He stood in the wings backstage at New York's Plymouth Theater, the very prototype of the angular, impeccably tailored English gentleman, smiling dauntlessly despite the lingering ravages of insuperable dyspepsia. In seconds, Peter Cook and his partner in comedy, the diminutive but comparably dapper Dudley Moore, would reduce another Broadway audience to helpless laughter with their two-man review, Good Evening, a series of sketches that may yet restore meaning to the word irreverence.
But Cook, at this ordinarily tense moment, was thinking not so much of the boffos his wit would soon elicit from the customers as he was of a dream come true the day before. A fortnight earlier he had been visited in his sleep by a vision, and after tossing restlessly with the burdens of clairvoyance, he awoke sharply at his usual hour, one p.m., sat bolt upright and announced to what we must assume was an otherwise unoccupied sleeping chamber: "Dolphins, 17-0 at the half!"
Cook is not one to invest his dreams with Freudian gobbledygook; he prefers to take them at face value. Should he dream, for example, of being pursued down a deserted mine shaft by fierce African tribesmen, he might spend the next day prudently avoiding large apertures and black men attired in leopard skins. On one previous occasion he had dreamed that a long shot named You Can Fly had won a horse race in England. He was only momentarily dismayed that afternoon when he could find no horse of this name listed under "Y" in the racing form. Under "U," however, there was U-Can-Fly. Cook wagered ¬£10 on his nose. U-Can-Fly won in a breeze, paying 10 to 1.
With this history of somnambulistic soothsaying, he could scarcely ignore the pre-Super Bowl visitation, so he collared Assistant Stage Manager Tom Urban, a betting nemesis, and with minimal difficulty cajoled him into giving 10-to-1 odds on the halftime score. They watched the game together on television at Urban's New Jersey digs. Urban sat in stunned silence as the Dolphins speedily accumulated the requisite 17 points. But then the Vikings mounted an offensive that carried to the shadow of the Miami goalpost. Fourth and a yard on the six! A cinch first down. Then a touchdown that would shatter the myth of Cook's supernatural powers. When on the next play Oscar Reed fumbled away the Vikings' opportunity, Urban gasped in disbelief, showing the pallor of one who has just seen another man's dream come true. Cook matter-of-factly collected his bet, dismissing the entire affair as merely a further demonstration of his complicity with the unseen, "The Great," as he put it, "Sportsman in the Sky."
February 10, 1974
Inwardly, he gloated. And at the theater the following evening, still vibrating from the effects of the postgame celebration, he appeared for his curtain call arrayed in a sweat shirt on which was emblazoned: PROPERTY OF MIAMI DOLPHINS. Maybe for the first time, this deft comedian heard a smattering of boos.
Cook's intense involvement with American sports is a continuing puzzlement to his countrymen, particularly Moore, who thinks Csonka is a U.S. substitute for coffee. But Cook, the Cambridge-educated son of a British diplomat, cheers shamelessly for such colonials as Paul Warfield, Tug McGraw and Joe Frazier.
"Actors and athletes have always had a great affinity for one another," Cook explains. "Actors, athletes and crooks. Criminals get along famously with people in our businesses. I think it is because they recognize in us fellow thieves. As entertainers, you see, we are also in the business of stealing the public's money. We are paid so disproportionately."
Disregarding any identification with the underworld, there is considerable truth in Cook's argument. In this country, the theater and the arena have long housed many of the same performers. Dating to John L. Sullivan, whose portrayal of Captain Harcourt in The Man from Boston made up in bluster what it lacked in refined technique, athletes have been drawn magnetically to the stage. Sullivan's successor as heavyweight champion of the world, Gentleman Jim Corbett, was an actor of considerable subtlety. His performance in George Bernard Shaw's Cashel Byron's Profession was, in his opinion at least, a triumph as great as any he achieved in the ring. Indeed, Corbett was a natural for the part, since Cashel Byron's profession was prizefighting. No matter. "I want to reach the point," said Corbett of his theatrical career, "where people will turn around and say, 'There goes Jim Corbett, the actor,' not 'There goes Jim Corbett, the prizefighter.' " Bob Fitzsimmons, who flattened the aspiring thespian with his renowned solar plexus punch, is the only person known to have regarded Gentleman Jim in quite this light.
