This is a real Du dumme Sau! exclusive. When I first started the Klaus Kinski website I thought I would just try and track down all of Klaus’ films and review them, but as regular readers will know somewhere along the way I have branched out and started to do interviews with people who worked with or alongside Klaus; just to add that extra dimension to it all (and to enable me to ask questions about other things I am interested in too!). And now, after a couple of years of trying I have finally managed to track down Margaret Lee, the British actress who appeared alongside Klaus Kinski in 11 films between 1966 and 1971.
A little while ago I started to think of my wish list of those I would like to interview and quite honestly I can say that Margaret Lee was at the top of that list. Some of you may wonder why not Werner Herzog, well, I will tell you – yes, I would love to interview him but he speaks regularly about working with Klaus and I doubt he would manage to find something new to say on the matter; there’s a lot of information out there already. But despite the fact that Margaret Lee played such an important role in Klaus’ filmography, there is very little information available about their collaborations – I thought I could find out some more by getting this interview. I also wanted to know more about Margaret Lee in her own right; I am film crazy and like a wide range of films, occasionally I would see Margaret in other films I watched and she always looked fabulous. No wonder Klaus liked working with her!
So, two years later I have been given this opportunity to finally interview the wonderful Margaret Lee. I wanted to ask her what it’s like to be so beautiful and what it’s like to kiss Marcello Mastroianni (in Casanova 70) but I had to restrain myself and ask more sensible questions. Margaret was kind enough to answer them all and I can’t thank her enough for taking the time and trouble to do so – here’s the interview:
Du dumme Sau! (DDS): I read that you attended the Italia Conti Theatre School in London until 1960 and I understand that you were only 19 years old when you took your first role in a film in Italy (Totò di notte n. 1, dir Mario Amendola, 1962). But how did a very young girl from Wolverhampton end up over in Italy making films?
Margaret Lee (ML): Just to correct, I am really a London girl – not from the Midlands. In 1943, when I was born, in war time, pregnant women in London (which was being bombed) were evacuated. My mother was evacuated to a family in the West Midlands, Wolverhampton, whom she had never met (although she formed a bond with them and stayed in contact with them for many years afterwards and even went once to visit them). But after the bombing ended we returned to London, and I grew up there.
Also, just for the sake of accuracy, I was 18 years old when I made my first movie in the spring of 1961 Maciste Against The Monsters. And I left Italia Conti Drama School in 1959.
So, to answer your question: I wanted to act in the Theatre (never thought of films) and was willing to take any path that might lead me there. I read in The Stage of auditions for showgirls at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris. I was 17. I wanted to get away from home, and so I auditioned and was taken on. Then almost a year later, a friend told me they were interviewing for small parts in Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor in Rome. I auditioned and was accepted. Within two weeks I was in Rome and going to Cinecitta Film Studios each day. In the end, however, many hours of the film were cut, including my appearances.
In the meantime I had begun a relationship with the person who was to become my first husband and father of my first son, Gino Malerba. He was working on Cleopatra also as assistant to Hermes Pan, the choreographer. Later he became a film producer in Rome. When the filming of Cleopatra ended he introduced me to an agent for actors, Fillipo Fortini. We both hoped in this way I could get work as an actress in Rome and not have to return to London. And it worked! A note of interest is that at the same time the even younger (by two years I believe) Stefania Sandrelli was trying to start out also, and with this same agent. I still have a photo of the two of us sitting chatting at the country home of Fillipo, both still unknown as yet. It was not the career in theatre I had dreamed of…. but it was acting.
ML: I adored it. I felt so at home on the movie set that I often would stay behind to watch filming even when I had finished for the day. We often worked very long hours but it seemed to actually give me energy rather than tire me.
DDS: You were in a lot of comedies in the 60s and 70s and also in a lot of Eurospy films, were these genres you felt you were suited to or would you have preferred to work in other film genres?
ML: I imagined myself in more dramatic roles, but I guess that is not how others saw me.
DDS: People talk about your filmic partnership with Klaus Kinski, but in fact you worked in more films with the comedians Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia (14 films with each of them) – their films weren’t famous over here in England but I’ve read about them, was it good fun working with them?
ML: It was very much fun. Franco Franchi and I became chums and had a lot of fun on set. He was pretty much the same off set as he was on. We often sat together and he made me laugh a lot. Ciccio was very serious and didn’t talk much to anyone.
DDS: I have to ask you about the musical comedies – you were in several of them – as I have heard you singing (is it you?) in Five Golden Dragons (1967, dir Jeremy Summers) and Dorellik (1967, dir Steno), and also singing a duet with Johnny Dorelli (Col chicco d’uva passa). If it is you singing, you have a very pretty voice – did you consider a career as a singer and did you ever record any songs at all?
ML: It is me. I love singing but didn’t seriously train – just a few sporadic lessons. No, I never did record anything.
DDS: You worked with some pretty impressive actors and actresses – amongst many others, Jean Gabin, George Raft, Christopher Lee, Fernando Rey, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Rita Hayworth… but who did you enjoy working with most of all?
ML: I enjoyed enormously working with Johnny Dorelli. We had a lot of laughs together. I also enjoyed very much working with Robert Stack who was in the Jean Gabin film [Du dumme Sau! note: Le soleil des voyous, 1967, directed by Jean Delannoy who directed Klaus Kinski in Pill of Death, 1970, and was also one of the directors on Le lit à deux places, 1965, which was another one of Margaret Lee’s films].
ML: This was one of my earliest films and I was quite in awe to be with Marcello and Mario Monicelli the director. Marcello was sweet and I remember feeling quite relaxed with them.
DDS: You were in a Claude Chabrol film (Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite, 1965) but it was not one of his typical New Wave films, would you have liked to have worked with him on a more serious project?
ML: I would have indeed… but I guess I was not really a Chabrolian type.
ML: I think I first met Klaus in London on the set of Circus of Fear. Gino became his agent much later. And later the four of us were good friends; Klaus and Genevieve and Gino and myself. We would have evenings at each other’s homes in Rome. I liked Genevieve very much. She was very refined.
DDS: As somebody who knew Klaus Kinski, I have to ask you what was he like both to work with and as a man?
ML: I knew Klaus well. Not only did we work together on several films, but for many years we were friends also. As I am sure you know he was thought of as being a very difficult person, volatile, who was easily enraged. I suppose this is true, but what I saw was the extremely sensitive person, to whom early life had dealt cruel blows, that lay behind the difficult behaviour. It is perhaps because he sensed I understood this that he never became enraged with me, and sometimes he even allowed me to smooth things over for him after he had threatened to walk off the set (which happened more than once).
He was very dedicated and serious about his acting. It was a pleasure to prepare a scene with him, and often we would sit somewhere quiet and go over and over a scene we were soon to shoot.
He was quite bohemian, in an aristocratic way. Once while shooting a film together he invited me to see his new home during a lunch break. We got into his new Rolls Royce, him with bare feet, and drove to the Castle he was renting in Rome. He showed me around and then we had lunch off gold plates.
He also had extraordinary will and determination. If he wanted something he would get it. I remember around 1974 when I was renting a little house in the Lake District in England in order to bring up my youngest son, Damian, without having to work and have a nanny; I got a call from Genevieve (Minhoi) his wife. She begged to come and visit as she needed to get away from Klaus for a while. I think they were in London and it seems they had argued. She came and we talked but after about an hour Klaus called and said he was coming. I told him he could not, but he came anyway in a rented car that had a blown out tire. It seems the tire had blown and he had gone on driving it for the last 20 miles or so!
We did lose touch in later years mostly because I moved to California and stopped working in films. I was very shocked when one day I read of his death in the newspaper. What shocked me most about it is that I was living in the Bay Area just 20 miles from where he lived and died. I had no idea he was living in California. If we had both known we would have seen each other I am sure.
One last thing to mention is that I was very sorry to learn that in his autobiography Klaus had written that he and I had sex once in a Madrid Hotel (I think this is where it said). This is totally untrue and I am sorry he abased himself this way, and our friendship. Klaus and I were chums and he was a close friend of my husband Gino too; there was never any sexual side to our friendship…. ever. I was angry for a while, but now I forgive him.
DDS: You made 11 films with Klaus Kinski between 1966 and 1971 – my favourite of those is Double Face (1969, dir Robert Hampton). When you were making Double Face, did you have a sense that it was a cut above the other films you had made together?
ML: […] regarding Double Face I regret I do not have much memory of making it. The film I have most memory of making with Klaus is I Bastardi now called The Cats.
DDS: Two years later, you and Klaus were both in Fernando Di Leo’s La bestia uccide a sangue freddo, which was pretty grisly. I read somewhere that a year after that Fernando Di Leo wanted you and Barbara Bouchet to appear in a film called Il pederasta but that the producers finally backed out and he only managed to film a brief scene. Is there any truth in any of this?
ML: I have no recollection of this at all and suspect there is no truth to it.
ML: Jess was a nice person to work with but I do not feel the films I made with him were at all my best ones. The best part of working with Jess was that Maria Rohm was in the films. She was my close friend and the sweetest woman I have ever known.
ML: Yes, I would have liked that. Lucio was a good and kind man but I always used to wish he would not swear so much – it was a constant!
DDS: You did very little TV work, but after your appearance in The Protectors (The Numbers Game, 1972, dir Don Chaffey) were you not tempted to pursue more UK TV work at all?
ML: Actually, I did a lot of Italian TV work. The two prime spot series with Johnny Dorelli. The series with Rick and Gian. The musical La Cenerentola. I would have loved to do UK TV but I was kind of “dropping out” by then. But that’s another story.
