Actor Ricky Callan died yesterday in the early hours of the morning.
I directed him twice and he was in two things I wrote. Then his life, and his body, started falling apart. His marriage broke up (though his wife remained a supportive and loving friend to the end) and diabetes cost him three toes, then one leg below the knee. He kept acting during this, concentrating more on VO work as he needed more and more dyalisis. He set up a recording studio in his home so he could work without leaving the house. Then his brother stole his life savings, according to Ricky’s account, published in the newspapers.
I’m haunted by the last time we saw him. Good friends had been taking him out to the Filmhouse quiz. Fiona asked what he was doing and he said he had quit acting, because he had to go to hospital three times a day for dialysis. Fiona asked about his VO work. “No. No. It’s all gone,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way.
I started seeing Ricky in every Scottish student film around 1991. First he was in the Napier college films, then we started using him at Edinburgh College of Art. There was one year he was in four or five films at the grad show. The first line I can remember him saying was in something called LEGEND OF SHAG-BEAST: “You mean he did you from behind? The bastard!” It wasn’t a funny line — it didn’t even make sense in context — but Ricky’s delivery had that explosive desperation that makes the Carry On film actors funny in spite of their material. It’s not that they act as if it were good — that would be unbearable. But perhaps they act as if they think, by some colossal effort, they might MAKE it good.
I cast Ricky as a cannibal from another dimension in THE ISLE OF VOICES in 1994. A fellow anthropophagous was Steven McNicoll, and the two got on so well I had to send my cannibals home early one day, because it was impossible to direct them: you couldn’t fit an “Action!” in edgeways. I made a note not to use both of them on the same film again. But they became firm friends, which was lovely.
Ricky liked to talk. Words flowed from him. The late Scott Ward, still missed, photographed INSIDE AN UNCLE, in which Ricky had the title part. We would drive to the shoot every day with Ricky keeping up a non-stop monologue. Scott said you might catch a look of realisation on his face each time we arrived, as he flashed on the fact that once more he had dominated the conversation, that he had BEEN the conversation. “Oh. I’ve done it again,” was how Scott put it into words. It was the one thought Ricky never put into words.
in HOPPLA! (top), writer and star Colin McLaren cast Ricky as his dad, which made no sense in age terms but was somehow perfectly believable. Dads have a larger-than-life quality, and Ricky had nothing but larger-than-life qualities.
Ricky played one of the grave-robbers in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL — book and lyrics by me, directed and composed by Stephen Murphy, another great friend. (Stephen turned Ricky into the Cowardly Lion for panto — superb casting — the role demands a voluble vaudevillian — and worked with him whenever possible.) Ricky sang my favourite line, “My life is a failure / I’m off to Austrailure.”
In INSIDE AN UNCLE, we had Stephen applying makeup to Ricky and to child actor Jack Richardson to make them resemble one another. So both got matching grey wigs, mustaches and specs. We also got to build a prosthetic Ricky, bits of which I believe are still extant, having weathered better over the years than the real thing. For a while, Ricky delighted in leaving his own detached head lying around the house to startle the unwary. The period he spent with his face entirely covered in special effects muck, to make a cast of his face — looking like a man who has been hit by a custard pie but is very relaxed about it — was the longest I ever saw him not speaking.
Ricky starred in the episode of kids’ show Intergalactic Kitchen I scripted. Again playing a cannibal, this time from outer space, “Combining astronomy with gastronomy.” Honest, it was innocent enough on the page. With a simple but grisly make-up and a performance that redefined “gusto,” Ricky turned it into nightmare fuel for a generation.
With his huge, heavy, overhanging Toby Jones brow and bulbous lower face, Ricky not only stood out from other actors by looking more interesting, he simply had more to offer: more body, more face. You would scan his features, trying to identify the extra bit that nobody else had, only to be defeated: it was the usual selection of Mr. Potato Head parts that the rest of us have got, but on a more grandiose scale. The Creator had been generous. This size was complimented by the scale of Ricky’s performances, which were equally generous. There was no sense that he was trying to blow the other actors away. As with his car monologues, the other actors existed for Ricky mainly as an audience. (I’m struck by the number of films in which he’s isolated from other characters and enjoys his main rapport with the camera.) None of this limited what Ricky could do, it just focussed the way he did it.
Ricky could and should have had some major starring, recurring role in Scottish television comedy. He fitted beautifully into the world of Still Game, but was capable of more than a supporting role. It’s our loss. The fault was certainly not with the man himself, who had so much to give, and who gave it as often and as vigorously as he could, which was more than you could believe.