Veteran of Australian Television and stage, Bart John was the self described ‘old bloke’ of the South Pacific company… No nonsense, dedicated, a fellow voracious reader – an equally masculine and passionate artist – I simply had to chat with him for this series!
He is best known for his work on The Young Doctors, Skyways, Murder Call, All Saints and Always Greener, but also flexed his dramatic muscles in Dr Zhivago and the original Australian cast of Side by Side by Sondheim. Not to mention originating the role of Ronald McDonald – the infamous mascot from all those American TV commercials in the 70’s and 80’s. Truly.
In Adelaide earlier this year, I was permitted to make us a cuppa and join Bart in his dressing room at The Adelaide Festival Centre to discuss how we do what we do…
He Got Bit!
Marika: I just want to start with, when did the acting bug bite, for you?
Bart: I was a classically trained singer.
Marika: I saw that you had a pop career in music in New Zealand?!
Bart: Yeah. Only in New Zealand. I was working on this show which was very much like a Johnny Young Talent Time, but using older teenagers and people in their 20s, but the acting bug came through music theatre. I mean, I only considered myself a singer. I never considered myself as an actor, and even when I was doing soap opera. You know, I had to learn my lines, I had my marker to say my lines, but it was the music side of it that I wanted.
Marika: Did you ever train as an actor?
Marika: On the job?
Bart: It was on the job. I mean, in those days there was NIDA but I think if I did consider myself an actor at an early age I would have tried to have gone to NIDA or, you know, auditioned, but no. I really didn’t get serious about acting until I was in my 40s…I think that was the first time I thought, you know, I can do this.
Marika: [Laughter].I love it! What was it that changed between learning the lines and not bumping into furniture, to acting becoming your art?
Bart: It was…just a few breakthroughs, a few personal issues of confidence. I started to read like you wouldn’t believe, and then the roles came, and more importantly as I got older I had started taking it very seriously without losing my sense of humour. I started getting some really good character roles. In fact, from the acting point of view, I would say the best part of my career, if you separate it from music, was from my middle 40s to my 60s.
Marika: And that’s no coincidence that that’s when you got a bit more serious about it?
Marika: Do you subscribe to a certain method?
Bart: Well I was privileged in the 80s to attend The Actor’s Studio in New York
Marika: Oh, wonderful.
Bart: … and I went to some master classes. I saw Shelley Winters direct all these plays, and Arthur Penn, and I saw them work and I’d always been sort of like on the side, reading about method and all that. So yeah, I basically use method. I try to actually get a hold of something, and know what I want to do with a character before I even go into a rehearsal.
Bart: And that’s my way of working. I think directors want that. Especially directors that I’ve worked with, great Australian directors and overseas directors, they don’t want to hand feed you, they want to see something in you that.
Marika: A bold choice?
Bart: Yeah, a bold choice. That’s a great way of saying it.
A Life On The Small Screen
Marika: You are mainly known for your TV work. Is that your artistic home now still?
Bart: No. I think it’s a matter of choice.I mean, you know, I’ve done the television things – some good and some pretty alright, some pretty shit, but… You know where I’d really like to work? A medium I love? Film.
Marika: Have you ever done any feature film work?
Bart: I haven’t done a major feature for a cinema release or anything. I’ve done a lot of film for television. Small screen. I worked very hard, about 20 years ago, on American accent. I got a lot of work and did a lot of campaigns in America, advertising campaigns and things.
Marika: Oh really? Good income…
Bart: Good income and subsidises you, you know, I’ve got stuff still going over there. It’s brilliant because the whole thing as a pay structure is completely different.
Marika: I imagine the budgets are a bit bigger too.
Marika: How does all that TV work then compare to say, the musical Dr Zhivago and recently South Pacific – big budget commercial musicals. I mean, do you change what you do, your work method, at all? Or do you feel like it’s the same shit, different smell? [Laughter].
Bart: Well, I mean, it’s a good way to say it Marika, I suppose.
Marika: [Laughter]. Not my most eloquent moment…!
Bart: It’s a great thing to cut right to the chase! Yeah, of course it depends. It’s a work environment for us. Sometimes it’s better and it’s more enjoyable than others. Others can be, sometimes, a hard slog. For me, Dr Zhivago was creating something from the ground up. So working with the wonderful Des McAnuff who was the director, and he was just wonderful and he, you know, he let me go with it and I just loved Komarovsky. I would go to the theatre whistling. It’s been very much the same with South Pacific. I mean, I love Captain Bracket, you know? I’ve got this affinity with him, but really most of that came when Bart Sher came over. He came to me and he basically said, take the stage. In the five days he was with me on this show, he was terrific, he just gave and gave.
