Trek's Oldest Living Actor Speaks
Olaf Pooley, at 101 years old, is the oldest living actor to have appeared on Star Trek. The Brit, who has lived in Los Angeles for many years now, also happens to be the oldest living actor to have appeared in Doctor Who. His acting credits span decades, he once directed a fledgling young thespian named Anthony Hopkins and he was married to Star Trek’s first female director, Gabrielle Beaumont. It was Beaumont who tapped Pooley, her husband at the time, to guest star as the Cleric in her Voyager episode, “Blink of an Eye.” Pooley’s role was short and sweet, but this interview is extensive – and far more about his life than his Star Trek experience. But it’s fascinating stuff, and so we’ve decided to include every word of it. Among the topics of conversation is a GoFundMe campaign set up by a family friend to help raise funds to buy Pooley dentures, as his teeth, but not his mind, have lost their battle with the ravages of time. So sit back, grab some tea and enjoy our detailed conversation with Mr. Pooley.
You recently turned 101 years old. How old do you FEEL?
POOLEY: Well it’s rather an extraordinary thing. I got the giggles when I realized I was going to turn a 100. I just couldn’t believe it; it seemed so weird and almost if someone else was experiencing it for me…I just felt it couldn’t really be me – could it? And as for turning 101, it’s kind of more of the same. Obviously, as you can imagine there are the awful frustrations of growing old. Forgetfulness is one of the main annoyances. Luckily my mind is still good and sharp, apart from the short term memory, but alas my body seems to be giving out a bit. I used to be able to walk quite a distance, but now my legs are much weaker, so that limits my independence quite a lot.
It's a rare thing for anyone to live as long as you have. So far as Star Trek, you're the franchise's oldest living actor. What's your secret? Good genes? Taking care of yourself? Good luck? Maybe a combination of all of the above?
POOLEY: Well, I think the good genes are essential. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the doctors all agree on that. But apart from that I used to keep pretty active, I could still play two sets of tennis – doubles mind you – when I was in my early 80’s. I think it was only then that I finally gave up smoking! Not that I ever smoked much; it was more a part-time thing. But the other thing I would advise anyone is to find out what diet really suits them and stick to it. Luckily I found that out earlier on in life and it works for me and I still eat well. It’s mainly vegetarian. I don’t eat red meat, a bit of chicken and fish and lots of vegetables.
There's a GoFundMe effort underway to help raise money so you can get dentures. What does it mean to you that Lori, the family friend who set it up, cares so much for you that she's organized it and that people are taking the time to contribute on the GoFundMe page?
POOLEY: Well of course it means a great deal to me. I have known Lori for almost 30 years now and she has always been the most fantastic friend… and the fact that complete strangers might want to make a contribution is ..you know, quite unbelievable, if not a little humbling. It’s amazing, I don’t understand how any of this works, but it really does seem almost like a miracle.
You've had a remarkable career in the arts, one that's spanned decades and mediums, and you've written and painted as well as acted. When you started out, what was your goal? What did you want to be, as they say, when you grew up?
POOLEY: Good Lord, there are some big questions there in that one sentence and I think it’s going to take a bit of time to answer them all. My father, Hugh Pooley, was the headmaster of a school called Danecourt down in Pyrford, Surrey and he married my mother who was Danish and I think they kind of eloped together, it certainly wasn’t very conventional. He met her first when they were both students in Paris. She, incidentally was one of the first women in Europe to go to University, which is pretty incredible. They fell in love and he pretended to his parents that he was going back to see friends in Paris, but instead he went to Copenhagen to see her to develop their relationship. She was a pretty forceful and dynamic woman, her family name was Krohn and great grandfather was Pietro Krohn, a contemporary of the great Danish artist Kroyer. And he studied at art school and went to Florence to continue his studies, so I think the painting genes came from him.
Anyway, he ended up running the Theatre Royal in Copenhagen and was the first person to put on an Ibsen play there and he was a designer, too, he designed the “Heron” glassware for the tsar of Russia. I can’t remember where I was going with this…. ah, yes, my mother was always very forthright with me and one day she looked at me and said. “The problem with you Olaf, is that you have too many small talents, it’s a pity you don’t have one big one!” And in a way she was right. I remember leaving school and my father saying “Well, what are you going to do?” and I think I replied something like, “Well, I’d really like to be an artist, I want to paint." And he said something about starving, and not earning money, but he was prepared to compromise by offering me a start as an architect.So I began life training as an architect, by doing working drawings at the Architectural Academy in Bedford Square.