DDS: You mentioned Maria Rohm, I read some very nice things about your friendship with Maria Rohm in an interview with her; she said that you two were very close and that she even visited you when you moved back to the UK in the mid 70s. This move back to the UK coincided with a break in your career, were you not tempted to pursue an acting career in England at all during that period? I think you would have done fabulously well in films by British directors from that period, such as Pete Walker who was part of the New Wave of British Horror – were you ever approached by any British directors at all?
ML: I guess because I was known in Italy and to some extent France, but not in England, I did not think seriously of trying to work there.
DDS: I understand (again from the Maria Rohm interview) that you moved back to Italy in the early 1980s – and then it seems you picked up your career again, briefly. Your career seems to be tied to Italy to a great extent, and you must have achieved fame there for your work, but did you not consider working further afield – for example, in England or in the US – at all? Or had you just decided to put your film career behind you by that stage?
ML: Again, I think I felt it would be difficult to get work in countries where I was not known. I mostly thought of myself as an Italian movie actress and had never aspired to be known internationally. I guess in retrospect this might have been a limitation and a mistake.
DDS: You were in 75 films according to IMDB, I’ve got 14 of those (Casanova 70; Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite; Circus of Fear; Our Man in Marrakesh; On a volé la joconde; Dick Smart 2.007; Five Golden Dragons; The Bastard; 5 per l’inferno; Double Face; Paroxismus; Dorian Gray; Rendezvous with Dishonour; La bestia uccide a sangue freddo) – which of your other films would you recommend that I should see? Obviously I will get the other 2 films you made with Klaus Kinski at some point anyway, but which of the others did you find particularly enjoyable?
ML: I think you have my favourites there: I Bastardi and Le Tigre Se Parfume à la Dynamite. My other favourite is the one with Jean Gabin and Robert Stack, initially entitled Le Soleil des Voyous and later Action Man. I quite like Five For Hell with Klaus too. They have that for sale on Amazon.com now.
DDS: Do you ever see any of your own films at all? Which film did you personally find most satisfying to have worked on?
ML: Recently they re-mastered the film I did with Klaus Kinski, Guiliano Gemma, Claudine Auger and Rita Hayworth. You can buy it on Amazon.com. I was surprised at how good the re-mastering is – really first class. Originally the film was called I Bastardi; then Sons of Satan; it is now called The Cats. I quite like it and it is well worth watching as a film of its time and place. It is one of the last films Rita Hayworth made.
ML: I’m afraid not. Wish I had done.
DDS: Is there any actor or director you would have liked to have worked with but didn’t get the chance?
ML: I would love to work with Robert Redford as a director; I think he is a great director. Did you see The Conspirator? Such a beautiful and personal directorial style. I think he is one of the great American directors.
DDS: I will check out The Conspirator. Do you keep up to date with films much these days yourself? And do you have any favourites?
ML: Yes, I do. I adore movies. I am really sorry we will have nothing more from Merchant/Ivory. I think The Remains of the Day is one of the most beautiful movies ever made; Howard’s End too. I also love the movies of Zhang Yimou: movies like Hero and his latest The Flowers of War have such emotional depth and great visual beauty.
ML: I have sometimes thought of writing an autobiography but not particularly focused on being a movie actress: my life has had so many other intense angles. However, it is very unlikely this will occur. I do not think I have the stamina to sit down and write a whole lifetime.
I did get my early dream of working in the theatre, but much later in life. In 1988 I studded Stanislavsi “Method” Acting techniques for a year with Jean Shelton in San Francisco. It was a truly wonderful experience and I could not have done the stage acting without it. I only regret I did not have this experience earlier in my career.
After moving to Northern California in 1987 I have periodically worked in a small theatre here that produces the classics – mostly Shakespeare and the Greeks. I have been cast in many of Shakespeare’s wonderful roles, such as Gertrude, the Shrew, and wonderful roles from the Greeks such as Jocasta, and Antigone in Oedipus at Colonus. We also put on a production adapted from the 12th century Persian poem The Conference of the Birds in 2005. But having done all that I realize I prefer movie-making.
DDS: It would be great if you could start making movies again, Margaret!
Many thanks to Margaret Lee and her family for enabling this interview to take place. I have found it really interesting and I am sure Du dumme Sau! readers will too.
Thanks also to Dave Tinkham for all his help and to Jari Tapainen for providing the screen grabs from The Cats.
I now need to find Le soleil des voyous and to get the remastered version of The Cats as my version is washed-out and is interspersed with Taco Bell adverts! I would definitely encourage Du dumme Sau! readers to get hold of some of the Kinski-Lee collaborations if you haven’t already, and to check out Margaret Lee’s wider filmography. I am sure the photos illustrating this article will have whetted your appetite already.
Also, check out the following links on YouTube: Margaret Lee singing in Arriva Dorrelik and Margaret Lee and Johnny Dorelli in a spoof of Arriva Dorellik, Margaretlik and Margaret Lee and Johnny Dorelli singing Col chicco d’uva passa.
This interview is not to be reproduced without permission.