Remembering Jack MacGowran

Beckett Festival and Nerve Centre come together to honour iconic actor Jack MacGowran

This year the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival has joined forces with the Nerve Centre to honour the iconic Beckett actor, Jack MacGowran and recognise his enduring contribution to cinema.

Two of MacGowran’s films with Roman Polanski will be screened in Enniskillen on August 1 and 2, while Jack’s daughter, actress Tara MacGowran and friend Garech Browne will join in a special celebration of the actor’s life and work.  

Dublin born Jack MacGowran was Samuel Beckett’s favourite actor and his timeless interpretations of many of the writer’s most famous characters have earned him a legendary status. Beckett’s first work for television, Eh Joe (1966) was written with Jack MacGowran in mind and the actor’s one man show, Beginning to End, created in close collaboration with Beckett, is acknowledged as one of the great individual performances in the history of the theatre.

Jack MacGowran with Samuel Beckett

Away from the stage, Jack MacGowran’s skills as a character actor were enlisted by some of Hollywood’s leading directors. He played memorable roles in four films that were nominated for the best picture Oscar® – The Quiet ManTom JonesDoctor Zhivago and The Exorcist.

MacGowran first came to the attention of cinema audiences in the part of the Squire's right-hand man in John’s Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). In 1954, he moved to London and joined The Shakespeare Company (before it added the sobriquet ‘Royal’ to its name) where he became friends with fellow Irish actor Peter O'Toole, with whom he would star alongside in Richard Brooks's Lord Jim (1965).

After taking on the role of Joxer in the Broadway musical Juno, based on a Sean O'Casey play, he was cast as O'Casey's brother Archie in Young Cassidy (1965), one of John Ford's final films.

However, the film director whom Jack MacGowran made the deepest impression upon, shared his love of radical theatre and the works of Samuel Beckett.

In 1966, the young Polish filmmaker, Roman Polanski began developing a screenplay strongly influenced by the ironic vision of human existence to be found in the theatre of the absurd where characters find themselves trapped in situations out of their control.

The director’s third feature film, Cul-de-sac, follows the blackly comic adversities of two gangsters on the run from a botched robbery. Polanski wanted Jack MacGowran to play the part of Albie, the wounded gangster who finds himself stranded on Lindisfarne.

MacGowran had never heard of Polanski when approached for the part, but the director persuaded him to watch a screening of his chilling psychological horror film Repulsion. Although its subject matter was too strong for MacGowran, the actor realised that he wanted to work with Polanski and the two men became great friends.

According to film historian David Thompson: ‘What Polanski created with Cul-de-sac was a cinema of the absurd, delving into situations of humiliation, role-playing, and betrayal, and evoking an unsettling atmosphere quite unlike anything else on the big screen.’

At one stage during the making of Cul-de-sac, Jack MacGowran recalled the director telling him to ‘Throw away the script and say what you want to say.’

‘In my opening scene in Cul-de-sac where I am marooned in the flooded car, I originally had a speech half-a-page long – completely unnecessary. I cut it completely and spoke one line only, off my own bat.’

Throughout his career, Polanski has spoken fondly of the actor: ‘He was a tremendously likeable man there's no question. I mean, there's nobody who would not like Jackie MacGowran. Working with him, I realised how exciting an actor he was.’

For his next film, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Roman Polanski wrote the leading role of the buffoonish Professor Abronsius specially for Jack MacGowran. Made immediately before he moved to Hollywood where he enjoyed international success with Rosemary’s Baby and ChinatownThe Fearless Vampire Killers is one of Polanski’s lesser known works. The film did not even get a cinema release in England where the director lived at the time.

With its slapstick burlesque and high speed chases across snow-covered mountains that recall the daredevil antics of the comedians of the silent screen, The Fearless Vampire Killers is now considered a classic of the horror comedy genre. The film is visually stunning with a fairy tale setting and otherworldly atmosphere.    

Jack MacGowran Fearless Vampire Killers

Starring alongside Polanski (as his young assistant Alfred) and the director’s soon-to-be wife Sharon Tate, whom the two must rescue from the clutches of a Jewish vampire, Jack MacGowran gives full vent to his gifts as a comic actor. His performance is as wild and eccentric as Gene Wilder’s in Young Frankenstein.

Years later Roman Polanski fondly remembered the fun the two had together on the set: ‘I can see now, when I look back, that a lot of funny things in the script were inspired by Jack's behaviour and by funny things about him. He was a genius in this part.’

Polanksi’s third intended screen collaboration with MacGowran was not to be. The director asked the actor to put him in touch with Samuel Beckett so that he could seek permission to make a film version of Waiting for Godot. Beckett felt that the play did not lend itself to adaptation to cinema and therefore declined the opportunity. Roman Polanski returned to the play in the 1980s when he took on the role of Lucky in a stage production in Paris.

Jack MacGowran’s last screen role was as a film director in The Exorcist, one of the key movies of the 1970s. Although he will always be remembered as the iconic Beckett actor, over three decades, Jack MacGowran carved a name for himself in the history of the cinema. His untimely death in January 1973 undoubtedly deprived us of some great screen performances.

Happy Days, in partnership with the Nerve Centre, is offering free screenings of The Fearless Vampire Killers at 10.30pm on Saturday, August 1 and Cul-de-sac at 11am on Sunday August 2 in La Salle de L’Union (The Regal). The festival’s special tribute Remembering Jack MacGowran will take place at 4pm on August 2 in South West College with guest speakers actress Tara MacGowran and Garech Browne and a heartfelt contribution from Stephen Rea who owes his first major role in theatre to the actor. The event will be chaired by Kate O’Toole, the daughter of another great Irish actor. Tickets are available at the festival box office priced £8/£6. 

For more information on Remembering Jack MacGowan, visit the Happy Days Enniskillen Samuel Beckett Festival website.