CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
TERRY McDERMOTT

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


HOME

 

INTERVIEWS

 

CHRONOLOGICAL
OVERVIEW

 

F.A.Q.

 

LINKS



This interview first appeared in TV Eye No. 9, August 1996.

Terry McDermott has had a long career in television, radio and theatre, and is still remembered by many as Sgt Bronson, one of the three original cast members of Homicide. Recently we talked to Terry about those formative years in Australian television:

 

It has often been said that without Homicide today's film and television industry would not exist as we know it. It must have been quite an experience to be involved in the pioneering and improvisation during those early days.

It was, it was. Many stories come to mind: In one episode we were chasing Kurt Ludescher who was playing a crook, so we went out to Pikes Creek Reservoir to film the sequence. The script called for Kurt to run from a house, jump in a motor boat and take off at high speed, and we had to run down, get in another motor boat and chase after him. This is what happened: We get to Pikes Creek at dawn on a Saturday, and we were wondering what we were going to do. Then a car came along with a boat on the back and lan Jones (Film Director) says to the driver "Excuse me mate, could we use your boat?" He's quite surprised and says "What?" lan says "We're filming Homicide here and we need a boat. Do you mind? We'd only have it for a little while" "But we came out here to water ski!" "Look, it won't be any trouble for you at all, we'll just use it for this scene" "Oh, alright!" A little while later another car and boat came along, and the same thing happened: "Excuse me mate, can we use your motor boat?"

No other arrangements for a boat were made before this?

No! David Lee (Assistant Film Director) could arrange most things, but this was the ad lib part. It could safely be said that Homicide was made with the generous co-operation of the Victorian public!

Earlier for the same episode we were filming a sequence in which we're driving down a road looking for a house, but somehow there was a hole in the script and it wasn't apparent how we knew which house we had to go to. There happened to be an old fellow nearby working on a fence, so lan said to him "Hey mate, could you do us a favour? Terry and Lex (Mitchell) are coming along in a car and they'll stop and Terry will get out of the car and say 'Excuse me mate, can you tell me where the doctor lives?' And all we'd like you to do is point to that house and the camera will pan across to it, OK?" "Yeah, no worries." So we do the shot, we pull up in the car, I get out and I'm about to open my mouth when he says "G'day!" Well, I thought 'play on', so I said "Excuse me mate, can you tell me where the doctor lives?", and then he said "Well, it all depends, there are two doctors!" He was building up his part, and we had all sorts of trouble to get him just to point.

Another time we had to film some scenes on Cerberus (a ship now forming part of a breakwater near Black Rock). lan asked a bloke to row the crew out, and then the police launch took us out, because it was being used in the story. We were carrying guns, and I put my gun in the front of my trousers tucked in my belt. The sea was pretty wild with big waves, and you had to jump at the right moment otherwise you'd hit the side of the ship. So as it came up I jumped, but in jumping I naturally tightened my stomach muscles, and the gun dropped down my trouser leg. I managed to grab it at my knee in mid-jump to stop it falling into the sea, and it looks quite funny in the episode!

In the story we were waiting for a drug runner to come and deposit some drugs on the ship, and we were there to capture him. The diver came out and before he got to the surface a big eel went straight for him! It must have lived there. When we finished filming and it was nearing the end of the day, lan said "Well, we have to get off this thing - I'II wave, somebody might come out". And he waved and waved and waved and eventually a bloke came out and took us off.

It was left to chance that somebody might just happen to be around to take you back?

Yes - and he was annoyed too! He said "I thought you were in distress", and I said "Well, we had to get off!"

In an earlier episode filmed up in the Dandenongs stuntman Peter Armstrong got in this old FJ that David Lee had found. It was burning and coming down over an embankment, and halfway down the driver who was on fire would fall out, and an old guy who happened to be at the scene boiling his billy looks up and sees it. He then sees a fellow come down from the top and throw the body back in, and he knows it's a murder. So Peter Armstrong is in the car, the car is alight, and he is on fire, and half way down when he falls out they throw a dummy back in. No sooner had it happened than a bloke pulled up on the top and, thinking it was a real accident, went down to help in the middle of the shot! lan Jones was screaming "Get out!", and dragged this bloke up and put him back in his car and sent him on his way. There was only one car to burn, and while it was still burning we had to pull it back up the top and do it all over again.

