ROBINS OF SHERWOOD:
MICHAEL PRAED & JASON CONNERY
by Abbie Bernstein
Robin Hood is one of the most familiar and best-loved characters in history. He's also one of the most frequently portrayed, possibly dating back to 13th-century mummers plays. In this century, he's been played before the camera by such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr., Errol Flynn, Richard Greene and Sean Connery.
However, ask people to choose their favorite screen Robin Hood and a surprising number will cite either Michael Praed or Jason Connery - or even both. Praed and Connery, in succession, starred in the title role in ROBIN OF SHERWOOD. Created by Richard Carpenter and produced by Paul Knight, the English-made TV series is regarded by many viewers as the definitive dramatization of the Robin Hood legend. ROBIN OF SHERWOOD ran 1984-1986 on HTV in the U.K., on Showtime (where it was called ROBIN HOOD) in the U.S. and eventually, all over the world, becoming one of the few Western shows to air in the then-Soviet Union. Praed played Robin of Loxley, a Saxon peasant chosen by the forest god Herne the Hunter to be Robin I' the Hood, champion of the dispossessed of England. Robin is killed by the Sheriff of Nottingham's men in the last episode of the second season. In the third season opener, Connery's Robert of Huntingdon, an earl's son, is introduced as he surprises himself and the merry men by taking on the mantle of the Hooded Man.
Fifteen years later, Praed and Connery, in separate interviews in Los Angeles, talk about their time under the hood.
Praed relates how he was cast as Robin, his first major on-camera role at age 23 after years of doing stage. "Kip [Richard] Carpenter and Paul Knight came to see the show I was doing [the London revival of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE] - I think because they wanted to see CATS and they couldn't get in. I suppose I was lucky in that I was very well cast in [PIRATES], so they saw me in a good light, as it were. At that time, I had long hair, which was for an actor unusual. I'd learned to fence when I was very young and am quite comfortable around swords - maybe that helped. They had an idea of what they wanted their leading man to look like, and I think I must have fit a version of what they were looking for. It's a question you don't really ask: 'Why did you pick me?'
"I never really had an official audition for them," Praed continues. "They took me out for lunch and it was very low-key. I remember that they talked about this project, but it was so unlike the typical audition, where you go and you have a tie and you sit on a seat, and there's a whole bunch of faces behind a desk firing questions at you. It's a horrible process, the audition, because it's just very difficult to be normal. But at lunch, it was very quote-unquote normal. They explained to me what they were attempting with this Robin Hood. They wanted to do a MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a big buddy picture, with all these very different-looking [people]. It sounded really exciting to me, and then the offer came through."
When he was 22, Connery had already starred on stage and in several independent films - including DREAM ONE and THE BOY WHO HAD EVERYTHING - but had never before had the lead in a TV series. He describes his screen test in Bristol: "I went down to where they were shooting, and rather spectacularly badly fired a bow and arrow. There was a scene where I had to point at a tree and say, 'You see the oak over there?' And all of them go," he adopts a sarcastic tone, " 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' and Little John is saying to me, 'Oh, you're never going to hit that.' And the line after I fire the arrow, Little John says, 'By Saint Thomas, lad, what a shot!' And I strung [the bow] up wrong. When I went like this," he makes a bow-firing gesture, "Everyone's looking in the distance, and the arrow just went straight down."
The misfire was not ultimately held against Connery, who still vividly recalls where he was when he learned he was going to play Robin: "I auditioned and then I went to Australia, where my mum lives. I was in the goat house, and I was mucking them out or something, and the phone goes, and I ran into the house to pick up the phone, and my agent said, 'Hello, is Robin Hood there?' And I said, 'No, I'm sorry, you've got the wrong number,' and I put the phone down and went back to the goats. I was about five steps in and I went, 'Oh!' So I rang my agent back and she's in hysterics laughing, and she said, 'They've offered you the part.' "
Connery thinks his physical contrast to Praed was a factor in the casting. "I was very different from Michael. He's dark and I'm fair. And it was a different avenue to go. They decided that there were two different legends, one of them being Robin of Loxley and the other one being Robert of Huntingdon, who was actually the son of a lord. He came from quite a highbrow family, and just didn't like the way things were, almost like Zorro, changed his whole demeanor and started this gang." Connery surmises that there may well have been more than two legends: "When you read some of the stuff, like, 'In the morning, he robbed King Blob in Scotland, in the afternoon, he was in Wales, and by the next evening, he was in Cornwall' - there were a lot of things that were said to be his work."