Sullivan and Corbett were merely the first in a distinguished line of jock-actors whose number includes Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Johnny Mack Brown, the Maxies—Baer and Rosen-bloom—Woody Strode and such contemporary artists as Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Joe Namath. This excludes athletes such as Frankie Albert, Tom Harmon, Blanchard and Davis, Elroy Hirsch and Jackie Robinson, who starred, regrettably, in their own quickie cinematic biographies.
There has been traffic as well in the reverse direction. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and Danny Thomas have all been investors in big-league sports franchises. And every actor, crooner and stand-up comic, with the possible exception of Mason Reese, has fronted his own celebrity golf classic.
As narcissists, most actors are inclined to attribute to themselves physical prowess that is rarely demonstrable. This has not stopped them from exercising imagined talents, as the high incidence of casino punch-outs would seem to attest. Some performers, notably David Hart-man, Charley Pride, Jerry Lewis and the late Jeff Chandler, remained so convinced of their athletic promise that they annually worked out with major league baseball teams, Hartman and Chandler with San Francisco, Pride with the Milwaukee Brewers and Lewis with the Houston Astros. Chandler, in particular, let it be known that he would rather play first base than Cochise. Unfortunately, he was a far better Indian than a Giant.
What sets Peter Cook apart from the stage's run-of-the-mine jock manqué is his Britishness. The English colony in Hollywood did cultivate such sports as cricket and polo, and many theater people in England are avid sports freaks, but Cook is a bona fide fan of American games. It is doubtful if Ronald Colman could have identified Johnny Murphy, the old Yankee fireman, but Cook can certainly pick Sparky Lyle from a crowd, even welcome him with a few bars of Pomp and Circumstance. Baseball was Cook's first love here. He became an enthusiast when he arrived in this country 12 years ago with Beyond the Fringe, the predecessor of Good Evening.
"I got into baseball rather easily," he says. "I didn't find it boring. Quite lively, in fact. In Britain soccer now is a low-scoring game with too much emphasis on 'dee-fense'—you will observe I use the American pronunciation. And then there is Rugby League [subject of the hit play The Changing Room, and the film of a few years ago This Sporting Life], which is quite a boring game played mostly by brawling beer drinkers. So in comparison, baseball seemed interesting to me. I'm very fond of that fun guy on the Mets, Tug McGraw. Can't imagine him going to bed every night at 10."
Cook, who regards 10 p.m. as midday, prefers his favorites to be properly flawed. Physical-fitness evangelists repel him. "Fitness to me means fatness. What happens to all that muscle when it is no longer used. It melts to fat, of course." Sonny Liston was a special Cook favorite. And so is Joe Frazier, "who is sort of ugly and sings all those awful rock songs." Invariably, Cook will "root for the better man to lose" and only once in sports can he recall being on the side of the angels.
"It was the best tennis match I've ever seen—Stan Smith against Nastase at Wimbledon. Under ordinary circumstances, I would naturally be for a player like Nastase. He has that charisma and he throws his racket around all the time. My sort of fellow. But on this day the crowd was for him, so I leaned toward Smith. Besides, Smith did something that absolutely endeared him to me. Once during the match, he looked up to the skies and seemed to he praying. Sure enough, he won. And afterward, he had the good grace to attribute the victory to God. I liked that."
Cook is a fairly accomplished golfer. tennis and Ping-Pong player, but he is at his best spectating. As an English public-school boy, however, he played fullback on the rugby team. It was a game he learned to loathe, largely because of his own totally undeserved reputation for bravery. "I fell on a loose ball and, through ignorance and fear, held on despite a fierce pummeling," he says. "It took me months to convince my teammates I was a coward."
Like most "vague celebrities," he is frequently invited to participate in pro-am golf tournaments, although he finds them completely unnerving. "I had a 10 handicap when I was 10," Cook says. "I have a 12 now that I'm 37. Still, I am capable of an occasional good round. Once I played with Henry Cooper, the boxer—there is a nice, pleasant fellow—and the British pro, Clive Clark, in a pro-am in England. I was terrified at the 1st tee. There were all those smiling faces—people love to watch show-business types make fools of themselves. I was certain I'd slice my first drive right into one of those smiles. Instead, I hit the ball squarely down the middle of the fairway and, in fact, continued to play that way. I was par for the front nine. Clark was flabbergasted. I had scored better than he. He was a typical pro. Took forever to make a shot. Examined every blade of grass. I was just banging along. Well, then I made the mistake of dropping in to the refreshment tent for a little Johnnie Walker. I shot 54 on the back nine. Clark was flabbergasted again. 'What,' he asked me in all seriousness, 'happened to your touch?' "
Cook's passion for American sports is shared by neither his onstage partner, Moore, nor his offstage girl friend, Judy Huxtable (both Cook and Moore are divorced), though often to their confusion, he will phone them with scores from time to time. Cook was astonished that Moore evinced little interest in his Super Bowl triumph. "I suppose he had something better to do," Cook says wistfully.
