Michael Brandon: How Dempsey made peace with himself after violent childhood

How Dempsey made peace with himself: A violent childhood, and a stormy 23-year marriage… so how come Michael Brandon's all smiles now



22:28 GMT, 4 May 2012

Michael Brandon doesn’t do ‘all that LA ego stuff’.

‘Life’s too short,’ he says. ‘When I did the play On The Waterfront [at London’s Hackney Empire in 2007] the director [Steven Berkoff] was being pretty rude. I said, “If we’re going to do this, I don’t want to be spoken to that way.” Everything settled down and graciousness returned.’

He chuckles. Michael chuckles a lot, and well he might. He’s about to appear as – wait for it – an egotistical studio boss in the award-winning comedy series Episodes starring Matt LeBlanc.

Michael and Glynis Barber as Dempsey and Makepeace in 1985

Michael and Glynis Barber as Dempsey and Makepeace in 1985

‘It’s a dream job. My character, Elliot Salad, is the big boss,’ he says of the BBC2 series created by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik about a British husband-and-wife writing team who go to Hollywood to remake their successful British sitcom. Matt LeBlanc won a Golden Globe for his performance in the first series, which was also broadcast in the States and has been sold to 186 countries, and the show was also nominated for Best Comedy Series.

‘Elliot has some of the best lines,’ says Michael. ‘I say to someone, “It’s over. It’s like The Lion King, the circle of life. You see The Lion King Genius those puppets.”’ He’s chuckling again. ‘That’s really how those people are.’

Today, Michael, 67, lives in Britain with his wife of 23 years Glynis Barber and their 19-year-old son Alex. He and Glynis fell in love while working together on the hit crime series Dempsey And Makepeace. He was the tough New York cop and she was his ice-cool English partner. The gritty drama attracted more than 20 million viewers in the UK and was shown in more than 70 countries. But it was never really about crime. It was about the chemistry between them.

Ups and downs: Michael and Glynis as husband and wife in 2010

Ups and downs: Michael and Glynis as husband and wife in 2010

‘Tempestuous was the word to describe us,’ he says. ‘Once she chased me around a car park with an orange bollard destined for my brain. We are very different people and I think that’s part of the attraction. If I say blue, she says red. But she’s the most honest, loyal person. There’s no bulls*** with Glynis. If she’s your friend, she’s your friend. That was totally not there in my first marriage.’

There have, he says, been three great loves – actress Kim Novak, a girlfriend called Patricia, and Glynis – various affairs with older women including Dallas star Linda Gray and Cary Grant’s former wife Dyan Cannon, and one ‘mistake’: his first wife, Bionic Woman star Lindsay Wagner who he walked out on after three years in 1979.

‘I first saw her at an actor’s workshop and said, “There’s the woman I’m going to marry.” But it was a mistake. It changed when she became the Bionic Woman. She was working a 17-hour day. You try to help. You put everything you can in. But, when you’re not getting anything back it’s time to move on.

‘I tried to leave her once before the
divorce but she chased me down. I made a mistake and listened to her. I
shouldn’t have done. Eventually I just left with 200 in my pocket. The
divorce was incredibly painful. I really believed it would be forever
like my parents’ marriage. But my parents always said, “We never felt
any warmth from her.”

She is one of the loves of my life… We’ve been very lucky, but I believe once you’re ready, what you want

And this is the way Michael talks, hopping from topic to topic like a grasshopper on speed. But, true to his word, there’s no ego. In fact, he is astonishingly candid and thoroughly likeable. ‘Why be any other way’ he asks. ‘Just be yourself. I remember once being on a flight to LA with Anthony Hopkins when he was in the play M Butterfly. He said, “I throw up before every performance.” I asked, “Why do you do it” He said, “You’re absolutely right. Why do I do that” I think I may be responsible for the fact he’s not in theatre any more.’ Again, he chuckles.

We meet in a private members club near London’s Palace Theatre where Michael’s starring in the musical Singin’ In The Rain. He wasn’t going to take the role of producer R.F. Simpson when he was offered it for a summer run at Chichester’s Festival Theatre until his son Alex persuaded him to. ‘I’d watched the movie with Alex the week before, he said, “It’ll be fun.” I said, “Fun Yes that’s a good reason. I like that.” And I’m enjoying myself. Sometimes things are meant to be.’

Michael was born Michael Feldman into a working-class family in New York. He loved his parents dearly, but never felt he belonged. It was a tough childhood spent on the streets with a gang and a flick knife. Today, he gives talks to prisoners. But for the grace of God ‘Yup,’ he says. ‘My father was a mechanic and we weren’t wealthy. Neither of my parents finished school. I had to do my growing up on the streets. This was not the life I wanted. I sought escape in music. I used to lip-sync into the mirror. I wasn’t a popular kid. I was a Teddy Boy with a switch blade, lost in my own particular jungle.’

He was, though, phenomenally bright and
was awarded a scholarship to study law. But he turned it down when, at
17, he woke up paralysed from the waist down due to an infection in his
spine and was bedridden for six months. ‘They cut out a chunk of my
spine and I had to learn to walk again. The pain was non-stop,’ he says.
‘I decided I wanted something more in my life. A girlfriend said I was
funny and should be an actor or a comedian. That’s when the bell went

Matt LeBlanc won a Golden Globe for his performance in Episodes

Matt LeBlanc won a Golden Globe for his performance in Episodes

He was offered a place at the American Academy Of Dramatic Art and within two years of graduating was playing the lead in the romantic comedy Lovers And Strangers. Soon he was acting alongside Al Pacino in the play Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie and, in 1973, starred with Kim Novak in The Third Girl From The Left. He was 27, she was 40 and they soon began an affair.

‘I thought she was gay,’ he says. ‘There were lots of rumours about her. But I met her and this wave broke over me. She had a freshness that was amazing. We flew on the wind, galloping horses by the sea in the moonlight. But Kim used to break up with me every three weeks or so, suddenly asking, “Why are you still here” She was bothered by the age difference.’

Was she a Mrs Robinson figure ‘Perhaps. She’d lived so much more,’ he says. ‘I’ve had several relationships with older women – maybe they played less games. But age isn’t what it’s about. Sometimes you meet a young girl who’s an old soul.’

Like Glynis, who is ten years his junior ‘She is one of the loves of my life,’ he says. They lived separate lives for a year though when Dempsey and Makepeace finished to see if their relationship would survive without the aphrodisiac of the on-screen chemistry. ‘When we broke up in the Eighties we were both hired to do a Dennis Potter film in Italy. So we went there to work.’ And fell back in love ‘I think so,’ he says. ‘Piers Haggard was the director and his little girl was Daisy. She’s grown up now and is in Episodes too.’

He shrugs in an it’s-a-funny-old-life sort of way. ‘Glynis and I loved watching the first series of Episodes, who’d have thought…’ he muses. ‘We’ve been very lucky, but I believe once you’re ready, what you want comes.’

Episodes, Friday, 10pm, BBC2.