Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Man Named John

In one of my husband John's favorite films, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, every employee at the Yoyodyne factory is named John. They are all aliens from Planet 10, but that's not important right now. The point is that they have names like John Ya Ya, John Bigboote, John Smallberries, even John Manyjohns. So when my friends and I met an actor in 1990, who himself had gone under the names John Woods, Johnny Redboots, Johnny Bingo, John Anthony Blake and more, depending on the context, we thought of those fictional people named John, and gave our actor friend a private nickname of our own: John Manynames. He's a great guy, one of my favorite people in the world. He was born John Anthony Woods, and works professionally these days as John Anthony Blake. You may know him as John Levene, who played Sergeant John Benton on Doctor Who. (There--is that enough John names for one paragraph? I thought so.)

John Anthony Blake with Karen, August 1990. Photo by Tracy Ann Murray.

Tracy and Teresa Murray, Dimitra Catsaros and I first met and interviewed John Anthony Blake at the first Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles in early 1990. We met and interviewed him again at a Fuddrucker's in Burbank later that year, and renewed the acquaintance at a number of Gallifrey One and other conventions throughout the 1990s. I last saw him on New Year's Day, 2000, but have spoken on the phone with him many times since then. He's funny, energetic, personable, humble, opinionated, ruthlessly honest, loyal and compassionate - in short, a really interesting person to know and to listen to. Teresa and I wrote an article about him for Starlog ("Sergeant At Arms," Starlog #165, April, 1991), which contributed slightly to the actor getting his "green card" to live and work in the U.S. John more than returned the favor by coming to Tucson for KUAT pledge breaks in 1995. He also signed a bunch of autograph cards for the Doctor Who trading cards series, designed and produced by my husband John for Cornerstone Productions, 1994-1997. I wrote the backs of the cards that did not have autographs on them.

John enjoys an issue of TARDIS Time Lore,
edited by Karen, with cover by Sherlock.

Let me give you a bit of background on John's career, and the most famous character he's played. John was working at a menswear shop in London when Telly Savalas came in to buy a coat. Savalas was working on The Dirty Dozen at the time, and encouraged John to try out for a role in the film. That didn't work out due to John's lack of an Equity card; but John did later find work as an extra in British tv, and worked his way up to speaking parts.

Before he could do that, though, he had to get into British Equity. The problem was, Equity was a closed shop--and besides, all the good names were already taken. Equity already had a John Wood and a John Woods, a John Anthony and an Anthony John, and every other variant on John's birth name and family names. Finally he glanced out the window of the Equity office, and happened to see a sign with the name Harry Levene, a boxing promoter. Eureka! The name John Levene was not already taken, so John Levene he became - at least on our tv screens. He never cared for the name, but it was the one under which he became famous, especially in the U.K.

John played a Yeti robot and a Cyberman on Doctor Who, and then Corporal Benton in the Doctor Who story "The Invasion" (1968), which also introduced UNIT (originally United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), the outfit for which Benton (and eventually the Doctor) worked. Director Douglas Camfield was the one who repeatedly cast the young actor on Doctor Who, an opportunity for which John has always been grateful.

In those early stories, John appeared opposite Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor. But it was with the coming of the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, that Benton, now a sergeant, came into his own. It wasn't always a large part, but loyal, down-to-earth Sgt. Benton quickly became a fan favorite. In some of the stories, such as "The Time Monster" and "The Three Doctors," Benton's role was positively crucial to the story. Benton was such an important part of Doctor Who during this era that he is considered a "Companion," one of the Doctor's particular friends who traveled and had adventures with him. Of all the other UNIT soldiers, only Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) achieved a similar status, with Benton often considered the most beloved of the three.

Benton was eventually promoted all the way up to Regimental Sergeant-Major (RSM) before disappearing from our tv screens during the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) era of Doctor Who. Benton also appeared in an independent spin-off video, Wartime (Reeltime Pictures, 1988), where the character finally acquired the first name John on screen.

After Doctor Who, John ran a production company for a while, Genesis Communications, worked on cruise ships (during which he contacted tuberculosis, but survived), and eventually moved to the Los Angeles area, where he is now happily married, and still works as an actor from time to time. He also appears at conventions and charity events, where his skills as an emcee, raconteur and standup comic are in high demand. I often borrow his jokes to tell to friends, but always with attribution, and never online. (Okay, I told one of them online, once, as part of a tribute to the humor of Jon and John. But that's all!)

