Sunday, 29 November 2015

We'll Take it as an Omen - An interview with Elizabeth Shepherd

I pulled my car up to the gate and got out. My new job was due to start tomorrow and I wanted to get a look and a feel of the place beforehand. 

My God! The house was huge! Much bigger than I had envisaged. I just hoped I could navigate around the place, let alone look after a child there... Imagine the game of hide and seek! Mind you I think that, at 12 this kid was a bit too old for silly games like that... and from what I had heard an Ouija board would have been more his cup of tea! 

I was told to watch my back after what had happened to his last governess, but I took it all with a pinch of salt... Seriously how much damage could a 12 year-old do?  Nag me to death for sweets?! Ha! That other nanny must have had a bit of a screw loose or something... Mind you, looking after children is a very stressful job at times!

But what was it with all these crows?! They were everywhere and they seemed to have followed me up here... And I swear they were watching me now with their beady little black eyes... 

They gave me the shivers! Actually this whole situation made me feel uncomfortable...

I noticed a face in the window, it was pretty far away, but I could make out a young boy, he had dark hair and a pallid complexion. His face seemed expressionless and he had a gaze that could cut through glass... Damien, I thought... It had to be Damien... The boy I was to take care of and he was watching me... 

Suddenly I got the feeling that something was telling me to leave this place... and quick!

I got back into my car and pulled away, but as I started down the road something felt wrong... Something felt strange... Like I wasn't in total control of the car... I felt as if someone, or some unknown force was steering and controlling the speed... I could see a fork in the road up ahead and tried to bare right to get back to town.

But I couldn't seem to steer! The car wouldn't let me! I held the wheel as tight as I could and desperately tried to turn it, but it wouldn't budge and the fork was coming up fast
! I jammed my foot on the break, but the car kept on moving... faster and faster... I was going to crash... Please stop I cried at no one... Or whatever was doing this... PLEASE STOP!!... But....


"Hello, look, you've been in a crash, but you're OK, the ambulance is coming" said a kind, well-spoken and surprisingly familiar voice.

What the heck? What did she mean? A crash? Ambulance? And why did her voice seem so familiar?

I tried to move, but I think my leg was broken and my vision was blurred.. All I could make out was that this was a woman, with blond hair and a kind smile... Blurred vision couldn't hide that... But that voice... Why did I know that voice?

I asked her name and it was only then I realised why she seemed so familiar... 

My kind, blond Good Samaritan was none other than Elizabeth Shepherd... 

Elizabeth Shepherd (born 12 August 1936) is an English character actress whose long career has encompassed the stage and both the big and small screens. Her television work has been especially prolific. Best known for The The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) and Damien: Omen 2 (1978)

Still unable to see and with a while to wait for the ambulance - which was going to be a quite some time navigating down these tiny country lanes - I asked Elizabeth about herself... Well, I was never going to get an opportunity like this again!

"I was born in London, emigrated [to the U.S.] in 1965 and we would go to and fro... I've lived in LA and Canada and upper Manhattan in an apartment looking over the Hudson River  - I'm an international traveller you might say!"

So how did you start performing?
"As a minister's daughter - my parents were missionaries in Burma - my first public appearances were accompanying my mother to missionary meetings dressed in Burmese costume, Burmese dancing and taking part in church socials. 

But I always enjoyed using my imagination... When I read something I would enter into the story... imagining I was somebody else was something I love to do, so it was natural to do it as a vocation. 

I've always considered being an artist - an actor, an actress  - is a vocation not just a career.

And where did you train?
"I went to Bristol University  and then straight into repertory. I learnt on the job - my Shakespeare teacher at Bristol University was Bertram Joseph, who wrote wonderful books about Shakespeare for actors, so that was a bonus! Then I went to a wonderful voice teacher Iris Warren... But I learnt on the job, First of all at the Manchester library theatre and then on an arts Council tour with Romeo and Juliet and then the season at Nottingham Playhouse, then back to Bristol at the Bristol old Vic." 

And at what point did you decide to start working in film and TV?
"Early on, if you look at my IMDb, you'll see how much television I did! 

The 60s and 70s it was golden age of television drama. All the best writers were writing for anthologies - series like the Wednesday play - there are lots of plays written specifically for television at that time... I also did things like Emergency Ward 10..."

Dixon of Dock Green too? 
"Oh yes I was in them all!
But there was lots of work for all of us  then that there isn't really now, not with all that reality television, taking work away from professionals..."

And what about movies?
"My first movie was with the great Michael Powell - of The Red Shoes fame- The Queens Guard... Yes, I was in a movie with the Queen! It starts with the trooping of the colour and was set over a period of 10 years. It's about three Guardsmen and I played Susan, a model, who is dating them... going from one to another. 

