“…I never thought about how I could play the character, I just played it. I also never based my characters on anyone. I’m not one of those people who sits on a bus and says, ‘I’ll play it like him.’ I play them more like me. In acting, as in life, it’s no good trying to be like someone else. It’s a waste of time. You should create your own style. There is definitely no method to my acting.” – Michael Ripper (from Michael Ripper Unmasked, by Derek Pykett)
“Michael, to me and to many others, represented all that is best in our profession in his many varied and memorable performances. Dedication, total involvement and complete professionalism: qualities not all that evident today.” – Christopher Lee (excerpted from his forward to Michael Ripper Unmasked)
I’m honored to participate in Brian Schuck’s (from Films Beyond the Time Barrier) first-ever blogathon, the “Favorite Stars in B Movies” Blogathon. Be sure to check out all of the great entries! For me, this event presented the perfect opportunity to shine the spotlight on one of Hammer Films’ most versatile and ubiquitous, yet often overlooked, performers.
Pop quiz: Which of the following actors appeared in more Hammer films than anyone else: A) Christopher Lee B) Peter Cushing, or C) Barbara Shelley? Okay, it’s a trick question, because the correct answer should be D) None of the above, or more accurately, Michael Ripper. Ripper was what would commonly be referred to as a “character actor,” but that nomenclature doesn’t quite fit – an “all-purpose actor” would be more accurate. If you needed a coachman, constable, a barkeep, or cheeky sidekick, he was your man. No role was too small or insignificant for the veteran performer, who always managed to make an indelible impression.
Although Michael Ripper never quite became a household name, he was the “Where’s Waldo” of British actors. Even if his name in the credits didn’t ring a bell, you couldn’t forget his almost cherubic appearance, ruddy complexion, and a devilish gleam in his eyes (suggesting he knew more than he was leading on). With 246 acting credits and a career spanning seven decades, you’d be hard-pressed not to have seen him in something. While those numbers are certainly impressive by any metric, he’s probably best remembered for his 33 appearances in Hammer films in a wide range of genres. His 24-year stint with Hammer began with the 1948 noir The Dark Road (aka: There is No Escape), and ended with the comedy That’s Your Funeral (1972).
Born in Portsmouth, in 1913, Ripper would continue to live and work in England throughout his life (except for a brief sojourn in Ireland, to work in the theater). He was a quintessentially British actor, with no plans to cross the pond to Hollywood. Although he enjoyed his work on the stage (including playing Hamlet in 1943), his theater career was cut short, due to throat surgery in 1952. In his later, post-Hammer years, he turned mostly to television (although he preferred film). He continued to work until the mid-1990s, when declining health forced him to retire, but not before leaving behind an impressive resume.
Ripper excelled at taking a role that lesser actors would sleepwalk through, and turning it into something special. Two notable 1962 Hammer roles (which coincidentally involve pirates) exemplify his innate ability to make the most of his characters. In The Pirates of Blood River, the 5’6” actor managed to steal the scenes from 6’5” Christopher Lee (no small feat) as Captain LaRoche’s duplicitous sidekick, Mack. In a moment of indiscretion, he openly mocks his superior (you just know it’s not going to end well for him), while in another scene, he turns the tables on LaRoche. He went on to portray a completely different kind of pirate sidekick in his next film, opposite Peter Cushing, in Captain Clegg (aka: Night Creatures). In one of his more substantial Hammer roles, Ripper plays Clegg’s ever-loyal companion, ex-pirate turned coffin-maker Jeremiah Mipps, who enjoys pulling the wool over stuffy Captain Collier’s (Patrick Allen) eyes. Ripper displays considerable range in the film, carrying some of the film’s lighter scenes, as well as its most touching (taking an old friend to his final resting place).
Michael Ripper took his craft seriously, managing to add a touch of pathos and humor to many of his characters. Despite the relatively short screen time of the majority of his roles, he always enhanced them, adding a little something extra, whether it was a moment of levity to a tense scene, an inflection, or a surprising facial expression. Ripper was a ubiquitous presence in British cinema, who managed to never outstay his welcome. It’s always a treat to spot him in an old or new (to me) film. Next time you’re watching a Hammer movie or another British production from decades past, don’t be too surprised if Mr. Ripper pops up (Look for him, it’s fun!), and raise your glass to one of the unheralded greats.
Sources for this article: Michael Ripper Unmasked, by Derek Pykett; The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes