When Ringo sang the words of Buck Owens’ hit “Act Naturally” on the B side of the 1965 Beatles’ single “Yesterday,” little did he know that acting would become a second career of sorts. “Well, I’ll bet you I’m gonna be a big star. Might win an Oscar, you can never tell,” he wailed in his no-frills voice. Well, the plucky drummer may not have lasted a day in the acting workshops of Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler, but he managed to put his kooky stamp on a number of independently-made films through the years, sharing credits with acting giants like Peter Sellers and Richard Burton. And then there was that TV movie of his. Hmmm, does anybody out there remember Ognir Rrats (Ringo Starr spelled backwards)? Allow me to refresh your memory.
Ognir is a character Ringo created for himself in his hour-long 1978 TV special, Ringo — a musical version of Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.” In this twist, Ringo plays two roles: a famous rock drummer who’s bored with his glamorous, superficial lifestyle, and Ognir, a sad, bullied misfit. The identical strangers switch places for awhile, and each realizes that the lights aren’t always brighter on the other side of the concert hall. The story is narrated by Beatle George Harrison and features, in Hollywood parlance, a cavalcade of stars: Vincent Price, Art Carney, Angie Dickinson, and John Ritter, plus talk show host, Mike Douglas. Ringo drums and sings his way through the show, and even does a duet with Star Wars darling Carrie Fisher on “You’re Sixteen.”
Yes, the entire program was pure corn-pone and painful to watch at the time. Now, 37 years later, I find it quaint and amusing, particularly the opening press conference scene that features the sweet George Harrison answering a barrage of reporters’ questions.
But let’s not be too hard on Ringo. Like his former bandmates he was doing what he could to remain relevant in a post-Beatles rock world dominated by raucous stadium bands like Led Zeppelin and the take it easy strains of Southern California acts like The Eagles. In the 1970s, with a little help from his friends, Ringo released 7 solo LPs. His third album went platinum, his fourth went gold. He also churned out a dozen singles, his best and biggest being “It Don’t Come Easy” in 1971. All the while he was indulging in a variety of chemical substances as his 10-year marriage slowly crumbled.
It’s tough for a drummer to break big as a solo artist, especially one with a less than melodic voice. But Ringo had a fallback option: acting. This diminutive sad-faced boy with the deadpan Liverpudlian accent totally stole the show in both Beatles movies: A Hard Day’s Night (the title was his idea) and Help.
Ringo has appeared in more than a dozen non-Beatles feature films – from alcohol-fueled disasters like Harry Nilsson’s 1974 Son of Dracula, to surreal hippie flicks like Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, in which he played a character named Larry the Dwarf.
His first major project was the trippy 1968 sex comedy Candy. He played Emmanuel, a Mexican gardner in love with a nymphet. Not a memorable film, but he had the distinction of appearing in a movie featuring Brando and Burton.
But it was his second film, 1969’s The Magic Christian, that drew the most attention and is today considered a cult classic. It’s a page from the Monty Python school of comedy: an eccentric billionaire, played by the equally eccentric Peter Sellers, seeks a son. He adopts a homeless orphan, played by Ringo, and together they romp around London pulling anarchist stunts and playing satirical practical jokes on pompous socialites. The film co-starred Roman Polanski, Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough, and Yul Brynner, plus several members of the Python troupe.
Ringo’s next several projects bombed, but he bounced back in 1973 with That’ll Be The Day. It’s a drama about a disaffected young man named Jim (played by singer David Essex) who seeks an escape from his dreary life in early 1960s London – right at the start of the burgeoning rock scene. (The film’s subject matter is akin to The Who’s 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia,” which became a movie in 1979.) Jim hooks up with a cocky schemer named Mike (played by Ringo), and ends up taking a dead-end job at a holiday camp — chasing girls and going nowhere. The film and its its accompanying soundtrack album were very popular in the U.K.
Many poorly conceived and badly produced film projects and shorts followed. Then, in 1984 his acting career took off again — this time via the small screen — when he became the narrator/storyteller of the very popular U.K. animated children’s series Thomas The Tank Engine. His presence was wildly received. He next appeared as Mr. Conductor, the six-inch-tall host of the show’s American spin-off, Shining Time Station, which ran from 1989 to 1993. During this entire period Ringo managed to show up for work, despite his progressively destructive alcoholism. He and his wife, one-time “Bond Girl” Barbara Bach, entered rehab together in 1989 and they’ve been dry ever since.
So, there you have it. Today Ringo is among the most beloved rock stars of all time, revered by fans and fellow rockers alike. Once considered the Beatle least likely to succeed, he’s managed to keep on keeping on. He’s still releasing albums and touring with his All-Starr Band. I’m thrilled to say that Ringo high-fived me in 1995 as I waved my arms in front of the stage at his outdoor All Starr concert in Pittsburgh. What an experience. I TOUCHED The Beatle I most loved as a child. So the next time you see me, shake my right hand, blog followers, and feel the magic.
Here’s the trailer of the wonderfully kooky “The Magic Christian.” The film features the songs “Something in the Air,” by Thunderclap Newman, and “Come And Get It,” written by Paul McCartney and performed by Badfinger.
And here’s part 1 of Ringo’s wonderfully tacky 1978 TV special. It’s worth a look, if only to see George Harrison as Ringo’s press attaché at the start of the movie.
© Dana Spiardi, July 7, 2013