In the early days people weren't used to seeing film crews in the streets.

That's true. We did one scene at St. Kilda in which we had to pick up a girl standing just inside the grounds of a block of flats, and when she sees us she comes out and gets in the car with us. It was near dusk, and although it was only a little shot we were running out of light, so they decided to do it straight away with only one take. David Lee said "Hang on, I'd better check if it's all right with the people who own the flats", because we just picked out this block of flats at random, so he ran in and lan Jones said "Right, we're going ahead with the shot, there shouldn't be any trouble with that". As we were just starting David came out and said "It's OK, as long as none of the tenants object", so we went into the shot and then this bloke burst out of this lower flat screaming "I object! I object! Who the hell do you think you are coming here filming, I live here, blah, blah, etc., etc." He started grabbing equipment and throwing it over the fence out of the block of flats and onto the footpath, and he appealed to me as a detective to uphold his rights!

Did that happen often, people thinking you were a real detective?

Yes, especially with Jack Fegan - people used to ask him if he got time off from the police force to work in the series. Jack was a great character, he worked on the wharves most of his life, and he used to get time off to do Australian films. He never thought of himself as an actor, although he was very good, he thought that he couldn't play anybody else but himself. He was very, very effective and a great character.

He did some good work after Homicide.

He did. He came back in that Division 4 episode 'The Return Of John Kelso', and he did a very nice job in that.

He won a Logie for 'Best Individual Acting Performance' for that role.

I wouldn't be surprised. When Homicide won it's first award, the cast weren't invited to the Logies. lan Jones and lan Crawford went up to accept the award, and lan Jones was wearing my dinner suit! I think the reason the cast weren't invited is that there was no purpose in them being there at that time, because as we were the only Australian series on the air they couldn't have a best actor award or anything like that.

You did a few episodes of Consider Your Verdict before Homicide.

Yes. A friend of mine in Sydney, Brian Anderson, rang me and said "They're auditioning for Consider Your Verdict down at Channel 7, what about going down?" I'd seen quite a few episodes and I replied "It's awful! I wouldn't want to be in that!" Anyway, he talked me into going down, and a lot of people were there. I knew everybody in the business in Sydney, and I didn't know any of these people. It was like the plumber had a day off and thought 'I'II have a go', that's what it felt like. My audition was at three o'clock, and three o'clock came, half past three came, four o'clock came, so I was getting a bit annoyed and I went up and said "Look, if I'm not auditioned immediately I'm leaving". They said to come straight in, but by that stage I'd really gone off the idea, so I went in and Dorothy Crawford was sitting there and said "What would you like to read?" I said "I don't care what I read". So I read a part, and I didn't get any work out of it because I didn't pass the audition, but about 18 months later my agent told me they wanted me to do a Consider Your Verdict. I asked what they were paying, and she told me and I said I wanted more than that, and I asked for more and got it, which really surprised me. What had happened was they hired a bloke to play the main role, and he and I in the photographs they had of us looked very much alike. In the courtroom scenes a bloke in the dock was asked to identify this man, and when he did they asked "But could it have been that used car salesman over there?" which was me. The problem was that in the flesh we didn't look alike at all! The other fellow looked a bit like Liberace and was very tall, and when we got down to Melbourne it suddenly became terribly obvious. But they had picked us from photographs, and so when we did the scene I had to put my hand up and cover most of my face!

But I had a lot of fun doing it. It was a mad pace - you rehearsed on Thursday, you had Friday off and on Saturday you shot it, and you shot it straight through with no breaks. And there was no script - there was only an outline. You ad-libbed to the outline - you knew what your values were, what you were supposed to have done, what you were protecting yourself from, what you'd admit to, stuff like that, but they left the words up to you. They asked me back to do two more, and in the third one I was Sgt. Bronson, they used it as sort of an audition for Homicide. Then I had to read with Dorothy Crawford, which I did, and that was that - we did the pilot of Homicide in February, which took two weeks.