Well, I got somewhat bored with that after a long while and was itching to get out, so I approached my uncle, Sir Ernest Pooley, who was chairman of the Arts Council and asked him if he had any openings elsewhere and he very kindly got me into Pinewood Studios, where I began doing set design. I did that for two years and along came the war (WWII).This was a very odd and terrifying time for many people. People were being called up to serve and I was a conscientious objector. I could not settle in my conscience the idea of killing another human being. So, I asked the person in charge of my interview to point me in the direction of the most needed non-combatant service. And so I entered the Fire Brigade. As it happened, on my medical test I was found unfit for military service anyway due to a perforated eardrum and poor eyesight, so one way or another I was not destined to go in that direction.
Anyway, London was getting to be a very dangerous place with the air raids happening with increasing frequency and I was sent to the Edgeware Road station on the northwest side of central London. And my job was to be a runner/messenger and the guy in charge showed me this huge old Harley Davidson which was at the station and asked me if I could ride that. This was so typical of the time, everyone had to jump in and just do it – no experience required! In fact, I had only ridden a little motorbike, you know a putt-putt kind of thing which I acquired for 30 shillings. Well, this was a damn great motor bike, so I got some instruction but not nearly enough.
One night the balloon went up and the air raid sirens were going full blast, we all slithered down the pole, I was told to go somewhere and jumped on the bike, but it had been raining and I had not got far to the corner when my bike slipped from under me and I was tumbling across the road. When I recovered I went back to the station, but the results of my medical had got through to the station by then and I was deemed unfit for service and so was drafted out. And this is where I suppose fate lent a hand. There was a thing the government was backing, which was to bring the arts and entertainment to all corners of the UK to keep people’s spirits up I suppose and I was told to report to the Market Theatre Company and we toured all over England, Scotland and Wales doing repertory theatre and shows and so I started to act.
At the end of the war I had made a lot of friends in the theater and I continued. I had a big following in radio, I did a lot of work for the BBC and had quite a following. Of course, it’s funny now, because later in life, I returned to my first love, which is painting and I have accomplished quite a lot in that field and still keep a studio down at The Santa Monica Fine Arts Studio, down at Santa Monica Airport. I wish I could get down there more often, but at 101 you don’t have the energy.
Who were your acting contemporaries back in England?
POOLEY: It’s a long while back, but I knew so many. My closest friend was a lovely actor named Michael Gough, who became known to American audiences playing the butler in the first Batman movies. He was a wonderful actor and was in so many different TV shows and movies. I knew Noel Coward and worked with him in one of his plays, Peace in our Time. I played the traitor who gets shot at the end of the play. I knew Sir Michael Redgrave, Alec Guiness and his wife Merula before, of course, he became “Sir” Alec. And there were countless people who came into my life including Sophia Loren and her husband Carlo Ponti. I was asked to do some script doctoring for them and went to Italy. I think we began in Rome and ended up in Calabria. Max Schell was a dear friend, too, and I knew Omar Sharif, who was such a gentleman. But there you are... when I look back now, all my contemporaries are no longer living.
What are some of the credits/roles of yours that you are proudest of?
POOLEY: Oh boy, well, where to begin? I think I was proud of my role as “Chorley Bannister” in Peace In Our Time by Noel Coward. He was the bad guy and of course a lot of the antagonists in any play are well written and have interesting lines and characters. I think I got under the skin of Chorley pretty well – certainly Noel Coward seemed to think so. Having the playwright available to comment is a great help. I also took over the Henry Fonda role in Reginald Rose’s great play Twelve Angry Men and had quite a success with that. It’s such a well-crafted play. Some of the more personal things I remember with great fondness, too…. I wrote and directed a screenplay for kids called The Johnstown Monster, which my second wife Gabrielle Beaumont produced and it was shot in Ireland. It was a success for Cannon Films and did pretty well. I also did a bit of guest directing for the London Drama Academies which, of course, produce some astonishing talent. The last thing I did was for RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and that was The Waltz of the Toreadors, the lead role being played by a young man called Anthony Hopkins. I knew even then that he was destined for great things.
