John Levene co-stars with Gene Barry "The Adventurer"


When you’re an actor, there is nothing more wonderful or uplifting than when your agent, in my case Jimmy Garrod, calls you on the phone and tells you that you’ve got that lovely little part you auditioned for. Jimmy told me that I had the part of a co-pilot in a private jet with just one other actor, down at Elstree Studios. Suddenly everything seemed to light up. I began to feel I had value in the acting community. I felt I had arrived as a competent actor. I was well aware that those thousands of photographs of other would-be actors piled up in casting offices everywhere were in competition with each other for every part going.


An early headshot of John Levene


So when you find it is you they’ve chosen, your self-confidence peaks. It was from moments like this that I learned that all of my hard work and dedication, all of my observations and decisions, had indeed been noticed by the likes of Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts, plus a few other producers and directors of other shows at that time.



"Doctor Who" Producer Barry Letts and Director Douglas Camfield


So now I was in the small band of actors and walk-ons that were under the protective wing of men such as Douglas and Barry, who were prominent directors and producers of their day. Every time professionals such as these place their creative reputations on the actors they’ve chosen to be in their cast, these players are obliged to deliver the very best performance they are capable of. This applies from top to bottom, from the lead actor right down to the humble extra. At the risk of repeating myself, (some things do bear repeating) I always took this responsibility seriously.


With emotion flowing in my veins, I pulled up to the gates of Elstree Studios and immediately began wondering “who is the lead actor in this show?”, “will it be studio or location?”, “might it be a world-famous actor from Hollywood, or any one of Britain’s fabulously talented leading men, or will it be another actor on the same level as me?” Well, I was soon to find out.



Like most actors, immediately upon arrival at the production, you ask about the other cast members, what the show is like, and what you can expect. You can imagine my thrill when I found out that the leading man, whom I would be acting opposite, was none other than Gene Barry, of the American television series, Burke’s Law, and who was also featured in War of the Worlds back in 1953.



Gene Barry as "Bat Masterson"


So in a state of excited anticipation, feeling that someone up there liked me, I sat quietly in my dressing room, waiting for wardrobe, makeup, script revisions, and for the moment that the PA knocks on the door and says “Mr. Levene, you’re wanted on set”. The first knock on my door was makeup. Makeup people are always nice to you because they understand the pressure you are under, and that their attitude often sets the tone of the actor’s day because they tend to be the first solid encounter on-set. So naturally, I began to inquire with the makeup artist as to the working style of Mr. Barry. She said he can be very difficult. I thought “oh, dear, that’s always a bad start”. I swallowed hard and started to prepare myself for a difficult day. My next visit was from wardrobe. I posed the question once again what Mr. Barry was like to work with. I was told he can be very moody and a little short-tempered. I thought “oh, my goodness, if this is what pressure the larger parts bring, can I cope with it”? Then the PA came in, and told me I’d be called in 15 minutes.

I have to say here and now that my uniform was beautifully pressed, fitted a treat, and really made me feel confident. I had worked for this director before, on several other productions, though his name has slipped my mind for just now. So I felt at ease most of the time, apart from unnerving news that Mr. Barry may be difficult to work with.



Elstree 1982

I opened the door to the studio and there’s always that powerful studio smell that hits you. It’s a mixture of wood, paint, I assume sweat, and the odd bit of tension, until everything calms down and you begin shooting in ernest. To my utter surprise and amazement, it was an almost totally empty studio. No sets, no walls, no carpenters, no painters, hardly any crew, just one surreal object, suspended before a simple backdrop in the middle of this cavernous, empty space. This object was the entire body of a twin-engine private jet, the mode of travel used in the series for Mr. Barry’s character. So it was then that it dawned on me there were only 2 actors on call this day; one of them is Gene Barry, Hollywood star, the other John Levene, just on the first rung of the acting ladder, and that we would meet in the next 2 minutes.



Gene Barry and Ann Robinson in "War of the Worlds"


Thinking there was no other person in the studio at that moment but myself, I then saw a beautiful blueish cloud of smoke rise from the far side of the aircraft. My first thought was an aircraft and smoke -- not a good sign! Then as I focused more clearly in the semi-gloom of the as-yet unlit studio, I saw the familiar outline of a folding chair, of the likes that are given to stars to sit on. Then I saw the origin of that rising plume of grey-blue smoke. Its source was a huge, expensive Havana cigar in the hands of Mr. Gene Barry. He was sitting quietly on his own, and I believe reading his script.