It was almost a year after the pilot before the series went into production.

After the pilot I went back to Sydney, and then we moved to Adelaide where I was doing a variety of work, and I was offered a job with the ABC presenting a program called To Market, To Market. It was a nice offer and of course it could lead to all sorts of things, so I wired Hector Crawford and said 'I've been offered a job with the ABC, what do you advise?', because I hadn't heard a word since the pilot. He wired back 'Don't accept. Letter following'. Not knowing him very well, I thought I won't knock it back, so I stalled the ABC for ten days until Hector's letter came. In the meantime Hector had taken my telegram into Channel 7 and, because they were indecisive about Homicide, it tipped the balance and they decided to go ahead with production of the series. And that's how it started.

In those days we would film the exteriors for an episode and then the interiors for the same episode about three weeks later, so when the series commenced we had to do a few sets of exteriors before we started the interiors. We didn't have any outside sound for the first few months, and after that they started to post-synch it in the studio - they projected the picture on to a screen and you'd hold a microphone and dub your voice to match your lip movements. One of the mad things was that they used real policemen in some of the exteriors, and there would be scenes where, for example, I'd ask a constable "Where is he?" and he'd say "Over there Sergeant, we threw a blanket over him." But when it came to dubbing three weeks later they wouldn't know where these cops were, no idea where they were, they didn't even know their names, and they'd have film of these big guys standing there moving their lips. So rather than hire an actor to dub it, Hector got the brilliant idea of making all the boys who worked in Crawfords members of Actors Equity, and when they weren't busy they could use them for dubbing - and you ended up with big burly coppers talking with a 17 year old boys voice!

Leonard Teale said that one way they got round the dubbing problem was to make the guide track sound better than what they could do in the studio.

What Leonard Teale didn't know, because he wasn't in it for the first six months, was that we never had a guide track! When we came to do the post-synching they couldn't find it - they never found it - ever! It was never there!

Is the story of the fight scene with John Fegan (from ep. 13 'Aftermath') in The Homicide Story true?

Yes, it's true what happened. It was one of those things, for whatever reason suddenly Jack was putting in real punches - the fight took over somehow. I got there just after it happened. It left us all a bit dazed, not only Alan Bickford but Jack as well.

The television stations were not really interested in fostering local drama because they could pick up overseas shows dirt cheap.

When I went out of Homicide it was rating 36, today if a show only gets 20 they think it's great. And that was against the best Hollywood productions - they had Dick Van Dyke against us, they had all sorts of top notch overseas productions - even Emergency Ward Ten was against us at one stage. What they used to do at Channel 7 was about once a month they'd take us off and put on a Bob Hope special. Homicide cost $5,000 to make per episode, and the Bob Hope special cost them $10,000 to buy - even though it cost $150,000 to make, they'd sell it for chicken feed to a little country like Australia - and the rating would drop to 18 every time. And they couldn't believe it - they couldn't believe it. And they kept doing it!

Homicide later reached a peak rating of 54.

I don't think I'm wrong in saying this, but I think it was an embarrassment that it was such a success. When Hector Crawford told me what he was hopeful of doing I was sceptical - and yet he believed he could do it, and he ended up doing it, which was fantastic really. But I'm quite sure Channel 7 thought they'd get Hector off their backs by putting it into production, and that it wouldn't last - and surprise, surprise! But it embarrassed everybody because it was so good.

Mind you, people have always said "Oh, you can see the sets wave around when somebody slams a door". Maybe they did - there were parts where it creaked, and there were parts where it was very good. Particularly those segments that lan Jones had control of; they were extremely exciting, and very well done.

I'II always remember Alan Arnold lying on the road on his back with the camera on his chest, and we had to come along doing 100kmh around a bend passing very close to him. We screeched around this comer only narrowly missing him, and lan asked "How was it, Alan?", and he said "Could have been closer!". But Alan was wonderful - the fight scene from 'Inside The City' (ep. 29) with Neil Phillipson took three and a half hours, and it went into night-time, and nothing showed-on the light meter. Alan said "Keep going - it'll be in all right". He got Paul Green, who was the assistant, to hold a battery light and follow us around, keeping the light on us. It came out, and it looks pretty good.

