Meet Michael Brandon
by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2007-08-13
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He was one of the biggest Jewish heartthrobs of the 80s in the hit show Dempsey and Makepeace, now actor Michael Brandon has returned to the small screen as a charming casino manager in The Bill. Leslie Bunder catches up with him for a chat about casino games, his Jewish origins and starring as Jerry Springer.
How did the role in The Bill come about?
Well I suppose through my agent Maxine at Curtis Brown, who gave me a call and said The Bill were interested in me doing some kind of role that carries on and continues for several episodes. So I said 'right, what am I doing? Well I'm finishing up a couple of other things and there's no conflict'. And my wife was working, so I said I'd have a read. So as soon as they had some scripts to give me a vague idea of the character they sent them to me, and I thought he was a charming guy. At the moment though. You don't know where it's going to go.
Your character is a casino owner – are we going to see someone along the lines of James Caan in Las Vegas?
Well yeah, except the difference is that series is about him in that element and this is a series about police, so it'll be a couple of scenes about this and a couple of scenes about that and it won't have the same kind of intensity you would get on a series that is solely about that. But yeah, he handles the issues going on, he keeps the ship afloat, and it's a matter of somebody who's charming, keeps the customers happy and in the beginning helps the police because there was some kind of robbery outside the casino.
What kind of research did you do for the role of the manager?
Well I've played this kind of role before and did my research, and in a TV movie that I'd done I met Larry Holmes on a TV talk show after he had won heavyweight champion of the world and the we hit it off and I helped him out with the talk show and he was grateful and wanted me to come to every one of his fights. So I had Larry walk through the casino on this TV movie I did, greeting people and sitting at the table having a chat. That was a television film called The Seduction of Something, it was about a girl who had gambling issues.
What's your favourite casino game?
I guess blackjack. I like it when you watch the real expensive ones in the Bond pictures, betting with houses and countries. It's all fantasy, you know?
You famously starred alongside Fran Drescher in an episode of The Nanny. What was it like working with Fran?
She's great. She's a unique individual. I was sitting with Johnny Gold, who was my model for this guy. I was sitting with him in the Belvedere restaurant when all of a sudden I hear (adopts Fran Drescher voice) "Michael Brandon! Why haven't you been on my show?" And I said "Why haven't I? Call me." And she did – it was one of the few incidents of someone actually doing what they said. I've known Fran for many years, we did a TV movie before that called Rock n'Roll Mom with Dyan Cannon and Heather Locklear, and I was the music producer putting together a new band out of my imagination.
Would you still consider Rob Reiner's suggestion to try stand-up comedy?
Ha ha! OK Rob! You know what, I think about it very often because I'd like to do a one-man show. When I did Jerry Springer The Opera, I've had the experience because every time the piano froze I would have something between two and ten minutes. They would just give me the nod, they didn't even bother closing the curtain any more. I would love to do some kind of raconteur type 'evening with...' It would be terrific fun for me. But I'm also moving into radio, and this guy Richard who's the programmer for Radio City and Magic, based on interviews he read when I was working on Trial and Retribution, he said he would give me a shot. So I'm going up in September to do my own radio show evening, then another and starting January I'll be having my own show, starting in Liverpool and hopefully being syndicated to all.
You were born in Brooklyn. Where did the family originally come from?
Well. I don't know if they were my real family but...my parents were born in Brooklyn. Their parents, I believe, my grandfather, who lived to be 100 years old, he came from Katharinaslaw, which was 70 miles from Kiev. They've probably changed the name by now.
What was the original family name?
Tumen. You're getting into more information I know but he deserted the Red Army, came here with Sonya and had three factories in London and then moved to New York. Two of my aunts were born here, my mum was the youngest of the sisters so she was born in New York. He lived to be 100, still drinking whisky and smoking cigars. And he said 'You should look aupmy brother'. And I said 'What?' And he said 'You still in England? You should look up my brother.' And I said 'what? You've waited 100 years to tell me you have a brother? What's his name?' He said 'Same as mine, dummy.' He told me he lived in Notting Hill, he never mentioned a town, and I was thinking 'Oh my God, I live in Kensington, I can walk there! When did you last speak to him?' He said '1911.'I never bothered...
Why did you choose Brandon as your stage name?
Well Brandon was because my hero was Marlon Brandon, and watching him in On The Waterfront was sort of an epiphany, I thought that was what I had to do. And then I had the opportunity to do On The Waterfront, I just finished it a week ago at the Hackney Empire, Stephen Berkoff directed it. I didn't realise they had done this workshop previously and I walked in and all these people were walking around in slow motion. It was Berkoff's kind of way out workshop production kind of thing and not the kind of thing I had in mind. But Glynis came to see it and Maxine my agent and they thought it was a great production. It was something I had to do.
During the 1980s, you were pretty much a Jewish heartthrob – what was it like?
I was like every Jewish mother's dream for her daughter – a nice guy, good sense of humour, working....!
I guess you have fond memories of Dempsey and Makepeace....
Yeah. It was one of the best times because it was a life-changer. And it was something I did the longest. That and Jerry Springer were probably the two jobs I've done that lasted years.
Is there any truth in the rumours of a Dempsey and Makepeace follow-up or reunion?
Well if the rumours reach high enough you never know, but look, if it happened now it could be interesting but not to do what we did then. If we did something it would have to be like Where Are They Now? I've read Michael Connelly's books and met him and I think he could be someone to do a brilliant story or else we just do something together that's entirely new.
You're great friends with David Soul....
Yeah, I spoke to him yesterday. How did you know that?
We know these things. He has the Jewish connection with Paul Michael Glaser.....
Well I knew Paul before I knew David. We all go way way back to the 60s. He was a great friend, actually the three of us had a pinnacle point, a centre of the circle and her name was Renee Valente, she was the head of casting for Screen Gems Columbia. That was a port in a storm for actors just starting out, for us, we all owe a lot to Renee. Michael and I used to hang out at Jimmy Ray's bar after theatre, used to play with Al Pacino, we'd hang out.
Any plans to become a British citizen?
I am a British citizen. I guess it was five years ago, so that's it. I have a British passport.
What's your favourite Jewish holiday?
Well the one day I don't eat is Yom Kippur, the one day of the year I fast. I think my favourite holiday of any holiday is Thanksgiving – good food, good family, all sitting around. That's your basic best Jewish holiday.
Do you go to synagogue in England?
Once I went with friends here because it's not convenient – you can't even buy a Yahrzeit candle here, I mean come on. In the US you can buy them anywhere, here you have to drive ten miles! It's unbelievable! It's a different kind of thing. I grew up in New York where Jews are noisy, and here they're quiet.
Tell us your favourite Jewish joke.
OK, well there's one...an old Jewish man is walking along the road and he hears a little voice saying 'help me help me' and he looks down and sees a frog. And he says 'did you say something'? And the frog says 'I'm a beautiful young princess with a curse upon me. If you kiss me I'll turn back into a beautiful princess', and I'll make love to you day and night'. So he puts the frog in his pocket and carries on walking, and hears 'help me help me' coming from his pocket. He looks down, he says 'what now?' And she says 'didn't you hear me? I'm a beautiful young princess with a curse upon me. If you kiss me I'll turn back into a beautiful princess', and I'll make love to you day and night'. He looks at her, he says 'at my age....I'd rather have a frog that talks."