And my second film was the Tomb of Ligeia, directed by Roger Corman and with Vincent Price, in the last and the best of the Edgar Allen Poe series. 

It had wonderful scripts by Robert Towne. It's was love story and a real psychological thriller. I think that is why it's really considered the Cream of the Poe films. I'm really proud of it, it's stood the test of time... 

I play Ligeia, the dead wife, and also Rowena the living wife - both very remarkable women - and of course there's Vincent Price. I think people underestimate what a wonderful actor he was... He sent up the whole horror thing later on in his career."

I bet people ask you all the time, but what was he like?
"He was funny and a great raconteur... a connoisseur of the arts cooking... 

So does everyone ask you about him? 
"Yes because everyone loves him and curious about what he was like...  I couldn't praise him enough... 

I think they cast me because although I was young [aged 28] I had a more mature quality, after all Vincent was already 53 years old! But I had no trouble falling in love with him and it was a joy to do."

He was as charismatic off the camera as he was on then?
"Oh yes! I mean that voice! He was the most attractive man."

"Vincent could've been a bitch, he could've been very patronising but in fact he was so professional and respectful of a fellow actors and when he saw that I was producing the goods he delighted in having somebody to play with. "

And that voice?! Was real then? He didn't camp it up for the cameras them?
No, no! In fact in Ligeia the drama was straight. The emotional turmoil that we were all in was played straight... It was later that he camped it up! Victoria Price, in her book, talks about how Vincent regarded these films in the same way as Shakespeare!"

Do you have any funny stories about Vincent? 
"Well one can always talk about his panache and style.... 
One day we were going to - or from - the set and I  simply hadn't had time to get to the bank, so I said "Vincent can you possibly lend me any money?" and he said "Darling of course!" Then he got this Little gold fob out of his pocket, and out of it took a small scrap of white paper... which he unfolded, and unfolded until it was really revealed that it was one of those old-fashioned - I mean this was the 60s - huge 5 pound notes! He handed me out with a flourish and said "there you are darling keep the change!"... And that was Vincent."

And Roger Corman?
"... and of course Roger Corman is the one of the great men of cinema...

The thing about the Tomb of Ligeia is that I didn't think of it as a horror film... In fact Vincent and Roger Corman don't consider it as a horror film either. 

Corman was very interested in Poe's preoccupation with the subconscious and the psychological implications... 

He is a very interesting man, although he made all that so-called schlock... a most intelligent man! To learn to work with the actors he himself went to the actor's studio to take the courses so that he knew what the actor's process was."

That's dedication!

"Before the film he would talk to each actor, so the character was already established, so that once we came for the filming he could concentrate on how to set up the scene... He is a wonderful visual storyteller. He would entrust the role to Vincent and I so then we would rehearse together

Coleman introduced so many people to the cinema... Scorsese Coppola, it goes on and on...

89 years old and again a very classy guy!" 

And a very clever one!

"People say he's king of the B's, I say he's king of the whole alphabet as far as cinema is concerned!"

And the fans love it!
In 2008 I started being asked to go to the conventions in America, I have been most touched by the ardour of the fans of this genre."

And you acted with a black cat...
"Oh yes, the Amateur cat we had on location - The one that was always on the tomb in the first shot belonged to a lady from Swaffham and was the best actor. But when filming the scene where the cat jumps on the coffin and Ligeia's eyes spring open the cat ran off and disappeared and we had to look for it! I hope somebody found it in the end because it was her real cat! 

We had several professional cats in the studio and they were not so accomplished... I mean the cat who had those glasses taped on, the one who is luring me up the bell tower, oh that cat couldn't bear having those on his face!

And then in the scene where the cat attacks me... the cat wrangler would be off camera and just throwing the cat at me! in the final scene of the battle with the cat, Vincent had the cats thrown him quite a bit too!"

Poor cats!

And of course I had to learn to ride and I'm not a horsewoman myself. Dorothy - the horse wrangler - taught me side-saddle, which I actually found easier, because your right leg is around a hook on one side and your left leg is braced between the stirrup and another hook that goes the other way.

Was it you jumping?
"No, she did the jump and when the horse reared and again there were lots of animals for different purposes. I was given the really boring horse but I thought oh god no! Rowena [my character] would never be seen dead on this boring horse and so I took the sprightly horse and rode into shot! Ha ha!"

In that beautiful dress as well!?

The costume for the riding sequence was meant to be the beige and blue dress I wear in the next sequence, but I said oh no! Rowena would be on a hunting red! So they made the costume for me..."

Now there is an iconic sequence, that we have already briefly mentioned, the scene in the coffin... Was is spooky? And how did you keep that deathly stare for so long?!
"That was one of the hardest shots I had to do, but I didn't have time to think about it being spooky, but it was one of the last shots, so we had to get it right and I was having to look up into bright sunlight and keep my eyes open and not move and that was very difficult.!"

