3RRR and Hoy Polloy Theatre take a look at the Hollywood actor with the monstrous moniker - Thring The Thing. Paul Andrew interviews Director Wayne Pearn and Actor Michael F. Cahill

The Real Thring Frank Thring - Man or Myth?
Wayne: Frank was real, no question, as the play reveals. There are plenty of stories and anecdotes that perhaps over time have taken on mythical even apocryphal proportions!

Michael: It is certainly very difficult to separate the two and, given the remarkable lack of biographical detail available, one would have to fall on the side of 'Myth'. Frank clearly created a public persona, which he maintained rigorously, encompassing his coruscating wit, the black wardrobe and the outrageous jewellery. Whether that was the man, part of the man, or a way of shielding the man only those closest to him will ever know.
What was Thring really like in life?
Wayne: From what I understand Frank did delight in shocking people. His public persona was a potent mix of the flamboyant, the intimidating and, of course the sarcastic. I wouldn’t say mystery shrouded his life - he was more what you see is what you get and if it makes you uncomfortable all the better. Iconoclast is an apt description.

A generation or two came to know Frank Thring (and his 50's movies) through television appearances on the Mike Walsh show - tell me about this part of his life?
Wayne: He was born with a veritable silver spoon in his mouth and resided in his father’s mansion, Rylands, in Toorak. Frank Thring senior was a very wealthy cinema and theatre entrepreneur who died in 1936 when Frank junior was just ten years old. He started performing at an early age and undertook training with the revered Irene Mitchell. He joined the RAAF and was discharged after six weeks. He then threw himself into theatre taking over Middle Park Rep and rebadging it The Arrow. By the mid fifties he was performing alongside Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Titus Andronicus directed by the legendary Peter Brook. Kirk Douglas saw Frank in this production and encouraged him to test the Hollywood waters. He cracked a role in The Vikings and made the role of ‘villain’ his own in films including El Cid, Ben Hur and King of Kings. He then walked away from Hollywood and returned to Ryland’s and hooked with the Union Repertory Theatre, which was the precursor to the Melbourne Theatre Company where he performed in many productions. Eventually he moved to his workman’s cottage in Mahoney Street Fitzroy just around the corner from 3RRR where in his later years he became something of a flag bearer for the radio station

And his famous friends?
Wayne: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Janet Leigh, William Wyler to name but a few. Put simply I would say why these folk were attracted to Frank in the first instance was he could seriously ACT. Then they discovered what good company he was.

Do you have a favourite anecdote about Thring?
Wayne: Um, not printable.

Michael: As far as personal anecdotes go I have only heard two. The first I have heard from at least three different people, and it always varies slightly, but revolves around Frank inviting/procuring a young man to come to his Fitzroy digs on a Friday evening. The young man turns up with some unsavoury friends who proceed to tie poor Frank up and rob the place. Come Monday morning the housekeeper arrives to find Frank, still bound to the chair. He looks up and says, "What a weekend!"  The second comes from Bill at Joy FM, who worked for Frank briefly. Bill noticed that there was stain on the dining room carpet at Rylands and, as a conscientious young employee, set about trying to remove it. Frank walked in and bellowed, "What the hell do you think you're doing?? Vivien Leigh spilt that!" The second is by far my favourite.
His sense of camp - was it a generational trait perhaps?
Wayne: Look; I don’t think his sense of camp was generational. It was him and, as touched on earlier, the added bonus was he did delight in shocking people.

Michael: No. It's theatre, darling! I have no idea when 'camp' and 'theatre' got together but, in my experience, there is no doubt that where there is one you will always find the other. It's possibly not as common in Theatre now as it was fifty years ago but it is still there. Believe me. What has waned though is the wit; the bon mot and the cutting remark are all too rare these days.

And his secret life?
Wayne:  Mmmn...Secret. I’m not aware of too many secrets. I think it’s well documented that his fridge was always fully stocked with Ben Ean moselle that was replenished on a weekly basis and he smoked way too much. He liked the interior of his homes to be black, padlocked the doors from the outside apparently. As for his penchant for young men from what I’ve been told they were ‘turned over’ on a regular basis.
{xtypo_quote_right}Bill noticed that there was stain on the dining room carpet and, as a conscientious young employee, set about trying to remove it. Frank walked in and bellowed, 'What the hell do you think you're doing?? Vivien Leigh spilt that!'{/xtypo_quote_right}
He was also a very saturnine character - all that black - giant medallions - and his infectious lugubrious ness?
Wayne: His theatricality (don’t we all wear black in theatre), his flamboyancy not to mention the intimidation factor!