The black and white episodes may seem a bit primitive compared to the later colour episodes, but they are nonetheless very effective.

The best Homicide stuff was done in the black and white days. When later on they got more money I don't think lan Jones was still working on it - he'd moved on to Hunter and Division 4, but he was the driving force, he was the most imaginative director. And a fellow like Alan Arnold, he would do just about anything. The effectiveness of the series was more important than anything, and the ordinariness of it I think was part of its key. You actually had people running down alleys, no studio fakes, and very little trick photography.

There was one scene with Terry Norris, who was playing a crook in a sports car, and we chased him down The Boulevard. We radioed ahead for a couple of divvy vans to intercept him, and he stops when he sees them. He looks back and you see a shot of us, then he pulls out a shotgun and fires it. Cut back to us and he's blown out our windscreen, then we have a gunfight with him and take him into custody. But we couldn't afford a windscreen, so what do we do? David Lee and lan Jones came up with the solution: they put drafting paper all over the windscreen and cut a hole in it, and it looked like a shattered windscreen with a bullet hole in it. Then they got Alan Arnold behind us in the car with the camera, and Leonard Teale and I sat there with our hands full of screwed up cellophane lolly papers, and on a signal threw them up in the air. It looked like shattered glass going all over us, and that only cost about twenty-five cents.

That scene is in The Homicide Story - you wouldn't pick it.

It was brilliantly done. They did another one - Syd Conabere was playing a madman and he had to jump off a train. So - how do you get an actor to jump off a moving train without hurting himself? They parked a utility close to the train track, and got Syd Conabere to stand on the side wall, and the cameraman is lying on the floor of the utility right on the edge. The train comes through and Syd jumps off the ute past the camera and rolls down the hill. Before that they had shot Syd throwing his bag off the moving train, and Alan Arnold was filming off the side while Syd goes to jump out of the train, but Syd grabs one of the handrails and swings out of shot - put it all together and you could have sworn he jumped out of the train and you wonder how he didn't kill himself. But nobody was hurt because nobody was in any danger.

In Whiplash to simulate bullets being fired they worked out an elaborate and complicated system of detonators and had to time it with the actors movements. In Homicide for the gunfight in 'Manhunt' (ep. 11) they put a small firecracker under the bark of the tree, and you simply ducked behind the tree just before it went off. It looked effective and was done for a fraction of the cost.

Did you do all your own stunts?

Yes, Lex Mitchell and I did our own stunts. Lex did some hairy driving, and we were expected to do whatever was necessary like normal policemen. I ended up with a broken rib from one fight, I had concussion several times, I dislocated my right hand thumb, I had sprained ankles, and we got no danger money - not even sick leave. Once I was chasing somebody and they had to jump over a fence, and the camera followed them to where they started to jump then cut back to me. He didn't jump over the fence - you assumed he had in the story, but they didn't film it, and when I followed him they went outside the fence. What they didn't know was that the fence was taller on the other side, and I jumped over onto some bluestone cobbles, and of course I wasn't expecting this, so down I went and took off after this bloke. About half an hour later my feet were so sore because I had sprained both ankles.

You appeared in some episodes of Whiplash earlier in Sydney.

I was in three episodes of Whiplash and I also had small parts as a soldier in three episodes of Long John Silver, when I first went to Sydney in late '54 or early '55. The reason I got into Whiplash was interesting. Harry Dearth was helping with casting, and it was getting to over 20 episodes and I didn't even get a reading, and I thought 'How do I get into this thing?' I had met Peter Graves earlier while on a job with a Shakespearean Company, he was at the reception for opening night, and they were starting Whiplash very soon afterwards. He said to look into it as they needed big blokes, because he's very tall, about three inches taller than I am.