And how did you keep your eyes from watering?
"In order to do that I had to press my arms and legs against the sides of the coffin as hard as I could, so that I could remain corpse like and keep my eyes open long enough.! 

I suddenly became aware of hundreds of small dark shadows in the trees all around us... Oh my God, it was the crows!  I may have been partially blind, but their eerie presence and incessant squawking was unmistakable... Had they followed me? Surely they couldn't be the ones from before? But if anyone had experience of crows, it was Elizabeth, which led me onto my next question...

You then went on to appear in the 1978 film The Omen 2...
"Oh Yes!"

So how did you get the part of Joan Hart?
"Let me go back to the beginning... Because first of all I'd moved to Hollywood and met Mike Hodges, and I mean talk about being in the right place at the right time... they were looking for an English woman to play Joan Hart and there I was so I was immediately cast."


"Mike Hodges was the original director and was also co-writer... and as you know was a very classy film with a very high class cast - and Mike wanted to make the second one even classier... he wanted the look of it to be gorgeous and to explore the mixed feelings that the boy had when he discovered the role for which had been chosen, and go into his inner conflict. 

At the reading we had before we started filming - in the scene where Damian has just discovered who he is - it was heart-breaking because it was so real and there was real pain there. 

It was his choice that I wore that wonderful Red coat.""

Oh that coat!
"Mike wanted some of the visuals to look like paintings of Edvard Munch. In his paintings there is often a female figure - a Cassandra figure - in red, and I was the Cassandra and this film... I was the first one who knew who the boy was and I was the first one is bringing the news William Holden and then Lee Grant. 

So when Mike filmed the first version of my death, he wanted a real Hitchcock effect, drawing tension out... So the car goes wrong and Joan Hart gets out and there are the birds. Then Joan sees the farm in the distance, and when she looks around the bird is gone... So she starts walking towards the barn... So now both she and the audience think 'oh okay it's not going to happen'... and then that's when it happens! It was brilliant! 

But Fox came in and said 'Oh no! come on we want it to be quicker...  quicker, blood and gore, to do this death and get on with the next one... So they fired him and I was terribly upset!"

I can understand why!
"The guy - Ray Berwick - who trained the birds was the same man from Hitchcock movie - The Birds - we had three birds; Windy was the long distance but with been trained to done a certain branch, Tuffy was the heavy pecker I worked with Tuffy in the mask, I wore a fibreglass mask of my face over my own face to protect me from all the heavy pecking,  which was actually the most frightening part because Fibreglass is very thin and a bird of prey is very strong and was pecking and eighth of an inch away from my eye!  
Then Mike then came to me and said Elizabeth 'it's very effective but we can't do any close-ups with the mask' and so I worked with a third bird who had been trained to land on black hair and peck blue eyes"

Without the mask? 
"As I like him so much and because I wanted the thing to be as effective as it could be, I said yes. So the bird  - Big Boy - was tied to my black wig with threads and just before we set off running down the road I was handed hamburger... 

A Hamburger?!
"It was not a whole hamburger they gave me to fend off the bird - just pieces of hamburger meat!
So I'm looking as though I'm trying to ward off the beast with my left hand but in my other hand I'm holding up hamburger to stop the bird pecking at me! 

But the birds pecking me with the mask on was actually more frightening than the bird tied to my hair... In fact I began to worry because they got such spindly legs that it would break them! And by the end I think the bird was more frightened than I was!" 

So, how many takes did you do?
"Quite a lot! There was all the falling down in the ditch and all that business! 

And then there was the Mack truck sequence, but that was done by my stunt double. 

They attached a flatbed to the truck and put a swing on it and she was meant to swing... swing... swing and Joan Hart was meant to land on top of it in a sort of crucifix position. And in the first take she swung... swung... swung... but not quite high enough and she slammed against the side of it! Fortunately there was somebody on the side of the wheel to push her out of the way, otherwise she would've been under it! And then she very bravely got up and said 'Come on let's do this properly'... And the next time she did land on the top... But they liked the accident better... So what do you see in the film is somebody really nearly getting killed!"

"When I watch my death it revives those feelings, because when one put ones heart and soul into it and opens oneself to the possibility of danger it's scary! If your fudging it - if you're pretending - it's never as powerful... It was a real person in a real situation! 

But somehow the heightened energy of a situation like that, when you're creating something extraordinary, sharpens all your senses in a way that you can be up for it. 

It's a unique experience!"

Was it ever unnerving to look at the actor who played Damian, Jonathan Scott Taylor?
"No but I thought he was awfully good."

Yes, he was very intense.

"... And although I think the film is extremely effective I would of loved to have seen the version that Mike Hodges would've made - exploring those mixed feelings  - and I'm sure Jonathan Scott Taylor could have done that..."

