The Merchant of Venice

Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? An Autobiography

© Tom Baker 1997

Excerpt from chapter 13

A (National Theatre) tour to America was announced. The productions of the Three Sisters, starring Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, and The Beaux Stratagem, again with Maggie and Bob and with Ronald Pickup as Archer, were booked to go to Los Angeles for a season. Supporting actors and understudies were invited as well. Michael Halifax came round to all the dressing rooms to find out who wanted to go. We all wanted to go. I suddenly had an idea that with half the company away in the States for a while my chances of a decent part might be improved, so I turned down the trip and hoped that something might turn up while the other half was away.

Something did turn up. The two Donalds (Donald McKechnie and Donald McIntyre) remained loyal to me and were always on the look-out to recommend me to some innocent director. The Merchant of Venice was announced with Sir Laurence to play Shylock and Jonathan Miller to direct; the sets were to be designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman. Once again a Donald encouraged me. Naturally I had read the play and thought I could play Gratiano. I had more chance of playing Portia. I had no real idea how things worked there. Joan Plowright was to be Portia and Jeremy Brett Bassanio, Charles Kay was to be Aragon and Ben Whitrow the Duke of Venice. The whole play was sewn up. Perhaps I should have gone to America? Anyway Donald McKechnie found me in the pub talking to a down and out I’d mistaken for a journalist. I thought he was making notes and certainly he seemed impressed and amused by my delusions. As Donald joined us I realized my “journalist” was trying discreetly to open an abandoned sandwich he’d probably found in Aldwych. Donald, no snob most of the time, muttered, “Who’s your friend?”
Leaning left I whispered, “I think he’s from the Guardian.”
“A word,” said Donald, and to my guardian, “Excuse us for a moment, please.” In the corner where staff directors (that was Donald’s title) plotted with actors for a line, any line so they could stop miming, Donald hissed, “Jonathan Miller’s over at Aquinas Street.”
“Can I audition for Gratiano?” said I to my Donald.
“Gratiano?” Donald gaped at me. “Gratiano? Pull yourself together, that’s for Derek Jacobi.”
“What’s left that speaks?” I asked him.
“Just hold it a second,” he said, “and I’ll tell you. There’s only one part left, the Prince of Morocco, and Jonathan likes the idea of a dwarf for the part.” I mulled it over for a moment.
“But Donald, I’m standing next to you, towering over you and you are five foot ten tall. How can I get the part of a dwarf? Jonathan Miller is a doctor, he’s clever, he’ll notice straightaway that I’m not a fucking dwarf. As I walk in he’ll say to himself or to his assistant, “Hello, this fellow’s a bit tall for a dwarf, wouldn’t you say? He’s the size of two dwarfs, one on top of the other, “What are they up to these staff directors?” And then you’ll be in trouble for trying to pass off a chap who was too tall for the Grenadier Guards as a dwarf in The Merchant of Venice.”
Donald looked up at me and said: “Tell him he doesn’t want a dwarf.”

Read an excerpt from chapter 17.

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