Gene Barry ~~ "The Adventurer"


Now, I know you all understand, I was nervous, but knew we had to meet eventually, might as well get it over with. I took a deep breath, walked around the front of the plane, as I worked out he was facing that direction (I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable by approaching from behind). I walked straight up as though I worked with Hollywood stars on a regular basis, confidently put my hand out to shake his, and I boldly, but deferentially, said “Good morning, Mr. Barry. My name is John Levene, and I am playing your co-pilot, Tony”. To my absolute amazement, and I use the word knowingly, he shook my hand warmly, and said “I’m very, very pleased to meet you, John. I was looking forward to seeing who it would be, and my goodness, you really look like a pilot” and then instantaneously he offered me one of his cigars. What do you do at a time like this? Do you refuse it because you don’t smoke cigars, or do you take it and accept it as a complement from someone who likes you? I did the latter. I did say however that I would smoke it later, as it’s very rare that one has a cigar of such quality. He accepted this, as I now understand that’s what cigar smokers do, they hold on until a nicer time. So now readers I’m sitting next to Gene Barry, on a similar chair to his, and he’s asking me all about Great Britain, how I became an actor, and what my ambitions were. What an honor. Halfway through our conversation, the crew began to arrive. The first setup was of course in the cockpit where all our subsequent scenes occurred. I am now feeling really happy, really relaxed, and at peace with the part I was about to play. I felt good, I felt smart, and I felt very comfortable in my surroundings. I would like to regale you with just a few of the extraordinary moments over the day’s shooting, if I may. The first of these moments was when I was sitting comfortably in the cockpit with Gene, and one thing I found absolutely refreshing was his willingness to go over the lines many times, so as to deliver the lines in the best way possible when it came time to record the scene. This of course gave me even more confidence, simply because he treated me as his equal. Mr. Barry then offered me a cup of coffee from his own private flask. I assumed it was a special American brew he carried with him, as I do my English tea when I travel outside of the United Kingdom. Now I’m not a great coffee lover, although when it’s made with all milk, as we do in England, I find it quite enjoyable.



So when Gene had poured me such a cup, we both put our mugs up on the control panel of the plane. At that very moment, the prop man was checking out the rig that would make the plane move as though in flight at high speed. This dislodged Gene’s cup of coffee into both of our laps. Suddenly we’re like old pals, laughing at the mishap. He never got angry, he never did the “star bit”, and that truly did impress me.



So we completed the first scene and it got better and better, easier and easier and I am now throughly enjoying myself. I remember thinking “if all acting gigs could be like this, I would love to be a constantly-working actor in good productions”, but then, wouldn’t we all?

The last funny incident occurred when Gene and I were doing the “engine trouble” scene. It had been a particularly good scene and we felt we couldn’t do better, and would you believe it, the prop gentleman with the “cloud maker” had become carried away with his cloud making machine and had started walking backwards instead of forwards.



Suddenly, on the suspended monitor that Gene and I could see at the corner of the set, we saw a man walking on the wing of our jet, which we were asking the audience to believe was flying at 35,000 feet and 200 miles an hour.

So that then was one of the shows in the middle of my acting career that I felt so good about. It made being an actor a nice thing, to walk away from the studio that day, knowing I left behind a performance worthy of the trust of all the others involved in the endeavor.

Now with all these words I am not trying to tell you that emotions such as mine are the right thing or the wrong thing in your attempt at an acting career, or indeed any other career in your own particular attempt at success. I’m simply saying that being humble and not arrogant, being thoughtful and not selfish, being professional and not amateur, being punctual and not late, are surely some very sensible ingredients towards making one a better person.



In closing, I have several guardian angels to thank for my particular piece of luck in my acting life, and those are the names previously mentioned, plus some I didn’t even see do their jobs, but I did feel the result of their own contributions. So these then are my impressions and thoughts of how thrilled I was personally to arrive in London from a small marketing town, and to end up being accepted by the acting community in general and Doctor Who in particular.


Good luck as always, and may your god go with you.



© Copyright 2011 John Levene Sgt. At Arms
Doctor Who is copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) 1963, 2011.
No infringement of this copyright is either implied or intended.