With a minimum of two swordfights per episode that often involved most of the ROBIN regulars, pre-production preparation was essential. "Before we started shooting, we did have a two-week, fairly intensive 'skills assessment,' " Praed says. Stunt coordinator/sword master Terry Walsh oversaw the process. "He didn't know what our skill levels were. I remember that period particularly as a very good one, in that it gave us a chance to get to know each other a bit, [although] I don't think that was the reason [for the training period]. It's an action series, so you'd better make sure that if these guys don't look convincing yet, you've got some time to make them look convincing."
At the outset, Praed needed assistance in relating to his equine co-stars. "The producers thought that I did ride," he explains. "It hadn't occurred to anybody [prior to casting] to ask whether I did. I said, 'No, I don't know the front end of the horse from the back.' And so we went to [ROBIN horsemaster] Steve Dent, and he was quite masterful, because he was quite honest. He said, 'Listen, we haven't got the time for me to teach you properly how to do this, so get on a horse. The trick is, do whatever feels comfortable. And I'll help as much as I can.' Which was quite clever, really, because when it stopped hurting, I realized, 'Oh, this feels right.' But I wasn't an accomplished rider then - I had never been taught that a little pressure here means that to the animal. And it is quite confusing. I'm a bit better now. I always sort of comforted myself in thinking, 'Well, there's no historical precedent that Robin Hood was a great rider.' We always had great horses. I grew tremendously fond of the beast that I was given to ride. I think it's true that I always rode the same horse, Caesar. Robert Addie [who played Guy of Gisburne] is a superb horseman, and consequently got the most extraordinary beast. I think he rode the BLACK BEAUTY horse, beautiful big stallion. I was always tremendously envious of his exquisite horsemanship, that he had complete mastery over this pretty strong animal."
Mastery over the bow was amply demonstrated by ROBIN's archery supervisor, Olympic champion Gabe Cronelly. "Gabe Cronelly was very specific about, 'This is how a longbow was drawn,' " Praed continues. "We did have target practice. And it was extraordinary how, with a little bit of practice, you can get pretty accurate. Obviously, if you look at the scale of things, my longbow wasn't a longbow at all - it should have been much bigger than me. But [Cronelly] was very particular about, 'Let's try not to have too many anachronisms here.' And then we did fire some genuine longbows. I was very impressed with the ferocity that the [arrow] comes out of that bowstring. It was a hell of a weapon."
In the episode "Seven Poor Knights From Acre," Praed managed to genuinely hit a swinging bag on a rope in an archery-practice scene. "That had really less to do with accuracy than with timing," he maintains, "because the bag was really wide and I did have 50 or so shots beforehand. It was just a happy accident that I did hit it." He acknowledges the cast was lucky not to have hit other moving targets: "We'd play all kinds of insane games with the bows and arrows. 'Let's fire an arrow up into the air!' It was a miracle no one got killed. Not everybody indulged in such adolescent games. We were kids, though - part of the excesses of being twentysomething is you're allowed a certain amount of latitude with common sense."
A different sort of brush with danger occurred for Connery before filming on third season had even begun. "I did quite extensive training with [Walsh] on a farm in Rickmansworth just outside London, for about four weeks, every day," he relates. "I did staff fights and fist-fights and sword-fighting. But one day, I was late and I was speeding down the highway, and I got stopped by the police. In the back of my car was a big broadsword, a staff, a bow and arrows, and some leather stuff. The policeman knocked on my window and said, 'Who do you think you are, Robin Hood?' That was before I ever played it. 'Not yet, but I hope to be.' Anyway, he still did me - I got three points for speeding."