Michael: I think it goes back to his carefully constructed public face. I think he enjoyed being shocking and, perhaps, regarded as slightly dangerous. But there was also a practical element. Black is slimming and a raised collar does wonders to disguise sagging jowls….

Barry Dickin's script - what circumstances, events or memories inspired this play?
Michael: Barry has clearly used a great deal of biographical and anecdotal sources in the script. Far more than I have been able to find. The play takes us from his birth to his death. There are incidents from his early life at Rylands and meditations on his relationship with his mother and father. It covers his life in theatre, film and TV. But there is also an exploration of the inner life of the man; an imagining of what was going on inside his head. For me this attempt to understand what it was like to be Frank is by far the most engaging part of the piece.

Michael what research have you done to “inhabit” Thring?
Michael: You first need to understand that having spent my entire life in the UK I came into this project with very little idea who Frank Thring was. I remembered him from the "sand & sandals" epics like Ben Hur and King of Kings, but had no knowledge of him as a 'personality'. I have read everything I can find about him, I've watched what few clips I can find from TV appearances, and I've rewatched some of the movies. I've also heard from many people what "Frank Thring" was to them. But I quickly came to realise that all of these sources were solely based on the public persona that Frank created. None of it was getting me any closer to the character. I knew what he looked like; I know what he sounded like. But I'm not an impersonator, and I have no intention of attempting to impersonate Frank. So I have done what I always do and gone back to the text. Barry has already done all the research - my job is to deliver the text and bring the Frank that Barry has written to life as best I can.
In terms of Direction - what metaphor/nuances are teased out of the script - as focal points, universal themes?
Wayne: From my perspective and, this is an important point, it is an exploration of the spirit of Thring. We get to see the inner Thring, reflective and brutally honest with himself. It certainly isn’t an impersonation of him as, let’s face it, Thring imitators are a dime a dozen in Melbourne and the one thing we set out to avoid was it becoming a caricature. That’s a just a cop out. Michael certainly brings a real Thring flavour and flair to the role but his performance is underpinned by characterisation.

How did Frank meet the maker?
Wayne: He was pretty cactus toward the end with regular bouts of ill health and ultimately cancer ripping through him; however, from people I’ve spoken to he was a courageous guy right up until the end.

Who do you imagine the audiences to be, what will they yearn for or long for from this production?
Michael: There are a lot of people in Melbourne who knew Frank. There are still more who remember him either professionally or socially, or as a 'local character'. Many of them will come. Others will come because it's a new Barry Dickens play, hopefully quite a few will be there because it's a Hoy Polloy production. There may be one or two who come to see me! 'Yearn' and 'long for' imply pretty strong emotions and, whilst I'm sure there will be some who come hoping to bask once more in the larger-than-life presence of Frank, I would hope the majority will come with open minds expecting an entertaining evening about a life lived to the full and an insight into what it may have meant to be Frank.

The Real Thring Anecdotes again?
Michael: In 1985 Frank co-authored a compilation of theatrical anecdotes entitled The Actor Who Laughed. In his introduction he includes a quote from Glenda Jackson which, I think, gives the nearest thing to an insight into Thring the Actor as we are likely to find: "It's not a life that I like. I find it deeply unnatural to go to work when most people are coming home. The physical conditions are usually painful and unpleasant and cold and draughty. Why do I do it? The only reason for doing it is the work itself, and if that doesn't have some quality, forget it. Every time you start something it's as if you've never acted in your life before. You have to find it in you every time. What's been done is no guarantee that you'll be able to do it again. The minute I say 'Yes I'll do it', I think 'Christ, I can't. I don't know how to do it.'" For the record, I agree wholeheartedly.

The Real Thring opens September 12. Further information»

Michael F Cahill as Frank Thring
Photos - Tim Williamson

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