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Obituary: Simon MacCorkindale

February 6, 2012

Simon MacCorkindale is the subject of another of my Wikipedia articles, although this one is apparently not good enough to be a Good Article.

Image courtesy of What's on Magazine

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Simon MacCorkindale reached the cusp of Hollywood stardom only to, as so many do, not quite make it. Nevertheless, he enjoyed leading roles in film, theatre and above all television, in the UK, the US and Canada, as well success away from the screen, until his death from bowel cancer on October 14, 2010, aged 58.

MacCorkindale, the son of Mary and RAF Group Captain Peter, was born in 1952 in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England. His father’s post entailed a childhood of movement; his lack of settled location curtailed much hope of friends and led to what MacCorkindale termed an “independent” childhood.

They eventually settled, which allowed MacCorkindale to attend Haileybury and Imperial Service College in Hertfordshire from 1965–1970. He was Head Boy. A career following his father beckoned, but his eyesight was not good enough for the air force. His next move was obvious: theatre direction.

A fan of the theatre since his early years – he wrote a play aged eight which despite “requir[ing] an enormous cast and a considerable amount of rum drinking” was never produced – MacCorkindale had worked both on and off stage throughout his education. He attended Studio 68 drama school at the Theatre of Arts in London and there decided to take acting classes as well, so that he would have a better appreciation of the thespians he hoped to direct. Developing a taste for walking the boards himself, it was this path he chose to follow “until [he] felt confident enough to” direct “a seasoned performer”.

His parents were less than keen on this career choice, but they softened their opposition once he introduced them to Sir John Mills, who certainly had made a success of it. MacCorkindale promised to get a more secure job if neither acting nor direction was sustaining him.

The roles soon came however. Starting out in theatre, his first professional stage role arrived in a 1973 run of A Bequest to the Nation at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. His West End debut was a 1974 production of Pygmalion in which he played the minor role of “Sarcastic Bystander”. As theatre roles continued, it was television which would provide him the greatest visibility. Roles in Hawkeye The Pathfinder, Within These Walls and Sutherland’s Law, were followed by parts in two of the most acclaimed miniseries of all-time. In I, Claudius, MacCorkindale played Augustus’ grandson Lucius Caesar and played the similarly named Lucius in Franco Zeffierlli’s Jesus of Nazareth in 1977.

As his profile began to rise, his big break came aged 25 with the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot classic Death on the Nile. Starring alongside such luminaries as Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith and Bette Davis, MacCorkindale played Simon Doyle, husband of the story’s primary murder victim. The role won him the London Evening Standard Film Award for Most Promising Newcomer.

“There was a feeling of being in awe of these people but I had a certain amount of pioneer courage, so I didn’t let it get to me,” he commented of the part. “But there were days when I thought, ‘I’m about to do a scene with this cinema legend, am I up to it?’ But people were very gracious. I was never the whipping boy because I was less experienced.”

The role of Arthur Davies in The Riddle of the Sands came the following year, as did his performance as Joe Knapp, the astronomer in Nigel Kneale’s fourth Quatermass serial. Although MacCorkindale enjoyed the latter as a break from romantic roles, Kneale didn’t rate the serial or MacCorkindale’s performance very highly. “We had him in Beasts“, a previous Kneale series, “playing an idiot, and he was very good at that.”

Nevertheless, America beckoned and in 1980 he moved stateside. But with his English accent and cumbersome surname, each of whom he refused to drop, the top parts were beyond his reach. MacCorkindale was told by ABC that “they didn’t want viewers watching someone who sounded intellectual or who had an accent that was alien to their ears and, therefore, hard work when it came to listening.”

Roles did slowly arrive, but they were often minor, or playing largely to his Britishness. This was shown none more so than the role of Gaylord Duke, the Dukes’ snooty English cousin, in The Dukes of Hazzard. This was followed by the mini-series Manions of America, and roles on Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart and Dynasty. In film he appeared alongside Charles Bronson in Cobablanco (1980) and played Prince Mikah, one of the leading roles in the panned and now largely forgotten fantasy film The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982).

His chance to direct those seasoned stage performers also came, with productions of The Merchant of Venice and Sleuth, the latter featuring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Howard Keel and James Whitmore.

1983 marked the high point of his American career. In Jaws 3 he played aristocratic hunter Philip FitzRoyce, 16th Earl of Haddenfield. The film bombed at the box office and with critics and proved to be MacCorkindale’s last major big screen role. Talk of succeeding both Sean Connery and Roger Moore as James Bond came to nothing.