I finally got a call to go out there around about episode 28 - they only made 34 - so I went out to the French's Forest studios and they gave me a script and told me to read it. Ben Fox, the producer, was sitting there and he knew it all by heart because they'd been reading blokes all day, so I read the part and he said "You got it!" And I said "I don't want it!" He said "What do you mean?" I told him the other character - the villain - was the part I wanted to play, and he told me that he's in a fight and he gets beaten up and everything, and I said "l don't care - it's a better part!" "Read it!" So I read it and he said "You got it!"

And Harry Dearth, who is a very nice guy, said "Don't worry about the fight, Terry's an expert at fighting." Well, I had done boxing and I had done unarmed combat and jui juitsu, but he said I was an expert which I wasn't, but I wasn't going to deny it. And Fox said "Oh great! You can choreograph the fight." I didn't know anything about choreographing screen fights! So I didn't know what to do. At the studio I was walking along and who should I come face to face with but Peter Graves. He asked if I knew much about screen fights, and I said no and he said he'd show me. So we went into a studio and he showed me how to do screen fights, and I went on the set and worked out how it all could be done using boxing experience and judo experience, and we did it in one take. Although Peter Graves was fit and athletic, that was the only time Peter ever fought anybody because they couldn't risk him having a black eye or whatever if anything went wrong, but because Harry kept saying I was an expert they let him do the fight. And he won, of course!

I was in two more episodes after that - in the final six episodes of Whiplash I was in three. And the funny thing is many years later I was in an episode of Mission: Impossible filmed in Melboume. They had previously made some episodes on the Gold Coast, but I hadn't been in any up there, and my agent said because they didn't know me I wouldn't get a decent role unless I played a small part first. I agreed to play a small part, so I was cast as the Mayor of Boston and I had only two lines. It was filmed at the Melbourne Zoo pretending to be Boston, and I didn't know anybody on the crew, and they were saying things like "Stand out of the way mate, just keep behind the camera will you", like I was an amateur who had never done anything. But I went along with it, and after about four hours setting this thing up and just standing around I was starting to get tired, and who should pull up in a car but - Peter Graves. He came over and said "Terry! How are you?" We spent about half an hour talking and catching up, because it had been over thirty years, a long time, and, as he wasn't in this particular shot, he said "Well, I had to come out and see you - I'II see you again tomorrow in the studio." So off he drives in the car, and I was getting rather tired by now and I said "Look, I don't know who owns this chair here, but I'm going to sit in it - if you want me out of it just say so." And the change in their attitude: "Oh, no Terry, that's your chair - here's an umbrella to keep the sun off you, and a cup of coffee's coming!"

Several Long John Silver episodes have been released on video, but unfortunately not any of the ones you appeared in.

Well, you may not recognise me, and I may not even be in the credits. The first one I did when I just lobbed in Sydney, and the casting agent said I could play a small part without any lines. A Sydney actor was playing the fellow with the dialogue, and he steps forward and says "Long John Silver, you've got to come in for questioning", and Long John grunts his reply and the other guard and I step forward with our muskets, grab his arms and take him away. Now, prior to this I worked on Kangaroo, which was filmed in Port Augusta in the early 50's, and I knew all the crew on Long John Silver because they had all worked on Kangaroo a few years before. So here I am doing this little part, with no lines, just stepping forward, grabbing his arm and taking him away, and Byron Haskin the director says "Cut", and all the blokes in the crew came down and asked for my autograph, sending me up rotten. "Oh Mr. McDermott, can we have your autograph? That was terrific, we haven't seen anybody do anything like that for months!", and I'm signing these things and the director yells "What the hell is going on here?!" It was very funny.

One of the early Homicide highlights was 'Flashpoint', the all film episode (ep. 56).

That was interesting. The thing was that we were used to working with a brilliant and resourceful film crew of four who worked fast and efficiently. Suddenly we had all these extra and largely inexperienced people and it became unwieldy. On the first day I think they started at 7 o'clock in the morning, and they went through to five o'clock the next morning doing interiors. Then everybody knocked off and got up again at 7:30, and went through to 3:00 the following morning. It was mainly because they weren't organised and they didn't quite know how to handle it.