Although he was an incurable horse player and unflagging supporter of the Tottenham Hotspurs as an undergraduate, Cook completed a course in languages at Cambridge and became a campus celebrity as the author and star of a number of comedy reviews. Moore, a year older, was up to much the same at Oxford. Both were invited in 1960 to join Alan Bennett, then a tutor in medieval history at Oxford, and Jonathan Miller, a Cambridge graduate doing his hospital residency, to form Beyond the Fringe. Miller later abandoned his medical career and became a director at Britain's National Theater, and Bennett became a successful playwright, whose Habeas Corpus with Sir Alec Guinness is a current London hit. "Dudley and I were the only ones who wanted to continue as entertainers," Cook says. "We were the clowns."
Together they appeared in the 1967 film Bedezzled with Raquel Welch (Cook was the screenwriter) and have continued to perform as a team irregularly over the past decade. Once on English television they staged "the world's largest boxing match," which was completed by candlelight. Cooper, then British heavyweight champion, was Moore's second; Terry Downes, the former middleweight champion of New York, Massachusetts and Europe, was in Cook's corner. "I've been a good friend of Terry's ever since," Cook says. "He's crazy about acting." Cook also opened a nightclub. The Establishment, and started a satirical magazine. Private Eye, which is the talk of England and has surpassed the legendary Punch in circulation.
Cook and Moore are a perfectly unmatched pair onstage: Cook is 6'2", Moore 5'3". Cook affects an air of studied ennui, the languid expression appropriate to the hound's face. Moore is all raised eyebrows, stiff upper lip and quick movement. In one memorable sketch he bounces onstage as a one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan, only to be advised by an aloof Cook, as the producer, that "two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement for the role."
During the course of the 15 sketches, virtually every human affectation is mocked, along with most liberation movements. Cook and Moore are fearless, even to the point of amusing themselves at the expense of the formidable Germaine Greer. They are comedically incorruptible and as a result, their comedy—and it is high comedy—has a freshness seldom experienced. "We are like dinosaurs." says Cook. "The last of a species."
Cook's dressing room is barely large enough to contain his lanky body. On this night there is a bottle of Scotch in front of the mirror, but Cook is resolutely drinking from a carton of milk. He adjusts the maroon tie he will be wearing in the first sketch with hands that are trembling slightly—but not, he quickly advises, because of stage fright.
"No, I'm never really nervous. Dudley and I enjoy what we're doing and we're sure of our material. I suspect I'm still trying to recover from the Super Bowl. It was a typical American sporting Sunday, you must realize. Beer, Chinese food and about 70 Bloody Marys. Too bad it was such a dull game. But isn't that Csonka marvelous—all power and intelligence. Can that be his real name? It's almost too perfect for a fullback."
"Five minutes, Mr. Cook," belting victim Urban advises with mock 42nd Street solemnity. "Five minutes."
Cook polishes off the last of the milk and says, "Probably be terrible tonight drinking this stuff." He hears Moore's voice: "How much time do we have?" "Tell him there's plenty of time," Cook calls out. "Tell him a huge fight has broken out in the audience."
"Start counting to 60," the curtain man is instructed by Stage Manager Alan Coleridge. "Can't count that high" is the reply.
Cook laughs. He is well turned out in a stiff gray suit and he appears relaxed. He takes a deep breath, then looks back.
"Seventeen to nothing. Extraordinary, these unnatural powers of mine."
The curtain rises. Cook strides confidently from the wings, as controlled in his movements as an athlete. He encounters a surprised-looking Moore in mid-stage.
"Hello there.... How long has it been?...Why, I haven't seen you since...since...never, actually.... That's right, we've never met.... I've never met you and you've never met me.... What a small world...."
The laughter begins to rise. It seems to carry the two men forward. Cook looks pleased now. It will be a big night. This game, too, is going well.