Let's talk about Star Trek. How familiar were you with the Star Trek franchise before you did Voyager?
POOLEY: Well, of course, I was familiar with the franchise, it was a successful show. I don’t think there was anyone out there who hadn’t watched it or heard of it.
Your wife at the time, whom you mentioned before, was Gabrielle Beaumont, and she directed your episode of Voyager... "Blink of an Eye." Was it she who suggested that you play the part? Did the producers ask you to audition?
POOLEY: Well, it’s such a long time ago now it’s hard to remember which way round it came about. Usually, the director gets the script first and can think about casting guest stars as appropriate, so I guess she probably thought this was a part I could play.
What interested you about the Cleric as a character?
POOLEY: There is a bit of me in The Cleric. I like the idea of a character who is a teacher and “wise man” providing direction and advice. The cleric is obviously didactic by nature, but at the same time he is quite prepared to confront conventional wisdom and question what people might normally accept. However, there is some dichotomy here, because he does not like the idea of the fire fruit being abused… so, I guess like the rest of us, he picks and chooses what he chooses to believe in. Perhaps one of the tests for a character is to ask yourself, “Would I be interested to sit down with this person and have a conversation? Might I learn something?” I think, in the case of the Cleric, the answer has to be “Yes.” What do you remember of the shoot itself?
POOLEY: It was pretty brief, after all it was only one scene, but I do remember the atmosphere on set was really nice and of course I enjoyed working with the young actor opposite me, who’s name, of course, I completely forget now – that’s the trouble with old age. Anytime, you have the chance to bring something to a character, or make him live, however briefly, is a moment of validation…. That’s what an actor does, that’s what we all try and do. And if you get some good feedback, which I did in this case, you have your reward.
Gabrielle had directed you several times before Voyager. What was it like to be directed by your wife? What did she pull out of you, performance-wise, that perhaps no other director ever could?
POOLEY: Hmm. I think one of the things which happens when you are working with someone you know so well is that they know you too and can tell when you are not giving a 100%, and so they know how much further to push you. Equally, when you work with someone you know, you have a greater level of relaxation and trust. That too can open up an extra dimension to the performance because you are free to experiment and some of the other clutter which might be in your brain – for example being on a set with faces you don’t know – that disappears, so you are free to concentrate more. That’s one of the reasons great theater directors kept groups of actors together like Peter Brook and Trevor Nunn of the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company).
You surely still hear from fans all over the world. In your experience, who are the more fervent fans... Doctor Who fans or Star Trek fans? And how so?
POOLEY: It still amazes me that I have a following. I can’t quite wrap my head around it. After all, I haven’t been active in the field for years. Funnily enough, I had a visit just a few months ago from three delightful Englishmen, Ben, Lee and Colin, who just turned up out of the blue. I think they had been to a Star Trek convention in San Diego, but they were also Doctor Who fans. And we sat down and talked for well over an hour and I showed them my work as an artist and I showed them my scrapbooks covering years in the theater and television. It was very nice and they seemed pretty knowledgeable. I also had a showing of my art down at the studio when I was 100 and Lori put it out on the Internet to the Star Trek fans and I couldn’t believe it, but hundreds of people turned up! I spent the entire afternoon talking to people I had never met, but all of whom had seen me in Voyager. It was extraordinary. If only they had bought some art! But, that’s an artist’s life I’m afraid; my father was right from that point of view. Lastly, what's life like for you these days? Kids? Grandkids? Are you still painting?
POOLEY: Life is good, generally speaking. Of course, one has one’s grumbles about not being able to do this or that, but I am very fortunate. I wish I was physically stronger, but then again, I am not on any medication right now, I eat well, I try and exercise a little bit every day, so what can I complain about? I have two children, Seyton and Kirstie. They, of course, are no longer children but adults with their own children, and so I have four grandchildren, which is very nice, and they seem to be doing well with their lives, so that is really good.
Painting has taken a bit of a back seat because I used to use oils and you have to work relatively quickly with oils so that they don’t dry out and I find I don’t have the energy. But, I have come up with a plan. I am going to turn my balcony area into a studio and work from there using pastels and chalks. That will keep me busy.
The goal of the GoFundMe page for Pooley is to raise $3,000 to pay for dentures to replace the teeth he's lost to age. Visit GoFundMe to contribute.
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