Although Connery had learned stage combat in drama school, he found different techniques were necessary on set. "On stage, it's different," he explains. "It's much more of a dance, it's much less physical. You're still going at it, but you dance round, keeping a specific distance from each other. When you're fighting in the woods and there's mud, it gets much more earthy."
By third season, the swordfights-in-mud had resulted in some unusual costume design innovations. "If you look carefully in a couple of episodes," Connery points out, "you'll see that we actually had car tire soles on our boots. We had these soles which were actually rubber. They used to cover them up, but sometimes someone would fall over and you would see the indentation of the soles. Because the first year, they had leather soles, and as soon as they got wet, you might as well be on ice skates."
"Christ, it was slippery," Praed agrees. "Those shoes we had were appalling - no grip. We'd fall over a lot. Of course, we then got into the habit of laughing a lot. We were never allowed to do anything particularly dangerous, but there were a few times, I suppose, that things could have gotten out of hand. It's a great irony - I mean, I got hurt jumping over a three-foot wall, twisted something. As the series went on, it wasn't that we got to do more and more stuff - we did, but everybody's comfort level rose exponentially when they realized, 'I think these guys are pretty physical and they're probably not gonna hurt themselves.' Terry [Walsh] was excellent [in ensuring on-set safety]."
To a certain extent, the actors were allowed to suggest fight moves. Part of it had to do becoming accustomed to ROBIN's regular stuntmen, who played the soldiers battling the outlaws in melee after melee. "By the end," Connery says, "we'd all killed so many of the stuntmen so many times. 'Oh, Christ, not you again!' I mean, they had false noses [to make them look different from adversaries in earlier fights]. Greg Powell is huge, about six-foot-six, and I'm always fighting him. It was so funny, because every time I saw him, he had a different thing on. It seemed to get less rehearsal time as the schedule picked up. By the end, we used to [work on] the fights and then just go to Terry and say, 'What do you think of this? How does this look?' Because a lot of times, there might be all of us fighting in this room at the same time, and he couldn't do all of it. We would actually have names for specific moves, so you could say it. It would be a set move, and we all knew it."
The quarterstaff turned out to be a very tricky weapon. When Little John, played by Clive Mantle, first meets Loxley, then Huntingdon, there is a staff fight on both occasions. The ROBIN outtake reel immortalizes a moment when Mantle's staff accidentally catches Praed between the legs. Connery remembers being unintentionally struck and inadvertently responding in kind: "[Mantle] did hit me over the head, and in fact, I hit him over the head, and Clive's six-foot-six. When we were doing the staff fight, I'm meant to do that," Connery gestures as though wielding a vertical length of wood, "and he's meant to block it, and he didn't get his staff in time, or maybe I was early, but it went boink right on his head."
ROBIN provided an education in much more than combat for camera. "Just doing a lot of film over the eight-month period, I think I learned a lot," Connery relates. "I think the thing that's really difficult as an actor is to believe that it'll be there if you think it, rather than having to project it. When you work in the theatre, the focus of the audience is directed by the actors. In film, the focus of the audience is directed by the camera. In theatre, if I'm saying to you, 'I think you're doing a really good job,' you need the audience to see you go, 'Oh, what a liar,' or whatever it is that you're doing. Somehow, you have to pull focus, to get them to look at you. I'd done quite a lot of theatre [prior to ROBIN], and I think the mistake is the belief that you have to show. But you don't on film." ROBIN showed Connery that, "On film, you just have to think it, because the camera is right in your face, so if you're talking to me and I'm saying to you, 'I think you're doing a really good job,' you just have to think, 'Oh, really? Yeah, I don't believe a single word you're saying.' It's there in your face instead of needing to express it somehow."
Praed credits Ian Sharp, who directed ROBIN's entire first season, for not only teaching him about acting on film but also being largely responsible for establishing a camaraderie that lasted throughout the series, on-screen and off. "He really set the tone, I think. When you thrust a bunch of people together, as you do every time you start a job, you are forced to forge friendships, or certainly relationships, very quickly. But one of the refreshing aspects of ROBIN was there was a complete absence of ego. You can get competitive, which sometimes can leave a sort of ugly taste around, when something other than the work becomes important. On ROBIN, there was none of that. And I think that was almost entirely due to the brilliant psychology employed by Ian Sharp, who completely demystified the camera for all us actors, who were for the most part completely inexperienced.