I'm going to shut up now, and pass on a special treat. I spoke with John Anthony Blake earlier today, and he graciously passed along a greeting to all of you. I did my best to type up his words in real time, but you know how bad my typing is, so the following may not be perfect. Still, I've done my best to faithfully render his message. Here it is:

Greetings from John Anthony Blake

It's nice to say hello to you again. Like yourselves, I am thrilled to see that Doctor Who is back again where it belongs, on your television screens, and bringing thousands of new fans with it. My pride is, as always, that I was in Doctor Who in the early days; and I’m proud to have revisited the BBC last June to complete voice-over commentaries for the DVD releases. The ones that my voice is attached to are “Inferno,” whose release is in about 5 weeks’ time, “The Time Monster,” and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” I will be returning to England in September to engage in even more commentaries to Doctor Who stories.

Also in September, I am attending the Regenerations convention in Swansea in Wales, run by two excellent young men who have brought honesty back to Doctor Who conventions, Ben and Cary. I look forward to seeing them at that time. Also we will be visiting my close friend, Douglas Camfield's son.

Last week, I received a copy of Nicholas Courtney’s new book, entitled Still Getting Away With It. And for those of you who enjoy my character, Sergeant Benton, you will enjoy the Brig's references to me. [He’s on pages 56, 58, 69, 70, 84, 88, 99, 104, 129 and 132.- KFB] I was thrilled to see that I was involved in Nick's memories, and they were, in the main, true.

As one gets older and reflects back on one’s life, when you add up the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the equation I inevitably arrive at is without a doubt my joy at having been involved in Doctor Who. There is no question that few of us achieve our ultimate dreams, but my God, the places and people that I have visited and met along the way has indeed been beyond the wildest dreams I had as a child. There is no doubt that at the top of the tree, standing there like a glowing angel on a Christmas tree, was the man who helped me most in my life, a man who bothered to teach me, and to show me how to be a better person in life and in acting, was my one and only Doctor, Mr. Jon Pertwee. His trust in my ability, and his compliments over the decades, certainly made me a better man.

And as the years do slip by so quickly, I must also proclaim quite loudly that the second layer of heroes that helped me grow and believe in myself were the delightful Roger Delgado and the man that quietly made us all shine with his wisdom and pure undiluted dedication to everything he touched: producer, director, writer, actor, the one and only Barry Letts; assisted as ever by the brilliant Terrance Dicks. And as I’m on this subject of memories and emotions, I should love to share the fact that I shed many tears over the loss of a man whose phone calls and letters over the years of my awful divorce not only saved my sanity but made me laugh, with his humor and deep concern. That man was Mr. Anthony Ainley.

So back to a slightly happier mood: to all of you wonderful fans, who include us in your dreams, because we helped create the fantasy that you enjoy so deeply: you have no idea how empty the world and our lives would be without your tender affection. I have always been on the fans' side, and will remain so for the rest of time. For this is simply the way I am.

I would like to finish this interview with Karen to say that over the last few months, I have been involved in some wonderful events. One of them was spending an evening with Larry Hagman, when I was invited to stand in for Jay Leno of The Tonight Show at a most prestigious gala down at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California, where 27 million dollars was raised for a cardiovascular hospital. I also had a brief but wonderful meeting with Marion Ross, Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days.

At the return of Doctor Who, offers are beginning to increase, as people who watch the new show are reminded of us, we in the old show. So welcome, one and all, to this wonderful world of Doctor Who, and all of the goodness and happiness that this kind of television show spawns. I remain always, your humble RSM Benton, and I hope to meet some of you in the future. Goodbye and God bless.

John Anthony Blake, a.k.a. John Levene
Doctor Who’s Sergeant Benton.

Next time (well, maybe Tuesday or so): more on the Starlog Doctor Who articles.


See also:

Wikipedia: Sergeant Benton
Wikipedia: John Levene
IMDb: John Levene
John Levene's fan site: Sergeant at Arms
BBC website: Sergeant Benton


There's a chance that it will snow tonight here. If it does, I'll try to get some pictures for you. The Winter Weather Advisory is talking about snow above 3000 feet - and the city of Tucson has an average elevation of 2400 to 2500 feet. It's 41 degrees and falling, and it's been drizzling all day so...well, we'll see!

Technorati Tags: , , ,

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Thanks for bringing this to us, Karen. It's appreciated.

But what does it say, exactly, on the message to you he wrote on the photo? It's driving me crazy!