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Frank Whitten interview

Actor Frank Whitten, known as Grandpa Ted West in Outrageous Fortune, died on Sunday. Here's our interview from 2007 when he was also performing in The Cut at Auckland's Silo Theatre. Picture by Jane Ussher.



The heavens have opened above the outdoor beer garden at Galbraith's Alehouse, but Frank Whitten isn't going anywhere. Wrapped in a black hoodie and puffer-jacket and wearing a white woollen skullcap, the cadaverous actor who plays Outrageous Fortune's outrageously inappropriate Grandpa West is well-prepared for the weather. His interviewer, by contrast, isn't.

Rain, courtesy of gale-force gusts, sidesteps the hopelessly inadequate tarpaulin and drenches us both. I'm cold and soaked: mightn't it be better to talk inside? No chance. Tapping his packet of Marlboro Reds, Whitten insists on staying outdoors for the ashtrays. This character actor, whose characters are usually bastards, can certainly be unco-operative. But he does share his smokes.

Though a familiar face on television, Whitten hasn't been seen on stage in this country since the time of the fourth Labour government. Now he's playing, an enigmatic mortican-cum-bureacrat in Mark Ravenhill's The Cut along with his television co-star Robyn Malcolm at Auckland's Silo Theatre.

In full flow he closely resembles a praying mantis: all long limbs and malevolent eyes, with an impossibly thin thorax. He swears like a trooper, barking "c---" with a frequency not heard since The Vagina Monologues - but also weeps convincingly wretched tears. Less experienced actors sharing the stage with him get eaten alive. Whitten made his name on Australian television screens as a dark force of nature. "I've played a lot of nasty characters," he says. "A lot of troubled priests, and a lot of rapists. There's some synergy there: one lot in frocks, one lot in trousers."

In cinema, his credits include "Engineer", "Gay Apartment Owner", "Primate" and "Manaroan in Aviator Hat". His best-known role was as the bearish, oilskinned Ethan in Vincent Ward's Vigil (Whitten took up horse-riding and gained two stone for the role), but otherwise his parts have been minor if not excised entirely. Even his turn as a self-described "elderly vaudevillian" didn't make the cut in Peter Jackson's bloated King Kong remake.

"I had a trumpet and a stool and kept on having mishaps," recalls Whitten. "The stage which we were working on wasn't flat, so the stool had a mind of its own and wanted to fall over. They tried tying strings to it, but in the end ..." he tails off. "So, anyway, I'm not in it." However, from 1992 and for 12 straight years, he was a constant presence on the small screen as the taciturn older bloke in Speights' "Southern Man" ads. His sentences ended in "mate" and his weather-beaten face became the homegrown version of the Marlboro Man.

Eventually, though, the gig ended. Says Whitten: "Maybe they just decided that I was too old to be put on a horse, maybe they stopped them on compassionate grounds. A pity - they were a nice little earner." But playing either evil bastards or laconic high-country farmers was wearing thin anyway. "At one point I felt like I was put in a box. So I went to Sydney and was able to say to my agent: 'Put me up for everything - the wrong age, the wrong height - everything wrong.'" He ended up finding comedy, including a well-reviewed appearance as Puck in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"I was the oldest Puck in the history of theatre, I think - 59, not bad," he says. "There was no springing around, but I did some very elegant ladder-work and looked like a combination of one of the gentlemen from Kiss and Joe Cocker. And kids loved it." With Outrageous Fortune Whitten has totally blended the bastard and the funny man. The series, he says, is successful because it "reflects a kind of fantasy, blue-collar New Zealand. It's got lots of sex, nudity, and expletives - all good fun - and the characters, somehow people warm to them." The eccentric actor enjoys his eccentric character and is well aware of Kate Winslet's advice from Extras on winning awards.

"Seriously," Winslet said while wearing a nun's habit and citing Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, "you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental."