"I'd been to drama school," Praed elaborates, "where you'd think that they'd teach you [about performing on film] there, and they didn't. You didn't learn anything about lenses or marks. [Sharp] took the time to explain all the lenses, all the different [shot] sizes. And that never happens - people haven't got the time to teach actors stuff. But Ian was brilliant.
"I have never talked to him about this," Praed continues, "but because we were all novices, I suppose the great concern is, if you really don't know anything about cameras, it can be quite intimidating. So Ian would set up jokes in order to [show that the camera] is your friend, it's not your enemy. Ian was saying, 'It's just film. We've got more film in the camera. If you fuck this up, we'll go again. Don't look at flubbing your lines or walking into a tree as a mistake. It doesn't matter, and don't stop, just keep going, 'cause it might work.' And oftentimes, those happy mistakes are great. If you wanted to try something different, he said to us, ''It's still going to be 'directed by Ian Sharp,' even if it's full of your ideas, so if I think your idea is better than mine, I'm gonna use it.'
"Some directors are dictatorial, and that creates a tension," Praed observes. "Ian wasn't like that at all. He was bloody strong when he wanted to be, but we had such a relaxed atmosphere on the set. To me, the definition of a fantastic director is a person who can articulate the resolution to a problem in a way that I can understand it, but he has the ability to modify that answer to suit you or him. Ian would do that with great compassion and he was eternally supportive."
The opportunity to develop his character over the series' narrative arc appealed to Connery. "That was interesting, because I'd never had that kind of experience with playing a character. Over that period of eight months, we did 13 hours. In acting, especially on film, you've got to use a lot of what is happening to you at that time. I don't like coming to a scene with a completely set agenda. That doesn't mean I don't [prepare], but it means I can use whatever comes up while we're doing it and allows some unconscious stuff to come up as well. I had some specifics about how I wanted the relationship to be with Marion, because it was difficult. She'd lost Robin and then this other guy [Connery's character] comes along. It couldn't be just like, 'Oh, yeah, that's great, now we'll be together,' so there was this whole sort of to-ing and fro-ing. I found that the playing of it was really more revealing than actually having set feelings about it before. I felt like [Robert] started off as a boy and kind of progressed to a man. That's pretty simplistic in some ways, but in the first episode, my father's getting on my case all the time - 'What are you doing?!' - and [Robert is] very headstrong, but it's in a slightly teenagey way. I think by the end, there are certain things that he's realized - he's realized what he wants."
The onscreen fellowship between the merry men in ROBIN was echoed in real life. "When people talk about the buddy picture," Praed provides an example, "take THE STING. Aside from the fact that, in my opinion, it's one of the greatest screenplays ever written, one thing that's undeniable and palpable even is the genuine affection that Paul Newman and Robert Redford clearly had for each other. It's visceral, you actually feel this great friendship. When it works really well, it can only have dividends. We genuinely liked each other, and I think that shows."
During ROBIN's second season, Praed was offered the role of D'Artagnan in the New York production of THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Praed wrestled with the decision but, although he was having the time of his life on the series, ultimately decided that, as an English actor, he could not pass up the opportunity to star in a Broadway musical. While Praed found MUSKETEERS to be an enjoyable experience in of itself and he's remained friends with co-star Brent Spiner, the show got bad reviews and closed quickly. "I've never been a man to qualify what I've done in terms of success; the fact that something has been unsuccessful is not invalidation of the work. I left ROBIN to do this thing, knowing full well what the potential outcome could be, i.e., complete failure. Nevertheless, when it does fail, you can't but help feel slightly responsible. Other people, in fact, start questioning your judgment: 'Did you do the right thing here?' "
Praed went on to a year on his first American series, the night-time soap DYNASTY, but found it somewhat rough going as the uptight prince. "I was well-cast in [PIRATES OF PENZANCE] and I think completely miscast in DYNASTY. As an actor, I just felt I was playing the same scenes over and over and, 'There's nothing about this character that's terribly interesting.' I thought, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' Of course, it took awhile for me to admit that to myself, and I suppose at that point, I kind of needed a refresher course." Although he starred in several independent films during the next few years, Praed spent most of that period concentrating on songwriting before returning to acting full-time in 1991.
