On the Phone With Jim Dale

On the Phone With Jim Dale

Jim Dale has been a major star in his native Britain and here in his adopted homeland and city for more years than he may care to remember. But that’s OK. Consummate showman that he is, he’s remembered the best moments from those eight decades—he turns 79 on Aug. 15—and crafted them into a 90-minute, intermissionless show, Just Jim Dale, that is uproariously funny, slyly intelligent and totally engaging. Just like the man himself. But don’t let the “just” in the title fool you. Jim Dale may be alone up there onstage at the Laura Pels Theatre, but there’s nothing ordinary about him. He’s won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical (Barnum, 1980) and recorded the seven Harry Potter books (with their hundreds of characters and hundreds of unique voices: all voiced by him). And if you find yourself humming “Georgy Girl,” the pop classic from the 1966 movie of the same name, know that Dale penned the lyrics and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for Best Song.

When he and I spoke, he was suffering from a cold and an annoying cough that did nothing to suppress his humor and joie de vivre. Here he talks about how he put his show together, working with Laurence Olivier and his altogether stellar life in the theater. But to see him in person, you better make haste: Just Jim Dale ends its limited New York run on Aug. 10.

Francis Lewis: How’s the show going?

Jim Dale: We’ve been doing it for two or three years in and around New York. Just polishing it at tiny little venues. Now we’re here at the Laura Pels Theatre, and I’m so amazed at how comfortable it is to be doing this little show.  We seem to have ironed out all the little problems we had. We’ve edited it down so that there’s not one unnecessary word. But it’s still 12,500 words in an hour and a half.

FL: With a life and a career such as yours, where do you begin to put something like this together? And what do you leave out?

JD: Well, you leave out 65 years! [laugh]  You’ve got to try to squash all of this into 90 minutes. For instance, you cannot do a reading from Harry Potter [Jim Dale has recorded all seven Harry Potter books, for which he has won two Grammy Awards]. That’s the last thing people want because nine out of 10 people have never heard your audio books. Never mind how popular they are: Nine out of 10 people haven’t heard them. So, that would be a waste of time and energy. So, let’s do something different. Let’s describe that first day of recording Harry Potter. That now becomes funny, it becomes a routine, a comedy routine for three or four minutes, and it gets the laughs. We’ve edited out whatever didn’t push my career forward. There were so many things that didn’t. You know you move from one play to another to another, from one film to another. There's a new branch of show business that raises its ugly head, as it were, or raises its ugly curtain, and you go up that branch and explore it. And perhaps that—taking a new step in a new direction—is interesting. Those are the moments we—I say "we," but it’s not the royal we. Richard Maltby, my director, and I: We’ve worked on this so hard and for so long, editing out but also leaving in everything that we think are important steps.

FL: I don’t think anyone has climbed quite as many branches or taken as many steps as you have. I first knew you in the Carry On films. Even if you'd never been nominated for an Oscar, you'd have screen immortality because of them.

JD: The other day, Richard said, "Do you want to do this show in London?" I said, "No, no, nobody remembers me in London." Well, Richard’s over there now. "You’d be bloody surprised," he tells me. "They’re showing Carry On films twice a week. And they have been for 40 years. You’re as popular in Britain in the Carry Ons as MASH or The Honeymooners  or I Love Lucy are in the States. Everybody knows the dialogue, they love the old jokes, they love watching the old shtick."

FL: I love the names. Weren’t you Dr. Jim Kilmore in Carry On Doctor?

JD: And Marshal P. Knutt in Carry On Cowboy.

FL: And then, from the ridiculous to the sublime, Laurence Olivier asked you to join the National Theatre.