Because it was the first real attempt to use outside sound, they were saying things like "We can hear a truck in the distance", and you'd say to the soundman "Can you hear it through your headphones?", and he'd say "No". "Well, why don't we shoot then?" "No, I can hear it." "But if it isn't going on the tape, let's do it." "Oh, no!" And all that sort of thing was happening. lan Crawford had a hard job doing sound on location, the whole thing was filmed out at Cathedral Mountain, and it was a nightmare to do. Norman Yemm was a great villain.

Another highlight was the Great Ocean Road chase sequence in 'Holiday Affair' (ep. 53).

We were chasing Max Osbiston who was playing a villain and driving a Vanguard along the Great Ocean Road. David Lee, who had a talent for doing these things, put a rock on the accelerator and threw it into gear, and off she went over the side. It was about a 300 foot drop and they had, I think, three cameras filming it. The car went careering over the side, and it's still there - they can't get it out!

But it didn't burst into flames like these American cars do - they must have two ton of gelignite in them. That's what's wrong, you see - I did an episode of Time Trax two years ago, and I was talking to an American actress and I asked her what it was like in Hollywood today. She said they're not really interested in actors at all, it's all high tech, buildings being blown up, cars banging into cars, special effects. Yet ours was the opposite to that.

The writing on Homicide was on the whole very good, and at times it was excellent. Our three resident writers were Phil Freedman, Della Foss-Paine and Sonia Borg. There was one scene that we did, it had Lynette Curran and Ben Gabriel in the episode, and was about a rape case (ep. 21 'The Violators'). In this episode a girl had been raped by three fellows, and her boyfriend suspected that it had happened. He called on her and her father came to the door and she was hiding behind the door. The boyfriend asks about her and the father savs she's gone to her auntie's or something like that, but the boyfriend suspects that she is there and that she can hear him. So he says to Ben Gabriel, who is playing the father, "I want her to know she means more to me than anything else in the world" - he virtually plays a love scene with the father, knowing she's listening and it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Lynette Curran is an excellent actor and Ben Gabriel is of course too, and it was very powerful.

The boyfriend got most of the rapists, he hung them one after the other, and that's how we came into it, to investigate the murders. Two had been hanged and the last one, well we virtually saved the creep. We were filming the scene in a backyard in Fitzroy and the neighbours were all sitting on their roofs watching.

Why did you leave the series?

A number of things happened. Lex Mitchell found out from reading the script that he was leaving the series! I think what happened was they decided to replace Lex with Leonard Teale as a threat to me.

But I ended up leaving because I wanted to. I was risking my life doing all these stunts and I didn't even get any recognition for it, but the main stumbling block was that I wanted a new deal if they sold it overseas. They denied that they were ever going to sell it overseas, and after I walked out of the office somebody said to me "Isn't it great, they've sold Homicide overseas." After that I felt I couldn't trust Crawfords. So that was that. They kept sending me the old contracts and I wouldn't sign them, so then they asked if I would stay for five episodes while they wrote me out and I said I would.

lan Jones outlined exactly what the last episode was going to be, and I wanted Bronson to be killed off, I didn't want him to be put on a shelf somewhere. And they did it in a nice way, it was quite well done. Parts of that episode were excellent, other parts were terribly over the top, but it was a very good episode to go out on. They got a lot of mail about it.

Gerard Kennedy played your assassin in what was one of his first major roles.

He went on to bigger and better things. He played Kragg in Hunter rather well, it gave him a lot of scope, it was a very interesting character and made him a household name. His character in Frontline was superb. Division 4 with those four fellows was a funny mix - a newsreader, a singer, and yet it worked. I was amazed, and yet I thought it was one of the best balanced shows. I also liked Ryan, it was most under-rated, although I don't think the network gave it the push they should have.

After Homicide you went on to Bellbird.

Eventually. I did quite a few stage shows - television has been about a tenth of my working life, about a quarter has been radio and all the rest has been stage shows. I was in Bellbird for two years and we produced the feature film, but we won't get into that - you won't have enough space in the magazine, really, you haven't got enough space. You could write a book about it.