It seems every generation had its big screen Lancelot. My mother’s was Franco Nero (and I claim him, too, because I selfishly want more than one!) Some fans a couple of years before him might have liked Cornel Wilde. Recent ones have included Ioan Gruffudd and Richard Gere (please…) The one my generation probably identifies the most with the role is Excalibur’s Nicholas Clay. Mr. Clay is the divine subject of today’s posting!
Nicholas Anthony Phillip Clay was born in London, England in 1946. With an early interest in acting, he eventually enrolled at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. As a teen, he enjoyed small roles in British television and one feature film, These are the Damned, a 1963 Hammer Studios thriller about captive radioactive children.
In 1971, at age 25, Clay filmed The Night Digger, a mysterious drama concerning two sisters (Patricia Neal and Pamela Brown) who take in a boarder/handyman (Clay) who may very well be responsible for some ugly strangulation killings taking place nearby! The hunky, humpy Clay had several shirtless scenes, including one in his tightie-whities and, most surprisingly, a love scene with Neal who was twenty years his senior.
Neal, who had recovered from a debilitating stroke not long before, was making her second foray before the camera in the wake of it. (Her prior film, The Subject Was Roses, netted her an Oscar nomination, but it was three years before she followed it up with this.) Her stroke was written into the plot rather than have her try to mask the resultant symptoms of it.
Clay was charming and dangerous all at once. His unusual features (sort of caveman-ish, at times, to be honest) were alternately beautiful or rather brutish, depending on the angle and the lighting. He was already establishing a screen persona that equated to desirability at the risk of personal danger.
With his thick mop of hair and a sexy voice, Clay continued to work in the West End in various stage plays as well and did several of Laurence Olivier’s productions at the legendary Old Vic. One of them, The Misanthrope, would eventually transfer to Broadway, bringing him some attention in America.
First, however, Clay won the starring role in The Darwin Adventure, the tale of famed naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin, who sails off around the southern tips of the world in order to investigate the geology and try to inform himself about the evolution of mankind. His five-year voyage around the globe aboard the HMS Beagle is filled with strenuous conditions and events.
Adventure or not, Charles Darwin was a bit of a hard sell to many moviegoers and the movie had little impact (and, in fact, is extremely scarce today!) He was a game lead actor for such a film, but it didn’t help set his movie career on fire.
It was in 1975 that he made his way to America to play in The Misanthrope on Broadway. His costar was no less than Diana Rigg and it was she who gleaned most of the attention at awards time. Ms. Rigg would play a part in Clay’s professional life more than once. When their time on The Great White Way was over, she made a British television movie called In This House of Brede, about a wealthy businesswoman who decides to become a nun and Clay was cast in a supporting role.
Nicholas continued to do terrific work, but in supporting parts. He was unhappy scientist Alan Campbell in a BBC production of The Picture of Dorian Gray and good friend to Dr. Victor Frankenstein in The Terror of Frankenstein, a low-budget take on the oft-told story. The telefilm Saturday, Sunday, Monday, based on a play, put him in the company of such actors as Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Edward Woodward and Underworld favorite Judy Parfitt!
He also played The Earl of Southampton in a British miniseries called Life of Shakespeare (with Tim Curry as the title personage!) Then, in 1979, he one of many notable British stars to appear in Zulu Dawn, a prequel to the eye-popping action film Zulu. Along with American Burt Lancaster, the film included Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott, Bob Hoskins, Peter Vaughn, Christopher Cazenove and Peter O’Toole.
In 1980, he married Lorna Heilbron, who would remain his spouse for the rest of his life and give him two children.
Finally, 1981 brought his, perhaps, his most famous role, that of Lancelot in John Boorman’s Excalibur, an opulent, but visceral, retelling of the Arthurian legend that included the famous characters of Arthur, Guenevere, Merlin, Morgana, Mordred and Gawain, most of them played by stalwart actors such as Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson and others.
In the dark, dank world of the film, Clay’s brilliantly gleaming armor stands out. His blue eyes are at contrast with the murky, mystical surroundings. When he finally gives in and makes love to his best friend’s wife, they awaken in a lush, green glade, that is after he dreams of himself fighthing in the nude, his perfect naked body standing out against the background. How many times did we watch this on cable TV, waiting and waiting for the moment to arrive when we got to see Clay without his armor?!
In order for any telling of the Arthur and Guenevere story to work, Lancelot must be alluring enough for the queen to give up everything in order to satisfy her desire for him. I think I still consider Franco to be the very best looking Lance, but as far as I'm concerned, Nicholas Clay is also more than adequate for the task!
That same year, he starred as the title figure in the miniseries The Search for Alexander the Great, a project that also starred James Mason and Gabriel Byrne. 1981 continued to offer up plenty of Nicholas Clay. He was cast as the groundskeeper Oliver Mellors in an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
A sort of softcore rendition of the famous D. H. Lawrence book, it starred Sylvia Kristel as the wife of a highborn husband who is paralyzed and unable to make love to her. Initially patient with this situation, she eventually begins to fall for another man, something her husband has suggested she do. The problem is, it’s her gardener, a man far below her in station!
This time Clay abandoned all remnants of screen modesty and filmed a frontally nude bathing scene, one that is secretly observed by Kristel. His beefy, manly persona is too much for her to resist any further and the two embark upon a passionate, but doomed, love affair.
The film is cheaply made by the infamous Golan & Globus production team and directed by Just Jaeckin, the man who gave the world The Story of O and Emmanuelle (which also starred Kristel), but thanks to some atmospheric photography and the use of a spectacular mansion for a setting, it comes close to masking its budget. Again, people of a certain age will clearly remember this film popping up on cable and how they waited in anticipation for Clay’s nude scene.
