,” Dale says, “my wife pointed out to me that when I’m doing a series I get really bad tempered. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I’m at the mercy of people, whereas when you do something for a fixed period of time no-one’s got any power over you really. As long as you do the job professionally you’re there for that time and when you’re finished you wave goodbye and off you go.”
If all this seems quite serious for a man who claims to be more like his light-hearted stage character than his television personas, who are as serious as death, do not be fooled. While those who try to get one over on Dale are going to come a cropper, he is a playful soul at heart, switching his brassy ‘Dan Under’ twang for a light, fluffy camp speech to poke fun at interviewers who try to catch him out with trick questions.
"At a time like this in the world it’s probably the best medicine"
Some such interviewers – he has spoken to many while promoting his run in Monty Python’s Spamalot – have asked him where he trained. His answer: “In the oval down at the bottom of the road, at the rugby club, we used to train Thursdays and Tuesdays.”
The soap, drama and now musical star played the typically Antipodean sport of rugby to a high level as a junior and was recently chatting to England captain Phil Vickery about the sport. “I used to sit around talking about the things I’d done in sport and one day I thought ‘I can’t believe I’m never going to get that buzz again, that thrill.’ And then I thought ‘I know where I can get it, on stage singing and dancing and making a fool of myself!’”
“You may have noticed I don’t take it very seriously,” he smiles as he knocks back the last of his beer. “It’s just a blast and I’m just having fun.” em>MA