Tuesday 24 February 2015

Sandy Whitelaw, RIP

We were very sorry to hear of the death on Friday of Sandy Whitelaw, who directed the Mondo release Lifespan.

I was first introduced to Sandy via a mutual friend, the documentary film maker David Thompson. I phoned Sandy in Paris, where he lived, and he immediately insisted I give him my number and he would call me back. “People tell me I talk a lot,” he said, in his dry, American voice. “So probably best if I pay.”

Indeed. I think we were on the phone that first time for well over an hour. And I soon became used to these marathon calls. I both dreaded and adored them. Dreaded, because if you had anything else to do, you might as well forget about it, and adored, because I always learned so much and was so enormously entertained by talking to Sandy. After the call was over I felt like I’d had a thorough course of mental calisthenics. Sandy was always bubbling over with ideas, theories, scabrous tales about the great and the not so good – names that had figured in his life in some way, like Mick Jagger, Jane Fonda, Polanski, Grace Kelly. There didn’t seem to be any important event or iconic figure of the last 50 years that Sandy didn’t have some personal link with or insight into. He was the original “six degrees of separation” man. Although with him it was more like one or two degrees. I remember after we first discussed Lifespan he had obviously checked out our website and said to me later: “Oh, I see you released a film produced by Luciano Ercoli” - it was Death Walks at Midnight. “Yes,” I said. “Do you know him?” “Oh, not really, Sandy replied. “We sang together in a blues band in London in the late 50s.” That was the kind of intriguing nugget he was prone to casually toss one’s way.

Although we talked a lot over the years, I actually learned very little about his life. He would drip feed you information and there were things he didn’t talk about but only alluded to. I always felt that details would follow and there would always be time to ask him again. But now time has run out. And we’re left with what we have and must join the dots to create some kind of a portrait.

He was born in 1930 (or was in 1925?? – another mystery) and I know his father
was a Scottish career soldier. Sandy attended Harvard and later worked for David O Selznick, the famous Hollywood producer of Gone With the Wind. Sandy’s command of five languages and his wide ranging cultural and artistic connections made him an ideal assistant for someone like Selznick who had a definite Euro-centric and old world leaning. Sandy became a producer and later Head of United Artists in Europe, living in Paris. He worked on a number of big budget productions, including Taras Bulba, Reflections in a Golden Eye and Night of the Iguana.

His restless mind and devilish sense of fun made him an unlikely Studio Executive. I remember him telling me a story about Gucci loafers – slip-on shoes favoured by wannabe hip US execs back in the day. When a group of them visited him in Italy, their main concern was finding out where they could buy the much coveted loafers at a bargain price, as they were expensive in Los Angeles. Sandy took them to a seedy location in the commercial district of Rome and waited as they greedily fingered the display of white leather shoes. It was the time of the Brigado Rosso, murderous freedom fighters, and as he watched the execs at play, Sandy had a fantasy of the armed urban guerrillas cordoning off the street and weeding out anyone wearing the thoroughly bourgeois Gucci footwear before taking them off for summary execution.

The loafers made a dramatic re-appearance at a crucial moment in Lifespan, his first film.

Sandy’s second film as a director came a mere twenty two years after Lifespan. Vicious Circles was not widely seen, and is a an eccentric work. But it’s packed full of fascinating details and original ideas. Perhaps he was just too individualistic and too little fond of compromise to make it as a commercial film maker, but the two titles that bear his name reward repeat viewings. I’ve not seen Venus, the film that he directed pseudonymously, but I assume he had a reason for keeping his name off it.

Since 1975 he had “fallen accidentally” (his words) into a second career as a script translator and subtitler of many prestigious films from French into English. He worked on more than a thousand scripts. This had led to his third career, as actor in films such as The American Friend, Lady Oscar and The Beat that My Heart Skipped, where he has a small but key role as Mr Fox, the agent who auditions the piano playing protagonist.

In recent years, Sandy was still talking about making another film. He sent me a long treatment for it, on strict promise of keeping it to myself. “Loose lips sink ships,” he reminded me. I loved it of course and pleaded with him to write it as a novel, just in case the film didn’t happen. Well, he didn’t and it didn’t. The film was to be called Time to Go and told the story of a young American who comes to Europe in search of his “biodad”, Sam Whitman . Who turns out to be a former film producer and director of “not cult movies, collectors’ movies”. Sam is quizzed over his various celebrity love afairs. “Three month mercy fucks” he calls them. And he’s been hounded by biographers in search of anecdotes on Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Ava Gardner, Warren Beatty…

“You had an affair with Warren Beatty?! Was he bi ?” the excited visitor asks him.

“If he was, it’s news to me…,” replies Sam. “We’ll tackle that later…”

The “we’ll tackle that later…” dropped in at the end is typical Sandy. Now there is no later, and we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. Let’s be thankful for that, at least. For a man fascinated by immortality (it was the subject of Lifespan) Sandy put in a pretty good effort, but I suspect his lasting legacy will be the influence he had on the many people who knew and loved him and who will find him a hard, if not impossible, act to follow.

Pete Tombs


  1. An article published in 2014 said he was 89 at the times... so that is the only birth date I could track. Imdb does not list any...

  2. Dear Sir, as a good friend of Sandy, I wanted to thank you for this article. It makes me smile to read a similar experience as I had with him. I'll miss those "marathon calls " as much as you do.

  3. Lifespan is one of my all-time fav, I adore it. And Vicious Circles is ridiculously underrated, it also shares Lifespan's wicked sense of humor. Is there any other information on Venus? IMDb also lists Jean Jabely and Pierre BĂ©nichou as its directors.