JD: I was there for two and a half years. I did a two-hander with Anthony Hopkins [The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria by Fernando Arrabal, 1971]. After the first night, Larry [Olivier] came backstage. I said, "How was it?" He said, "It was f••king long." I said, "How long was it?" "Nearly four f••king hours. Can you cut?" I said, "Yeah, all right. Tomorrow night, Tony [Anthony Hopkins], when I say dada dada dada, you say dada dada dada." And Tony Hopkins said, "We can’t do that." I said, "Yes, we can." And Larry said, "How much will that cut?" I said, "Two hours." He said, "Right, you’re on." So, the next night we went out and did two hours. And nobody noticed. Those were fun years, working with Jeremy Brett, Joan Plowright, Larry and Paul Scofield. Those were great days. Actually, it just dawned on me, I never talk about that [in the show]. I just talk about joining the National and doing Costard, the clown in Love’s Labour’s Lost. That’s all. I don’t even mention anything else. There’s no time. It's a matter of let’s just pick one story out of this era, one story out of that, one story here that was a stepping stone to this story here. That’s the way you have to do it or you will just stand up there talking all night. There’s no improvisation. I’m used to improvising as a stand-up comic. And I love reacting to the slightest thing that’s different from the audience, or as I think of something different. But in this, Richard Maltby, who’s a wordsmith—a wordaholic, I would say, he wrote Miss Saigon, Ain’t Misbehavin’—is very strict. So am I on myself now. I realize that by editing out the junk, until you’re down to the bare bones, that’s what’s interesting, not the waffling leading up to it.

FL: Is Just Jim Dale confessional theater?

JD: I don’t think it’s confessional. What I’m asking the audience to do is just join me on a little journey, or a long journey that I’ve made. And there are some beautiful views, some funny views along the way. But it’s not confessional. I don’t talk about my sex life or anything like that, or when I used to beat up my grandmother. All those I’ve edited out meticulously. So, it’s just a nice pleasant evening with Jim, I suppose. Sounds bloody boring, but I promise you it’s not.

FL: What has been the most surprising thing about putting this show together? Have you been surprised by the things you’ve come up with?

JD: Not surprised by the things I’ve come up with, but I have been surprised at how attentive, that’s the word, how attentive every audience is. Because they’re seeing that there’s not somebody up there who’s pushing it, who’s trying to show something off or trying to make outrageous claims or overacting. There’s just some guy up there who’s saying, "This is me, and this is the way it happened." And being absolutely 100 percent sincere. You know the old saying, once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. I treat the audience as if we were mates and we’re sitting around telling a few stories. There’s nothing large and explosive in it. I think that’s the way they like it. And the reaction has been wonderful. I actually go into the audience towards the end of the show, and that’s a magical five or six minutes. But it’s not mine, it belongs to a very, very famous writer, and I give him all the credit [spoiler alert: Shakespeare]. Things like that that you don’t normally see in a one-man show, a comic actually joining you for five minutes.

FL: Since you have so much material, might there be a sequel?

JD: I see no reason why there shouldn’t be, I’m just thinking of this, a bloody great—what do you call it?—a curtain hanging down with numbers 1 to 100 on it, and alongside each number, there's a little name that says “National” or “Larry” or "that word” or “that word.” You ask the audience to pick a number, and whatever number they pick, and whatever is alongside that number, is an actual memory that happened to you, so you’re not going to forget. And then you tell that story. So every night there would be an opportunity to tell up to 100 stories. I just thought of that, and I’m liking it. So, in answer to your question, will there be another Just Jim Dale? Perhaps More Just Jim Dale.

FL: You’ve climbed so many branches in your career, are there any branches that you haven’t tried that you’d like to?

JD: There are chances, opportunities that come along, and you have to say to yourself, "Do I really need to do this?" For instance, early on I was asked if I’d like to be a disc jockey for the BBC and I thought one day in the future I may be asked to play the part of a disc jockey in a play or a musical. Let’s see what it’s like and what it entails. So, I became a disc jockey for the BBC as well as an actor doing the Carry On films. I had a Saturday morning slot of children’s favorites from 10 o’clock until midday, two hours of answering children’s requests AND being funny answering them. Almost improvising, but in those days, you must realize, you were not allowed to improvise. You had to have four copies of the script for the censors. That’s how I got the sack, I just remembered. I got the sack because I was reading messages from the children and then I said, "Let’s go on to our next record. But before we do, do you realize there are over 7 million pygmies in Africa, all on the short side? So, you say, what’s this got to do with the next record? Well, nothing. But it just goes to show it’s a small world. Here’s the next record." Afterwards, they said there was an African mission that phoned up or something, and said I had ridiculed the pygmies of Africa. I said I had no intention. They didn’t give me a contract later on.

FL: Political correctness even then.

JD: Yes, exactly.

FL: Well, Jim, I better let you go and rest your voice. You’ve got a show tonight.

JD: Thank you for that. Otherwise, I’ll be signing it … and blaming you.


>> Just Jim Dale, Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., btw Sixth & Seventh aves., 212.719.1300


Photo of Jim Dale in Just Jim Dale, ©Joan Marcus