The rugged, burly, hairy looks he sported here are at odds with the many more debonair and slick types of roles he played, but they are most welcome. As the saying goes, “He can chop my wood or hoe my garden any time!” While the images of him rolling around with Kristel, planting flowers in her hair (and I do I mean ALL of her hair!) probably didn’t help legitimize his acting career, it did give the world the gift of his hunky, undressed self.
Still not done with this surge of work, 1981 also brought him the role of the famed lover Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde fame) in Lovespell. In a role very similar to that of Lancelot, he once again played “the other man,” this time opposite Kate Mulgrew and Richard Burton. Despite a cast that included Cyril Cusack and Geraldine Fitzgerald, the film was not a hit and is practically forgotten today.
1982 found him once again surrounded by a bevy of great and fun actors in the Agatha Christie whodunit Evil Under the Sun. As the husband of a sickly looking Jane Birkin, he played the handsome and virile Patrick Redfern who rather openly carries on an affair with the elegant (and delightfully bitchy) Diana Rigg, his old costar from The Misanthrope on Broadway.
The stellar cast also included Peter Ustinov, James Mason, Roddy McDowall, Maggie Smith and Sylvia Miles. Filmed in the breathtaking Balearic Islands of Spain and accented by Cole Porter music interpolated into the score, it’s an elegant and classy affair. Everything, however, takes a back seat to the sight of Nicholas trotting around in a snug, abbreviated pair of swim trunks that caress his sun-kissed body. (Look. I take these things very seriously! Ha ha!) As always, his acting was terrific and he was a joy to watch.
The next year he appeared in a very well received TV version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which let him sink his teeth into a villainous role. 1984 brought one of his more intriguing parts, this of the story of St. Sebastian called The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Clay played Emperor Augustus who falls in love with Sebastian, the chief archer in his Roman Army.
When Sebastian (played by a young Michael Biehn) turns to Christianity and, in turn, rejects the love of Clay, Clay orders him to be shot to death by a team of his fellow archers. The film is given an unusual present day wraparound story, setting the tale of Sebastian more in the category of a dream or flashback. Whatever the case, it’s always nice to see Clay in a homoerotic scenario.
This same year would see him as one of the leads in one of American TV’s most hooty miniseries (and that is saying something!) The Last Days of Pompeii told the story of various citizens of that legendary city scrambling around due to various dramas until everything climaxes with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Clay played a wealthy, kind Greek, living among Roman people, who pines for priestess Olivia Hussey. Hussey’s high priest brother (ironically enough, former Lancelot Franco Nero) will have none of it.
Throw in gladiator Duncan Regehr, kindly whore Lesley-Anne Down, statesman Laurence Olivier (and his wife Siobhan McKenna), social-climbing Ned Beatty (!), overseer of the gladiators Ernest Borgnine (!) and blind slave Linda Purl (!!) and you have a smorgasbord of cheesy, campy delights. Nicholas practices the discus in a teensy skirtlet and wrestles with Regehr. It’s yet another opportunity to see Clay in his physical glory, but his days in the sun were becoming quite numbered.
In 1987, he was seen (by about twelve people) in the bizarre Sleeping Beauty, one of nine feature film musicalizations of classic fairy tales produced by Golan & Globus for Cannon Films in the mid 80s. The series was intended to consist of sixteen films, but after the first one, Rumpelstiltskin, starring Amy Irving and Billy Barty, flopped at the box office, the remainder, including this one, went straight to home video.
Looking quite preposterous in the most unfortunate of hats, he played Prince to Tahnee Welch’s sleeping Princess Rosebud. (Welch swiftly replaced a fired Page Hannah after shooting had already commenced!) That Morgan Fairchild plays the Queen ought to clue you in on the caliber of the proceedings, though Sylvia Miles as the evil Red Fairy tried in vain to make an impression in the cheap, made-on-the-fly production. Jane Wiedlin, of all people, plays a good fairy while special effects makeup maestro Kenny Baker portrays an elf.
That same year, he appeared in the film Lionheart: The Children’s Crusade, all about young Eric Stoltz and his attempts to join King Richard’s crusades, but distracted by a villain who is kidnapping children for use as slaves. The heavily troubled film was actually shot several years before and reedited a couple of times before seeing a brief release. Collectors praise the Jerry Goldsmith score as one of his all-time best, but the movie has been M.I.A. for years.
Farrah Fawcett, who had gone to great lengths to shed her bimbo image and emerge as an actress made Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story and Clay was cast as the debonair first of her seven husbands. His real life character, Prince Alexis Mdivani, was a man who deliberately married into money (he divorced one of the Astors to marry Hutton!), but who died in a car accident not long after Hutton divorced him, so she almost needn’t have bothered.
American audiences saw less and less of Clay after this. He returned to the U. K. to work on a few television series including Gentlemen and Players (which featured a theme song by Petula Clark) and Virtual Murder, a crime investigation series that costarred him with Kim Thompson (of Stealing Heaven.) The offbeat show took its cue from The Avengers, and has devoted fans even now though there were only six episodes, but it was abruptly cancelled and scarcely seen again.
In the GCI-heavy miniseries The Odyssey, which starred Armand Assante and a gallery of other familiar faces like Isabella Rossellini, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Lee, Vanessa Williams, Eric Roberts and Geraldine Chaplin, Clay played Menelaus. Now 50, his face was buried under a large beard.
Though Clay would continue working steadily, mostly in British projects, through 1999, he was stricken with liver cancer and died far too prematurely in May of 2000 at the age of 53. The three films for which he is best known and best loved in The Underworld all came within a period from 1981 – 1982, but we thank him for them! Excalibur, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Evil Under the Sun were all made better by his presence.