Whitten's irascible Ted on Outrageous Fortune is certainly generationally challenged. With bouts of petty crime, early-stage Alzheimer's and a sexually dubious fondness for granddaughter Pascal, he will literally piss on those he doesn't like. Not surprisingly, he won best supporting actor at the recent Air New Zealand Screen Awards - and gave what was widely considered the best acceptance speech of the night.

"This is for the geriatrics," the 65-year-old began after picking up his gong. With MC Oliver Driver's border collie Jack sitting under the lectern to deter long-winded speeches, Whitten riffed: "I think I just pissed on the dog. No, I think the dog just pissed on me." He pauses, the audience of overdressed actors is somewhat stunned, but then the punchline brings down the house: "It's a question of timing."

Meanwhile, back at the bar, thunder has struck and the sheets of rain have thickened into duvets. The downpour overflows the guttering and sluices off the useless tarpaulin; the beer garden is quickly an inch deep in water. Whitten, refusing to move and grinning, lights another cigarette and says: "I'm starting to enjoy this." He also, once upon a time, enjoyed teaching primary school children. Before taking to acting, he says, he was an "eccentric" teacher around the Waikato region and was thrown out of one school because "the headmaster hated me".

By his own admission he lacked certain fundamental skills. "One thing that made me unpopular with adults was that I would say to the parents 'I don't do maths'. Which is true. I still don't. I can't. So I would do deals with other teachers and they would teach my kids while I taught them painting or doing plays or decorating the school." Other skills are optional. More recently, Whitten got rid of his cellphone; and a flirtation with a computer soon ended.

"People could find me," he hisses of the phone. As for the computer: "It unnerved me. It was more intelligent than me and because it was second-hand it took up a lot of room in my small apartment. So I put it out on the street." He admits, "I'm a bit of a Luddite, I suppose." Even before going teaching, he'd caught the acting bug. Appropriately, he got it from his grandfather.

"He and I would sit - it started when I was three - in the downstairs laundry. And he grew his own tobacco which was drying there - I wasn't smoking at this age - and we would have these big lumps of bread with cheese and pickles and onions and beer." (Whitten insists that the booze had "something added to it". Hopefully water.) These events, eagerly awaited by the boy, were for the purpose of storytelling. "He was a great fabulist and would tell these lies, very entertaining lies. And that, I think, would have been the beginning of my interest in acting."

So, are there any similarities between himself, his grandfather and Grandpa on the screen? After a pause, Whitten answers: "We are all fairly economic with the truth." (Whitten says he smokes five cigarettes a day. During the course of this cold, wet interview, he chain-smokes at least 10.) While playing Puck in Sydney, he says he found a way to play the political joker. "I've done a lot of work for the Opera House, and at every opening night of every play I was in I wrote a letter coming, purportedly, from John Howard and Janette venting their fury about the arts and put them up on the wall."

He thought his satirical proclamations were "terribly funny - and some people thought they were real!", but not everyone agreed. "I overstepped the mark and Opera House staff took them down and I was told not to do it any more." And during his earlier stint in London, after arriving on a slow boat from the Waikato in 1964 and helping to found the "working-class" Common Stock Theatre Company, Whitten got a closer view of British politics.

"England under Thatcher was abysmal," he says - although, in his opinion, what followed hasn't proved much better. He's been reading Alastair Campbell's The Blair Years, an 800-page tome by the former Downing St spin doctor, and he's alarmed.

"Despite the fact that Campbell's very smart, the weight of the material points to the banality of politics. It's terrifying when you think these people are in charge of the world." Thatcher and Blair are gone, and Howard could also be on his way. "He's a survivor, though," says Whitten, his mood as dark as the storm clouds above. But, finally, the rain lets up. Water stops cascading off the guttering and the flooding subsides. There's even a hint of sun. "That's good, that's a good sign," says Whitten, spotting what he calls a "demented blackbird" feasting on bloated worms on the lawn next door.

"Another beer?" he offers. "I'll get it." Good on ya, mate.