Meanwhile, Praed's exit from ROBIN heralded Connery's entrance. Connery says he had some initial trepidation about joining the obviously close-knit cast in ROBIN's third season: "It was a bit of a baptism by fire. [The other actors playing the outlaws] were all pretty boisterous and they'd all been together for [two years] and they all knew each other really well and I was sort of the new boy."
The off-screen dynamics actually aided Connery's performance, as his character, Robert of Huntingdon, begins in much the same situation with the outlaw band. He has happy memories of a sequence in which Robert and Ray Winstone's Will Scarlet bond by brawling. Scarlet breaks a jug over Robert's head in a shot that required multiple takes, when the pottery refused to shatter on cue. "The thing with Ray, that was great fun. We'd done two episodes before the first [in story order], but that was the one where [the other characters] all met me. Not that they had done anything to suggest that I wasn't before, but that was where I really began to feel like I was part of the gang."
It was sometimes a battle for Connery to look as though he was a member of the gang, he remembers: "Physically, [third season] looked very much like the series before, although they didn't have the continuity, because they had lots of different directors. They always wanted me to look really clean. It took me weeks of arguing to get any dirt on my face and they gave me that sort of Linda Evans hairstyle. It used to drive me mad, because everyone else looks like they've been shoveling shit uphill, so I'd get out and … " He mimes smearing dirt on his face.
The ROBIN regulars continued to socialize heartily together off-camera. "I look back at it with rose-colored glasses," Connery muses. "We were known as the Merries, and we hung out, and we had a good time. A lot of the guest stars were really good fun. Ian Ogilvy, who's over here [in Los Angeles] now, he was very mature when he came on - he had a pipe and everything. We kept thinking, 'This guy looks like he needs to have a bit of fun.' So we said to him, 'Look, it's tea time - come down, they have great cakes.' We were out in the middle of a field at a big table. The caterers called themselves [by the acronym] First Unit Caterers Kitchen. They had these amazing cakes. I said to Ian, 'Does this cake smell off to you?' It's got great big cream coming out of it. He takes it, and of course, I go," Connery gestures pushing Ogilvy's éclair-laden hand into the actor's face. "And then it's off. Everybody's throwing the cakes. There was a mud fight as well, when it rained the next day. He had the best time - he still talks about it."
Flubbed takes were a source of general amusement. "I remember one scene as being just a disaster," Connery laughs. "There were a lot of extras around me, and I had to describe some plan of how we were going to go into the castle. It was some really easy line, and I just couldn't get it right. All the extras are like, 'What's he doing?' "
Some of Connery's favorite onscreen moments involve the Robert/Marion romance. "The scene [in 'The Time of the Wolf'] where I come back to Marion and she's waiting in the church and she thinks I'm dead and then she sees me - I enjoyed that because there was an emotional scene. Also, there's a scene [in 'Rutterkin'] - it was the middle of the summer and it was hot and there were piggy-back fights. Friar Tuck was carrying me. I see that episode, and most of the time, I'm rolling around the ground laughing."
Asked if there are any scenes he's especially proud of, Praed considers, then replies, "It's a tiny little thing [in 'The Witch of Elsdon'], when I had to listen to [a character who] was telling me what turned out to be bullshit. Ian sat me down and said, 'You know, actors often forget to listen when people are talking.' Somebody's on a cart, and they're just talking to me, and I'm just standing there listening, and I put into practice what Ian had said. I'm not actually doing anything. Maybe I like that because I realized how much I didn't know about the technique of filming, and this one tiny little door opened, and I thought, 'Right. Must remember.' "
There are conflicting theories as to why ROBIN OF SHERWOOD did not proceed beyond its third season. The collapse of primary funding entity Goldcrest Films seems to have been a major cause. Preparations had been made to continue: because Judi Trott, who played Marion, would only be intermittently available, her occasional absence in the planned fourth season had to be explained. Third season therefore ends as Marion enters a convent rather than risking marriage and widowhood a second time. Had the series gone forward for another year, Connery says he would have liked, "First of all, sorting out the Marion thing."