How lucky was I? Working with one very classy guy, Vincent Price and then to work with William Holden, another VERY classy guy!
That man [Holden] is so at home on the screen, you know when I got into the car with him it couldn't have felt more real!"

While working with all these fabulous actors, have you ever been star struck? 
"I have to say I was thrilled to work with them... but what was so nice that was that in both these cases they treated me like a fellow actor. Now Peter Weller he did not treat one like a fellow actor... but he is a lesser actor himself..."

And what happened to the coat? 
"OOOh I don't know what happened to the coat, I would have loved to have had it though!"
Me too!!

"It probably ended up in a memorabilia museum. In fact Forest Ackerman in LA, has Joan Hart's shoes and bag which I donated to his museum." 

And what was your initial reaction when you read the Omen 2 script"
"Well I thought of the birds, the Hitchcock movie, but I had no idea it was going to be so dramatic, or that scene becoming so iconic!

I knew it was going to be a bit of a dare to do it and I welcomed that. The first one was known for its spectacular deaths and I thought oh this is a gift that people will remember."

And Omen 3?
"I though the third film was disappointing.... 

What is interesting about it was what Thorn Industries is doing this genetically modified food stuff... which is really rather relevant now!"


Now I have read that you were the first Emma Peel in The Avengers...
"Well, yes, Julian Wintle cast me as Emma Peel... Because I was very, very big on television... and he said we going to do it on film and not tape, it's going to be 10 times better and we welcome your own ideas... So in my enthusiasm I inundated him with ideas and by the middle of the second episode I was too much, so I was out and Diana Rigg was in!"

But I was the first Emma Peel! 

Another red outfit! Do you wear much red in everyday dress?
"Yes but not all the time!"

"Do you ever watch the Diana Rigg versions and think 'oh if only'? 
"No I don't think I given myself that additional pleasure ha ha!"

And you've worn some fabulous costumes during your career, do you have a favourite outfit - and is it red?
"The coat... yes, that was marvellous, but do if you ever have a chance to view The Corridor People - which was a series that I made after the avengers,  a crazy series is made out of Granada, written by a guy named Eddie Boyd....  It was such fun, I played a Persian adventurous called Syrie Van Epp. It is crazy! It's like a satire on all those thrillers... - Anyway the costumes in that were miraculous! They were like in a fantasy! There also was a series on Thames television called Romance - a play written from a book by Eleanor Glynn (who created the 'It' girl). She wrote a book called Three Weeks, a romance between an exotic older woman and a young English man, and the costumes in that are amazing!" 

So what is your personal career highlight?
"The theatre is my greatest love because the actor it is entrusted with the whole role, from beginning to end... [I got] the chance to play Blanche Dubois and many of the Shakespeare roles, from Juliet through to Queen Catherine and Henry the eighth. Those great classical roles and the ones I've played more recently... 

I mean you start with Ophelia, then you end up as Gertrude... "

So the say never work with children or animals and you've worked with plenty of the later, so what makes the better actor, cats or birds? 
"Well the birds were very professional I must say, more professional than the cats!"

Well these birds were very professional, at hunting at least... They started closing in... I still couldn't see more than a haze, but you couldn't mistake their blackness in front of my eyes, or their shrill squawking. I asked Elizabeth if everything was OK and she assured me it was going to be fine, but however good an actress she was, I could tell that she was just being kind, telling me that to placate me... We were in danger, real danger... I could sense it... and I still couldn't move. 


They seemed to be getting closer...


And even closer... Now I could feel the breeze of the birds wings and the feeling of dread was getting stronger by the second....


I felt the brush of a feathered wing on my cheek... 


Oh my lord! The birds were on me now... They were pecking at me... I heard Elizabeth scream and run off down the road... I flayed me arms in front of me helplessly, but the birds were relentless... I felt my skin being tugged at and ripped of my face, hands and neck... I screamed for Elizabeth, but she didn't answer, all I could hear was her screams and her footsteps as she ran... I called out for anyone... boy, I could have really done with a hamburger right now...

Then I heard it, the familiar wail of an ambulance siren... Thank god! I was saved... I called out again to Elizabeth, but this time heard nothing...

But why wasn't it slowing down? In fact why did it sound like it was speeding up and heading straight in my direction?!.........? Oh God no....... Please.... Please.....


  To find out more about Elizabeth check out her IMDB page, Wikipedia page or her Website.

Or you can watch her live at:

The "Evening with Elizabeth Shepherd" is on Friday 4th December 2015 at 7.30 at The Cinema Museum

2 Dugard Way, Renfrew Road, London SE 11 4TH 
Call 020 7840 2200 for ticket information...

I highly recommend it... If she got away that is....

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