Are you there Cate? It’s me Bart.
Marika: Do you have a particular experience that really solidified something for you and how you work, or was a real turning point?
Bart: I remember when we did the original Australian production of Side by Side by Sondheim-
Bart: We recorded it. An LP… On vinyl in those days. I got a lovely letter from Stephen Sondheim saying, ‘I really enjoyed your interpretation of ‘I Remember’… but getting back to what you’re saying, yeah, of course. I was working with Jill Perryman, Geraldine Morrow, Noel Ferrier, Ray Cook, who came out – he was a musical director. And I was still pretty green, you know, I’m in my 20s and I could musically handle it, but it was a wonderful thing to do work on how to interpret a song and all that. I learned very quickly from those people. That was probably the best school that I ever went to, at that time.
Marika: Well, they are the kind of industry legends that you want to learn on the job with.
Bart: You know, even at my age now, you want to be with people that you can still learn something from.
Marika: Absolutely. Who did you look to as a young actor?
Bart: De Niro. I mean, I love what Clint Eastwood was doing, especially with direction. Yeah, there are lots of people out there that like Cate Blanchett. I know it’s never going to happen but i’d love to work with her.
Marika: Alright. So if the universe is listening, we need a feature film with Cate Blanchett to fall in your lap tomorrow.
Bart: Well it’s going to be a sure fire hit isn’t it?!
Marika: You’ll get an Oscar!
Bart: I might stink but she’ll get another Oscar!
Marika: What do you love about our industry and what do you think is it’s greatest challenge?
Bart: Well the greatest challenge is survival. You’ve got to reinvent yourself. There is no doubt about that. I learned that. It has been so interesting for me that in the last 15 years, you know, the phone rings for me, I don’t ring for them – and I respect that greatly.
Marika: That must be a really lovely, grateful place to be at this stage in your career.
Bart: I think it’s respect.
Marika: Absolutely. As it should be.
Bart: I just think it’s wonderful. I pinch myself all the time when that sort of thing happens because, you know, I basically knock about, you know, I like doing what I do and I hone down on what I’m doing…But I don’t take it seriously and I’m probably the oldest statesman of the South Pacific company but I’m still one of the boys, you know? I go into the boys chorus room and I stir them up and give them heaps, and I get a feeling a great respect from them…
Marika: They are probably learning loads from you though.
Bart: Well I don’t know…They are probably learning a lot of bad things as well!
To Thine Own Self Be True
Marika: Do you have any advice for the survival of actors just starting out?
Bart: It’s difficult… but to thine own self be true. I would like to say, for especially in music theatre, for those kids that are going to audition, that they really work hard in creating something themselves. It’s so easy to go to a pirated copy of a musical that’s playing on Broadway or the West End and clone yourself.
Marika: Emulate the original cast.
Bart: That’s not what people are looking for. Don’t be scared to speak up for your art. Work hard at it. Find some way of bringing your talent into it instead of emulating.
Marika: That’s great advice.
Marika: Last of all… Is it true that you were THE Ronald McDonald in a McDonald’s commercial?!?!
Bart: Yep, I did the whole campaign. It was 70s.
Marika: Wow! So you were like the chief mascot for McDonalds?!
Bart: Yeah. I only did the advertising for them. I managed to buy my first house out of that! I was doing Young Doctors at the time and it was all done on film in the wonderful Rosswood Studios out at Paddington which are no longer there. Peggy Carter, who was the premier makeup artist at the time-
Marika: I know of Peggy Carter! I worked on a show with her in 2008. She’s a doll.
Bart: I’ve known Peggy 40 years.
Marika: She’s the lady that taught me how to use blush and not be scared of it. She’s fantastic! Ha!
Bart: I’ve still got a photograph of me as Ronald with the Australian cricket team that I will cherish forever and it makes me smile.
Marika: [Laughter]. It is a claim to fame though, isn’t it?
Bart: Well, for a time I resented it – because I got very serious about myself, you know, and now I just have fun with it. I’ve just been thinking, while I’ve been in Adelaide, because I haven’t been here for 20 years, about different things and different experiences that have happened to me. I’m just lucky, you know, I may be a jack of all trades and master of some, I’ve never reached the highlife, but I’ve done just about everything you can do in the business.
Marika: Yeah. That’s a triumph.
Bart: Well thank you.