Ask any Briton over 40 what he knows about Leslie Phillips and chances are he will simply purr the greeting “Helloooo,” in imitation of Phillips’ smooth, faintly libidinous and exquisitely enunciated tones. That simple salutation — it actually sounds more like a drawn-out “Hell-aaaay” — is one of the hallmark catch phrases of Phillips’ heyday in British films, radio and television of the 1960s and ’70s, usually emanating from his well-coifed blond head as it swivels to catch an eyeful of passing pretty lady. Into that mundane duo-syllable he can pack everything from a wolf-whistling raunchiness to the silky caress of the tireless seducer. In Phillips’ voice, Britons will catch the unmistakable tones of the rakish young officers, doctors, ardent skirt hounds and lovable bounders that were once his stock-in-trade.
Being such a Briton myself, I thus find myself curling up in kittenish ecstasy when the 82-year-old Phillips answers the phone from London: “Helloooo,” he coos, chuckling affably when I point out that he must utter his own catch phrase about 50 times a day. “Ah, yes,” he says. “Certain phrases have come up throughout my life, and people everywhere want me to do them, on the tube or in the street or wherever. I take it in my stride. It happened last night, when I got the award.”
I’m speaking with Phillips the morning after his win of the best-supporting-actor prize at the British Independent Film Awards for his work in Hanif Kureishi and Roger Michell’s Venus, in which he and Peter O’Toole play aging actors who meet each morning to scan the audition lists, drink coffee and swap medications (“Now, these blue ones are really rather marvelous . . .”). Although Phillips detects elements of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in their relationship, its also true that if Withnail and I, the most notorious resting actors in British cinema, had survived to a ripe old age, they might have ended up like this doddery old pair — wildly theatrical and doggedly, combatively devoted to each other.
For American audiences, Phillips will be most familiar for the big-budget, London-shot films from the Indian summer of his 70-year career: colonial buffers in Empire of the Sun and Out of Africa, and the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies. He routinely turns up these days on television in roles that nimbly play off his established persona. Casting him as a judge in The Trials of Oz, for example, alerts any British viewer to something deeply deficient in the character’s legal authority, simply because he’s played by that terrible old roué Leslie Phillips.
Despite embodying the very essence of the upper-middle-class ladies’ man, Phillips was actually raised in the direst poverty. Born in 1924 in Tottenham, Phillips lost his father when he was a child, and his desperate mother enrolled the boy in elocution lessons — the conventional first step for any regional or working-class British actor until well into the 1950s. He remains a stickler for crisp, precise enunciation. “Diction is terribly important in the theater. A lot of actors these days . . . well, it’s not like the old days when you had to have a very clear, upper-class English accent. I had a thick London accent as a child, so first I had to get rid of it.”
By the age of 9, he was on the West End playing Peter Pan, and he seems to have worked unceasingly ever since. “I always worked with the top people. I worked for Binkie Beaumont, the impresario, and H.M. Tennant, who controlled a lot of the theaters in New York and London, and always with top stars: Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison, people like that, you know. I did that until I went into the army.”
But Phillips’ army career ended just before D-day, when he was invalided out after a nervous breakdown. Soon after his recovery, he was back on the boards. Phillips then re- established himself as an adult performer in the 1950s radio comedy The Navy Lark (where he invested other cheeky catch phrases like “Lumme!” and “Ding dong!” with his singular naughtiness), appeared in a few early Carry On movies and later inherited the Doctor series of light comedies from the original star, Dirk Bogarde. He was everywhere for the next 20 years.
“You really could be a British national institution just by being on the radio, television and in movies,” he recalls. “I used to do them all at once. You can’t do that so easily in America. You can do movies and TV in Los Angeles, and theater in New York, but you can’t just run from a morning dress rehearsal over to a film studio for the afternoon as easily as you could in London.”
Entering his ninth decade, Phillips plans to remain busy until they bury him. “I feel incredibly youthful,” he says. “In fact, I have a job of work persuading people that I’m 82.” The BIFA award is simply more encouragement. Does he, I ask, have a hangover from the celebrations last night?
“Well, it was all very surprising and exciting, but I’m really not a great drinker.” Then the imperishable Leslie Phillips of British folk memory kicks in one last time as he smoothly declares, “I do love a nice glass of champagne, though. Lovely!”