Praed says that had he stayed with the show, "It would have been intriguing to have an episode on the nature of violence, for example. How does that actually affect somebody [living as an outlaw]? I'm saying that now, but I'm older now. In those days, I never really thought about it. I thought, 'This is not my domain. This is somebody else's right, and somebody else's job.' Now I'm more interested in that."
Connery and Praed are both in projects currently appearing before the public.
Praed stars in the Victorian-era fantasy series THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE, which just debuted on Canada's CBC network. VERNE is the first episodic drama to be shot in the HDTV format. Praed is enthusiastic not only about the technology and the scope of the $30 million show, but also his character, former spy Phileas Fogg. "[The actors'] input was actively encouraged in terms of how our characters developed. I thought, 'I would really like to make this character flawed, so he's not an archetype.' I think that Phileas Fogg is really very rounded, because he's got these qualities which aren't particularly likable at times. Press the wrong buttons and he'll go nuts. He's slightly unhinged. He drinks too much, he cries - emotionally, there's a huge range that isn't typical with this kind of a character. And I really found that very attractive."
Connery can be seen on the big screen as a duplicitous tutor in SHANGHAI NOON with Jackie Chan. "He's an amazing guy, incredible energy," Connery enthuses about the martial arts/comedy superstar. "He's the most known name in the world, because there's three billion Chinese people and all of them know him."
Connery is now co-starring in the independent romantic triangle NICHOLAS, the first feature to be shot with the new 24 Progressive digital camera, developed by Lucasfilm for Sony. Connery is sold on the format: "I've got to say in the next 10 years, I think it will replace film. On an indie film, you save 60 grand on stock and processing fees. It looks fantastic."
While both Connery and Praed are looking ahead professionally, they are touched by the continued interest in ROBIN OF SHERWOOD. A decade-and-a-half after the series went off the air, there are annual conventions - Weekend in Sherwood in the U.S. and Silver Arrow in the U.K. - fan clubs, websites and Internet discussion lists. Additionally, ROBIN has just been re-released in its entirety on tape by Network Video.
Connery would prefer not to try to pinpoint why the show has had such a lasting impact. "I hope it is a mystery, because I think anybody who thinks that they can bottle that knowledge are going to fall on their asses pretty quick. I'm so happy when concept movies where you get, 'Oh, well, we know that works and we know that works,' and they spend lots of money, and [the movies] just disappear. And then someone will come out with an original idea [that's a hit] and everyone will say, 'But that's never worked before!' So I hope nobody can say why."
However, Connery allows that sometimes imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery: "A compliment that I really took very highly was, I [met] Ron Howard. He said to me, 'You know, I took a lot of stuff from you.' I said, 'From me?' He said, 'Well, no, not from you, but from [ROBIN OF SHERWOOD], when we did WILLOW.' And a lot of that look in WILLOW, when I think about it, all the villagers and the bad teeth and the broken-down village was what I liked about ROBIN - it looked pretty earthy. It ages well. [If a show is] meant to be contemporary, five years down the line, it just looks old-fashioned. Whereas ROBIN is set in period, and therefore, it has a lifespan."
"It's quite difficult to date our Robin Hood," Praed concurs. "The fact that it was medieval helps, and the music by Clannad is such an inspired choice, because that really is timeless. I was really pleased with the look of it, the shadows and the smoke and the texture. I just thought the way it was shot - unlike lots of things, they really used light as an art form, and not just to expose the negative. And things that aren't immediately obvious. For example, [Sharp] got a feature film sound guy to do all the sound effects. And that sounds like, 'Yeah, so what?' The answer is, it sounds bloody good. I remember thinking, 'This actually looks new, sounds different.' "
As for ROBIN's continued following, Praed says, "I'm absolutely delighted. Obviously, it's not without precedent, but in my life it is, in my career. I'm really proud to have been a part of that production. And it does give me a good feeling. People still want to watch it - we did something right."