More than 35 years ago, actor John Rhys-Davies owed the bank £60, and he didn't have a job. His agent had a proposal, however. There was a role for him as a crime lord on an episode of the British police drama The Sweeney that would more than cover his debts, but there was a catch: The scene was the first police interrogation shown on British television, and the script was taken verbatim from police records.
"The temptation is all actors fall in love with their characters, and most characters you can play out of love," Rhys-Davies said in a booming voice Friday to an audience at Fan Expo Canada. "But you can play it the other way, too. You can play it out of hate. And I played every vicious, venal, corrupt, sadistic, miserable, underhanded, disgusting character of this animal that I could."
The job worked out, as fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sliders and The Lord of the Rings well know, with Rhys-Davies then landing roles on I, Claudius and Shogun. From there, the actor believes, his career was made.
Rhys-Davies, who’s played such memorable roles as Sallan and Gimli, was greeted Friday by a near-capacity crowd eager to listen to him answer questions, if only tangentially, as he turned even the smallest request into a winding, theatrical and often barely related tale. Each story ended with a gripe and a one-liner.
Take, for example, when an unsuspecting Sliders fan asked about the on-set politics that resulted in Rhys-Davies' leaving the 1990s sci-fi series. The actor described how the show remains an open wound, and how it "could have been the Fox channel's Star Trek franchise." The audience witnessed his frustration with Sliders’ repeated allusions to other, often more memorable, works.
"We did Tremors, we did Night of the Living Dead, we even used the same masks from the film The Island of Doctor Moreau,” he recalled, adding that he also had a problem with the show’s direction, as he was told to act like "the bad scientist in Lost in Space."
The audience laughed, and Rhys-Davies continued with his own retort, "Well, guys, listen, thank you very much, but you know, if you want the bad scientist from Lost in Space why don't you employ him? Science is too important to me and too important to this country and clearly," he paused, sighing into the microphone, “certainly no scientific mind is working on this show!"
Braving the microphone, another fan followed up by asking which episode of Sliders was the actor’s favorite, eliciting laughs from the audience. Rhys-Davies shook his head and replied, “Clearly this man has balls! Which episode was my favorite? The last one."
The Q&A cycled through a few typical questions, with Rhys-Davies discussing his initial skepticism about playing the dwarf Gimli in The Lord of the Rings, but saw the role as an opportunity to visit New Zealand and be paid for it. He again explained his allergic condition while playing Gimli, and the way the skin around his eyes peeled off because of the make-up.
Another fan asked whether he would ever visit Stratford, Ontario, Canada’s city-sized homage to William Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon. Rhys-Davies replied that he had always meant to travel through Canada, and that his son once did some years ago. However, his son didn’t realize that Canada becomes cold in the winter, complicating his plan to camp near Edmonton, Alberta.
"You want to live in a tent, in January, in Edmonton, Alberta?" the actor said, replaying the moment. He mocked his son's response, saying, "If it gets really cold, I'll just head further south to Sioux Falls, North Dakota." But once again, Rhys-Davies swooped in with the final line: "You realize in Sioux Falls, in February, buffalo freeze in their skins."
The stories came easy to him, and he has told most of them quite a few times before. His auditorium-sized voice only really faltered once, while he explained that vitality and tension is the ultimate goal of every actor. To demonstrate, he spontaneously quoted King Henry from Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
"Send me your prisoners, by all speedy means or you shall hear from me in such or you shall hear in such a kind from me as will displease you,” he said, pausing briefly. "Send me your prisoners, or you will hear of it."
The audience clapped heartily to his performance, but Rhys-Davies stopped them.
"That was really poorly done, I'm sorry,” he said. “Thank God for indulgent audiences."