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In happier times on the “Helantheous”, Bob’s House Boat in Hampton Court.
Expatriate American Actor, Playwright and
BOB SHERMAN IN THE SANDBAGGERS
WHEN Bob Sherman dramatized Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea,
Steiger flew all the way from Los Angeles to London — for a radio drama. Sherman had attacked Hemingway’s fable of man, sea, fish and sharks with such relish that Steiger felt obliged to take on the role.
As well as being a writer, actor and sometime troubadour, Sherman was a sailor. His love of the sea began when he and his partner Colin Tongs bought the Verite a 40 foot Ketch in the South of France, docked in La Ciotat and many times he sang for their supper. As a teenager, he joined the crew of Errol Flynn’s yacht and cruised the coast of California. Those weeks at sea led to his own years of sailing — and carousing — before he carved out a career as an expatriate American actor in London. In 1972 Tongs met Bob in London with John Higgins, brother of Colin Higgins the producer of Nine to Five with Dolly Parton and a host of other major motion films. One film becoming a classic called Harold & Maude, which started off as a thesis. From 1972 until the day he died, Bob & Colin Tongs had formed a life long partnership.
Sherman’s love of the sea and his love of freedom were counterbalanced by a healthy skepticism about the American Dream. Having witnessed the red-baiting years of Senator Joe McCarthy, he would memorably bring to the English stage in 1977 a powerful and popular production of Eric Bentley’s dramatization of the congressional hearings on “un-American activities”, Are You Now Or Have You Have Ever Been? As well as taking the role of Larry Parks, the actor who was destroyed by the anti-communist fervor of the 1940s and 1950s after naming names and admitting to the House Committee on Un-American Activities that he had been a communist, Sherman was a producer of the show, and reshaped the script for British audiences. It moved from the Bush Theatre in London to a national tour and long residency at the Mayfair Theatre, London.
Sherman’s tales of his own life were rich, colorful and sometimes lacking in crucial detail. His relationship with the taxman meant that amid the years of on-stage stardom, when he played Chuck Baxter in the Burt Bacharach musical Promises, Promises and appeared in Harvey the London Play with Jimmy Stewart , there were also spells when he was obliged to succumb to the lure of the sea. A program from the 1963 American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, when he was briefly Bob Benedict, summarized his life:
Bob“ started his career in San Francisco in TV, where he played with Wendell Corey in Harbor Command. Went to Old Globe in San Diego while a pre-law major at San Jose College. Apprenticed at Stratford before becoming a regular member of the company. Born in Redwood City.”
This omits Sherman’s time in reform school and his first credited film appearance as Robert Sherman in the 1955 movie of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. It also gives no clue to his next few years as a rogue and vagabond in Europe, playing with Jacques Brel as a duo of troubadours. His sister maintains that he was born in San Francisco.
The reason he achieved an affectionate eminence among American actors in Britain was his huge heart. Renowned for his generous and instantaneous gestures, he once leapt into his car and drove to embrace an actor friend at the moment of hearing that Aids had just been diagnosed in the man. His own love life was complicated: there were long-lasting relationships with women, and many spontaneous encounters. As a dramatist, Sherman could attract the best actors to his work, from Steiger to Kenneth Haigh and John Sessions. But it was as an actor that he found steady employment, providing film-makers and theatrical producers with a resident American talent of considerable charisma and appeal. Recent roles included the portrayal of President Reagan in The Falklands Play for BBC 4, and his final role as a television host in this year’s shocker Hellboy. Reagan was not his first President; he regularly revived a performance as Franklin Delano Roosevelt opposite his good friend William Hootkins as Winston Churchill in the play Their Finest Hour, which he had expected to perform in New York this August until failing health made it impossible. As it was, Bill Hootkins died soon after Bob with the same disease.
From a CIA agent in The Pink Panther Strikes Again, to head of the CIA
in History Made at Night, Sherman’s persona for film was ruggedly adventurous, which was not far from reality. His favourite times were spent on his boat in the Mediterranean, bumming
In later life he lived and wrote on his houseboat, Helianthus, moored at Tagg’s Island on the Thames. It was there that he wrote a dynamic pair of plays for Radio 4, The Titanic Inquiry, based on little-known transcripts of the US Senate investigation into the Titanic disaster that showed a complicity of guilt that ran from Marconi to the White Star Line.
Other projects had not fared so well. His outrage at Britain’s ceding of the island of Diego Garcia as a US military base led him to write a screenplay that became a stage play and a radio play. It was never to be made. Despite the passionate support of many, including Harold Pinter who had committed himself to performing in it, it was considered too contentious. He enjoyed better luck with a final screenplay, Hotel Arusha, which Colin Tongs his co writing partner renamed Hotel Africa, thinking that not many people would know where Arusha was, the film was due to be filmed with Bill Nighy, but later shelved owing to Bobs early demise.
In the week before his death, Sherman married his long-term partner Robin. She survives him, as does his daughter from a previous relationship. Bob Sherman, actor and writer, was born on November 16, 1940. He died of pancreatic cancer on August 30, 2004, aged 63 and will be sadly missed by anyone who knew him. Edited By Colin Tongs 2005.
1. Bob at my home in the garden at Philips House in Wiltshire. 2.Bob as the Agent in The 1986 Little Shop of Horrors. 3. A black & white study of Bob, nearing the end.4. Dennis Norden at Dolly Frankels Party. 5. The Sanbaggers BBC Television series. Bob was the CIA Agent. 6. Peter Sellers shortly before he died, we met often at the Bangkok Restaurant in Bute Street South Kensington. 7. We also met Ernst Hanover at the Bangkok Restaurant who much later married Princess Caroline. Prince Ernst Hanover was related to the Queen. two of these photo's have never been published, one for obvious reasons. (read later about our Sweeny Script, that never past BBC Muster)
Bob Sherman and I were on the “B” or even the “C” list of personalities for various parties in London. We were invited to Dolly Frankel’s afternoon get together of numerous famous people from both the States and the United Kingdom. Dennis Norden was holding Court, with many great stories of his incessant writings for many of the well-known BBC Radio stars of the gone by years. I seem to remember Judy Garlands daughter and Liza Minnelli sister being there, Lorna Luft, however was warned off by Bob, as at that time she was with a known mobster mafia. The relationship seems to be eradicated from anywhere on the Internet. On leaving that evening, Dolly said to Bob, bring your firend back anytime, he's a great scrubber, as I always helped to clean the mess up as these sort of gatherings. The highlight was listening to Dennis Norden's great stories of the likes of Hancok, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and a host of others.