Hairspray’s newest cast member Micky Dolenz has been a child star, actor, producer, writer and director. Oh, and he was in The Monkees too. He talks to Caroline Bishop about success in all its guises.
There is something wholly appropriate about Micky Dolenz appearing in the musical Hairspray. The tale of big-haired heroine Tracy Turnblad, who attempts to bring integration to a popular television dance show and becomes the talk of Baltimore in the process, is set in 1962, just four years before Dolenz began to dominate television screens himself as one quarter of the hugely successful fictional rock band The Monkees.
It was a decade in which Dolenz, then in his early 20s, would appear in two hit series of the TV show about the adventures of a struggling rock band, release six albums over two years and become a star both sides of the Atlantic.
The 1960s are the reason Dolenz’s face, opposite me in the hotel restaurant in which we meet, is instantly recognisable over four decades later, and also the reason why many who remember him on their screens will be curious to see him taking to the stage at the Shaftesbury theatre. Yet for the man who sits before me, his time in The Monkees was only a brief interlude in a career that has encompassed so much, and his appearance as Tracy’s father and joke-shop owner Wilbur in Hairspray is a great deal more than mere celebrity casting.
“It was a very short period of time for us,” says Dolenz about his time in The Monkees. Years after the “hurricane”, as he describes it, had passed by, he was performing in Aida on Broadway and suddenly realised quite how short it was. “I was sitting in my dressing room one day adding up all the performances that I’d done and how long I’d worked on the show and it turned out that I worked on Aida longer than I worked on The Monkees.”
Though he is not known for it over here, Dolenz is an experienced musical theatre professional in North America, where his credits include Grease, Pippin and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum as well as Elton John’s Aida. “As far as a performer there’s nothing like musical theatre. That’s the top of my list and has been for years,” he says.
“I was able to totally step away, garner some success in another field entirely”
So appearing in Hairspray is one more tick against that list, while performing in the London production means returning to a country that is close to his heart. Two of his ex-wives were English – he met the first, Top Of The Pops ‘disc girl’ Samantha Juste, when The Monkees appeared on the show in 1967 – and three of his four daughters were born in the UK during the years he lived and worked here in the 1980s.
Dolenz may be a confirmed Anglophile who loves theatre, but his background couldn’t be more at odds with these passions. He is a product of Los Angeles – “it’s so different you can’t really compare” – where television and film dominates the city. “There still isn’t much theatre and there was very little at all back then,” he says.
The son of parents in the entertainment industry, Dolenz was introduced to the business at an early age. He had his first screen test aged six and became a child star at 11 playing the lead in kids’ television show Circus Boy in the 1950s. With a youth such as his, it would seem inevitable that he would end up in the industry, and yet after leaving school he intended to be an architect. He did two years of a degree before auditioning for a sitcom inspired by The Beatles’s 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night. “Basically I was going to be an architect and if it didn’t work out I would fall back on showbusiness!” he roars with laughter. Only in LA could it be that way around.
Nevertheless, he had no “massive internal debate” about leaving his architecture dreams behind when the pilot for that sitcom, The Monkees, was taken up. His description of his ascension into the show implies it was a business decision rather than a calling. “Because I’d already done it [television], I knew the power of it and the potential of it and the success of it and the money, so it was never an issue of not doing it.”
Though he played the guitar already, Dolenz was cast as the drummer and vocalist in the fictional band, and the showbiz-savvy 21-year-old took a pragmatic approach to his new role. “In my show as a kid, Circus Boy, I had to learn to ride an elephant, I was like ‘ok, where do I start?’ So when they said you’re going to be the drummer, ‘ok, where do I start?’”
“I was going to be an architect and if it didn’t work out I would fall back on showbusiness”
Though the TV show ran for just two series, it was to make the quartet hugely famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Dolenz recalls going to his home near LA for a week’s break from filming that first Christmas and being accosted by fans in his local shopping mall. “All of a sudden I hear people screaming and running at me and I thought it was a fire. I turned around and I run to the doors and I go outside and I’m going ‘everybody out this way’, and all of a sudden all these teenage girls and kids and people are running at me. They chased me to my car. I was really pissed off, I couldn’t even shop! I think I had to send somebody to go and shop for me. That was the first time I realised that there was something happening.”
The programme’s success reached beyond the television; The Monkees scored chart hits with tracks including Last Train To Clarksville, I’m A Believer and Daydream Believer, before Peter Tork departed the group at the end of 1968. But despite chart-topping hits and appearances on Top Of The Pops, The Monkees, Dolenz reminds me, was not a real band at all. “The Monkees was a television show about a band that didn’t exist. It was an imaginary band and we lived in an imaginary set, a beach house on a set, and we had these imaginary adventures. That’s how I always looked at it. I was playing the part of a character, albeit called Micky. Originally the characters weren’t called Micky, Davy [Jones], Mike [Nesmith] and Peter, in the pilot script which I still have… they were character names. Somewhere along the way I guess someone made the decision of ‘we’ll use their real names’. Whether or not that would have made a big difference, who knows? But it was a character that I was playing, the wacky drummer in this imaginary group. But having said that,” he adds, “we did go on the road and we started playing. And so at some point, when do you become a band for real? Mike Nesmith used to say, ‘it’s like Pinocchio really becoming the little boy’.”
Dolenz says he never considered himself a band member, rather he was “an entertainer and a cast member”. Perhaps this is as strong an indicator as any that The Monkees was never going to be the only thing in Dolenz’s career. His background in the industry and his experience before and during the show gave him skills to draw on after it ended. In addition to dipping his toe into theatre with a couple of US regional productions, Dolenz, having already directed a couple of episodes of The Monkees, took to directing and writing for television. “I liked the mechanics of it and I loved the special effects, even as a kid I was into it. So I guess naturally I got interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff, wanted to write, direct, create my own stuff.”
But it took a lucky coincidence for this side of Dolenz’s career to really take off. A BBC series called Premiere, which was designed to showcase the work of new directors, was looking for young talent at the same time as Dolenz and fellow Monkee Davy Jones were cast in their friend Harry Nilsson’s musical The Point at London’s Mermaid theatre in 1977. Dolenz brought his showreel with him to the UK, got himself an agent and won a directing spot on Premiere. It led to a 12-year stay in the UK during which time he directed and produced British television shows including the successful ITV children’s programme Metal Mickey during the 80s. “I got lucky,” says Dolenz. “I came for three months and stayed for 12 years.”
Though he says he feels “more comfortable” directing for television, another highlight of those years in the UK was directing a stage production of Bugsy Malone, starring a very young Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“I had a very successful career here as a director and a producer and I’m very blessed and grateful to have done that,” says Dolenz, “because when I got here, after the initial ‘Micky Monkee directing’, after a few years when someone would do an interview with me on a new show that I was doing for Channel 4 or whatever, it didn’t say ‘ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz’, it said ‘producer-director Michael Dolenz chatting about his new series’. So that was great because I was able to totally step away, garner some success in another field entirely.”
“There’s nothing like musical theatre. That’s the top of my list and has been for years”
Divorce propelled him back to the States, but he continued to direct and produce, as well as further his stage career on Broadway in Grease and Aida. Once again, he wasn’t ex-Monkee Micky, but musical theatre star Micky. “In Aida I played the villain. And it was really gratifying because I would have people come after the show to stage door and go ‘oh my God I didn’t know you were in the show and I recognised your voice’ – because I had make-up and a different look entirely – ‘and I looked in the programme and it was you!’ It was very flattering.”
However The Monkees, inevitably, has remained a big part of his life and he has participated in several reunion tours, one of which, in the 1980s, “was only supposed to last a few weeks and it lasted three years”.
Unlike some, Dolenz is not sick of talking about the thing that made him famous; “the reason is that it’s not the only thing I’ve done.” Everything else he has accomplished since those heady days in the 60s – the directing, producing and performing – has “stopped the Monkee thing from getting suicidal”, he says wryly, “because it can. It can and it happens to people.”
Thankfully, it has not happened to Dolenz, who seems to have found a happy balance between celebrating his achievements with The Monkees and not letting it define his life. Those heading to the Shaftesbury theatre to see the face of a man who made such an impact on our television screens and pop charts in the 1960s will, it turns out, be getting a whole lot more.