Donald Henry Pleasence was born October 5, 1919, in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England. The English actor was a star of stage and screen for nearly 6 decades. He was talented, versatile, and prolific. To the horror community, he was, and still is, an icon. Though he’s been gone nearly 25 years now, his memory lives on. We’d like to take a moment to reflect on Pleasence’s life and career in 2019, on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Donald Pleasence – Early Life and Career
Donald Pleasence decided at an early age he wanted to be an actor. He said in 1961:
“From the age of eight or nine, I knew I was going to be an actor. I never considered being anything else.”
Pleasence took a job as an assistant stage manager in 1939 and worked on local productions. World War II was escalating, and in 1941, he joined the Royal Air Force and flew on bomber missions over Europe. He was shot down in 1943 and spent time in a German P.O.W. camp, where he helped entertain his fellow prisoners in a makeshift theater group. This experience would no doubt help him years later when he appeared as a prisoner of war, Blythe the Forger, in The Great Escape.
Donald Pleasence – Television Roles
Donald Pleasence moved on from his early theater work into television in the 1940s. He starred with Peter Cushing in a BBC adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, for which he earned rave reviews. Pleasence lost his hair at an early age, and it became part of his signature look.
“For a while, I wore a toupee because I thought it would help me get work. But it didn’t, so eventually, I threw it away and said, “They’ll have to take me the way I am.”
He would later appear in genre television shows like The Outer Limits (“The Man With The Power”) and The Twilight Zone (“The Changing Of The Guard”). That turn on The Twilight Zone was his first television appearance in America. It’s a solid episode, too, the final one from Season 3. You can stream it on Netflix.
Donald Pleasence – The Villain
Donald Pleasence was often cast as a villain, a madman, or both. He even played Lucifer in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). His villainous turns in films in the ’50s and ’60s culminated in him playing the ultimate bad guy: Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond adventure, You Only Live Twice.
“I shall look forward personally to exterminating you, Mr. Bond.”
A signature role, to be sure. A definitive performance: often imitated, never duplicated, not even if you count Mike Myers’ brilliant Doctor Evil parody in Austin Powers.
Donald Pleasence – The 1970s
Donald Pleasence continued working steadily throughout the 1970s. In 1971, he worked with George Lucas on THX 1138. To no one’s surprise, he continued to prove his worth as a memorable villain, playing the bad guy in Disney’s Escape To Witch Mountain in 1975. This was a favorite of my childhood. He also portrayed Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed (1976) and went up against Charles Bronson in Telefon (1977).
I don’t want to give anyone the impression he NEVER played the good guy. In fact, he’s stared down some great villains over the years. He went up against Dracula (Frank Langela) in 1979, as well as the man who played Dracula many times, Christopher Lee, in Raw Meat (1972). Despite his small stature, Pleasence had the gravitas to make his characters larger than life. Check out this terse exchange between the 5′ 7″ Pleasence and 6′ 5″ Lee.
Enter John Carpenter
Donald Pleasence was not John Carpenter’s first choice to play Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween (1978), but I think we can agree it all worked out for the best. Halloween became one of the most successful indie films of all time, and Pleasence and Carpenter would go on to work together for years. When Pleasence got the script for Halloween, he told Carpenter:
“I don’t know why I’m in this movie, and I don’t know who my character is. The only reason I’m doing this movie is because I have alimony to pay, and my daughter in England is in a rock ‘n’ roll group, and she said the music that you did for Assault On Precinct 13 is cool.”
I guess you could say the Carpenter/Pleasence relationship got off to an interesting start.
Pleasence, for his part, had some incredibly nice things to say about the horror master:
“John Carpenter is the best director I ever worked with. One of the main reasons is his bravery in the way he’s cast me in his films. By casting me as the president in Escape From New York (1981) and as the essentially good Dr. Loomis in the original Halloween (1978), he gave me the opportunities that might have been missed had I stayed a stereotypical madman. That casting against type is what made Prince of Darkness (1987) such a lovely bit of business for me. People were walking into the theaters expecting me to be bad, and I ended up representing all the good in the universe.”
Prince of Darkness is on Shudder, by the way. I revisited it recently, and it is, truly, one of Carpenter’s most unsung masterpieces.
The Carpenter / Pleasence Relationship Continues
The Carpenter-Pleasence connection was well established, but it was nearly even stronger. Pleasence was originally going to play Blair in Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), but there was a scheduling conflict. Wilford Brimley took the role in his stead.
Carpenter’s feelings about Pleasence were mutual. He told USA Today, when they asked him, “Who is the most interesting actor you ever worked with?:”
“That’s a tough one. I’m going to have to say Donald Pleasence. Not only did he become a close friend of mine, but Donald Pleasence had a way of reading lines and playing scenes that were completely unexpected.
“I would write a line on a piece of paper when I was writing the script, I would hear it, and he could turn that line around and say it in a completely different way and make it even better. He was really an interesting man.”
Pleasence, of course, continued to work on the Halloween franchise for years. He appeared in Halloween II, then returned years later for Parts 4 and 5. Producer Moustapha Akkad once asked Donald Pleasence how many more Halloween films he was planning to make. Donald replied, “I stop at twenty-two!”
Sadly, Donald died during the filming of Part 6. The film was ultimately dedicated to his memory.
Donald Pleasence has some 234 acting credits to his name on IMDb. Over the years, he dabbled a bit in writing, and he has one lone directing credit. His passion was obviously for acting… and for living life. Along the way, he had time for four wives, and five daughters. He often joked that he needed to keep working because he always needed the money. With four wives and five daughters, I can only imagine. For Pleasence, horror became a means to an end.
“I like to work, and horror films definitely keep me working.”
One critic mused in the Halloween II commentary that the reason Pleasence was so prolific was because he never turned down a role. That may very well be true. If so, isn’t that a lucky thing for us, the fans?
I say yes.
Donald Pleasence was great in everything. There isn’t a movie, television show or stage play he did that wasn’t instantly improved by his involvement. Yes, he made a great villain, but he’ll always be a hero to horror fans.
Rest in peace, Donald Pleasence. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten. Happy 100th birthday, good sir.