But television saw more fruitful endeavours. MacCorkindale eventually secured the lead role in a pilot: NBC’s sci-fi fantasy series Manimal. He played Professor Jonathan Chase, your everyday English professor who aided the police with his ability to transform in any animal you can imagine. It may not have been the most high-brow show, but MacCorkindale broke new ground as one the first English actors to land a starring role on American television. With use of expensive prosthetics and inevitable ratings defeat to Dallas, Manimal was axed after just eight episodes. It does, however, retain a global cult following.

His longest running US role came in the legendary soap opera Falcon Crest, between 1984 and 1986. As Greg Reardon, Angela Channing’s (Jane Wyman) womanizing lawyer, he appeared in 59 episodes. The role was written for him and he also directed one episode. Although the producers were keen to extend MacCorkindale’s stay on the show, he opted to leave in 1986. “The work I was doing was fun and lucrative but not as stretching as I felt I wanted or needed,” he said. “I also was finding fault with much of the work, not only Falcon Crest, but everything. I was actually ready to quit acting and try producing so I could put myself on the line.”

True to his word he returned to England to try his hand at producing. His first marriage, to actress Fiona Fullerton, had lasted from 1976-1982, but in 1984 he married Straw Dogs star Susan George. With George he founded Amy International and Anglo Films International, producing a number of projects out of love, not financial viability. These included the 1988 Abelard and Heloise film Stealing Heaven and 1989′s The Summer of White Roses.

MacCorkindale did not abandon acting for long. He moved to Canada and starred alongside Christopher Plummer in Robert Lantos’ crime series Counterstrike, from 1990 to 1993. He played ex-Scotland Yard inspector Peter Sinclair in 65 episodes and also wrote for the series. His role of Maxwell Harding in the finale of the series E.N.G.  in 1994 was destined for a spin-off with the show’s lead Sara Botsford, but the project was cancelled. The same fate also befell MacCorkindale’s planned biopic of disappeared peer Lord Lucan.

Acting and production roles continued in Canada over the 1990s and early 2000s. These included TV films such as The Girl Next Door (1999) and roles in the series Earth: Final Conflict and Poltergeist: The Legacy. He co-wrote and directed The House That Mary Bought (1995) and produced the Genie Award nominated Such a Long Journey (1998). He co-produced and appeared in cult series Relic Hunter and Queen of Swords as well as producing Adventure Inc. He also reprised his role as Jonathan Chase in an episode of Night Man.

MacCorkindale rejected what could well have been the biggest role of his career and accepted what became his longest-running and for many his most memorable. He turned down the lead role of Captain Jonathan Archer in Star Trek: Enterprise, in favour of returning to the UK in 2002 and playing clinical lead Dr. Harry Harper in the long-running medical drama Casualty. He commented: “I can’t do sci-fi., it just drives me up the wall, it’s all rubbish and spouting that gibberish every day, was no thank you very much. The thing I loved about Casualty was although there was a lot of gobbledygook at least it was all about real life and people and medical situations and that became the challenge.”

The decision was probably a wise one, as Enterprise largely failed, but Casualty continued on. MacCorkindale appeared in 229 episodes of the show, as well as spin-offs Holby City and Casualty@Holby City, before leaving in 2008. Controller of BBC Drama, John Yorke, praised MacCorkindale: “As the star and male lead of Casualty for over six years we owe Simon a massive debt. Not only was he a fabulously iconic consultant, he was also an inspirational team leader. One of the reasons so many people have loved working with him on Casualty is because of the tone he established on the shop floor—always welcoming, always disciplined, always quietly the leader.”

MacCorkindale continued to run his Arabian stud farm in Exmoor with his wife, and returned to the stage. He starred in performances of The Unexpected Guest, Sleuth and played Captain von Trapp in a London Palladium run of The Sound of Music. He enjoyed small roles in the films A Closed Book (as Andrew Boles) and 13Hrs (as Duncan Moore) before playing civil servant Sir David Bryant in a 2010 episode of the BBC series New Tricks.

The latter proved, sadly, to be his final role. Although he continued to act as he fought the disease, in October 2010, MacCorkindale succumbed to the bowel and lung cancer he had suffered from since 2006.

He enjoyed a varied and broadly successful career, one that he certainly enjoyed. “I had an enormous amount of fun. I was very lucky. I got to work in a lot of popular shows, got to know a lot of well-known people and as a result I got into that whole A-list circle. I went to some extraordinary parties, made a name for myself and managed to make it last for 30 years. I’m a lucky bunny.”

He is survived by his wife Susan George. The two had no children.

Simon Charles Pendered MacCorkindale – Born: February 12, 1952, Ely Cambridgeshire, England; Died: October 14, 2010, London, England

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