The double life of Cary Grant

The double life of Cary Grant: A new drama tells how the Hollywood legend’s tortured childhood left him so damaged he went through five wives – and huge amounts of LSD…

  • Archie tells how Bristol-born Archibald Alexander Leach became Cary Grant
  • READ MORE:  Bristol-born Hollywood legend’s real voice will be depicted in new ITV drama after secret tape recording was unearthed

Cary Grant was one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, the handsome, debonair star of classic movies such as Hitchcock’s North By Northwest and Notorious, and the screwball comedies Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. 

Archibald Alexander Leach was a poor lad from the back streets of Bristol, son of an alcoholic father and emotionally unstable mother.

Now Archie, ITVX’s compelling new four-part drama with Harry Potter star Jason Isaacs in the title role, not only reveals how Archie transformed into Cary, but also explains how the former vaudeville juggler struggled to find happiness, even after becoming rich and successful, before retiring at the height of his fame in 1966. 

‘He was deeply troubled, haunted by demons from his past,’ explains Jason, who played Lucius Malfoy in the Potter movies. ‘He even took LSD hundreds of times to try to find inner peace.’

The series begins in 1986 in the US when 82-year-old Cary was on tour shortly before his death from a stroke, presenting his public persona to fans in question-and-answer sessions. 

Harry Potter star Jason Isaacs plays the title role in Archie, a new four-part drama about Hollywood legend Cary Grant, who was born Archibald Alexander Leach in early-20th-century Bristol. Pictured: Jason Isaacs as Cary with Laura Aikman as Dyan Cannon in Archie

The action flashes back to early-20th-century Bristol where a timid young Archie was living in poverty with a selfish father and a mother traumatised by the death of Archie’s brother John from meningitis.

His father had his mother committed to an asylum so he could start a relationship with another woman and later lied to the boy that his mother had died. Little wonder poor Archie wanted to escape. 

Series creator Jeff Pope says his troubles stemmed from this. ‘Archie was terrified people were going to leave him in the way his mother had done. 

‘The fact at least one of his five wives left him and other relationships faltered showed how this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.’

At the age of 14 he landed a job with a troupe of theatre entertainers and started to move up the showbiz ladder when a tour took them to New York. 

Mae West claimed she gave him his first break in Hollywood, though Archie denied this. 

It was to him that she addressed the famous line, ‘Why don’t you come up some time and see me?’ in the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, and later we see him turning down the role of James Bond in Dr No. ‘Tell them no way,’ Archie says to his agent. ‘Dr No way.’

We’ll never know how Cary Grant’s 007 might have shaped up, and we were almost denied Jason Isaacs’s portrayal of Archie Leach too. 

‘When first approached about the part, I regarded Cary Grant as the model of urbane sophistication and didn’t think I could possibly play him,’ he says. 

As one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, Grant starred in classic movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (pictured)

‘But then I read Jeff Pope’s script, every biography about Cary plus lots of stuff that isn’t in the biographies. And I thought, “That I can play – a very complicated individual who was damaged and damaging.”’

It took up to six hours for Jason to be turned into his character each day, and another three at the end of a day’s filming to de-Cary him. 

‘The essentials included brown contact lenses to match his eyes and the kind of expensive suits Cary wore that were handmade for me. 

‘But there were also all manner of elasticated rigs under the costume and under the wig I wear. I’m not a huge fan of having my face pinned up but it was necessary for this role.’

His biggest challenge was the character and voice of the man. ‘He was very private and effectively hiding behind a character,’ says Jason. 

‘He was terrified of making speeches in public in case people realised the real him wasn’t one of the most beloved people in the world. 

‘It’s why he only accepted awards where he didn’t have to make a speech. It made getting to the real Archie difficult.’

Jason was given access to audio cassettes by Grant’s only child Jennifer in which he could hear him talking to her when she was young, but his biggest break came when he learnt of the existence of a tape-recorded interview in which the actor actually spoke at length as himself.

‘I found someone – I can’t reveal how I did it – who’d interviewed Cary late in life. 

‘He was a student who told Cary he wanted an interview with him as part of a film festival at his university and Cary agreed to it.

‘When he was on the phone he said, “Are you recording this? Please don’t, because the interview could turn up anywhere in the world and I don’t want that.” 

Grant with fourth wife Dyan Cannon and their daughter Jennifer in 1966. Both Dyan, now 86, and Jennifer are executive producers of Archie, providing advice to the two principal actors

‘The guy signalled to his friend to record the interview anyway, but apart from some of the conversation that was transcribed and appeared in the university magazine, the interview hadn’t been heard until this guy played it for me, 40 years on.

‘Listening to the tape made me realise how English rather than transatlantic he sounded, how his voice had a much higher register than on screen and how it had need and frustration in it, along with a light, fluttery laugh. 

‘I got a connection to him from that interview and felt like I knew him, if only a little.’

Archie has twice the budget of a normal ITV drama (around £10 million) because of its many locations in north-west England and Spain (which doubles as California), and a large cast of characters including Grace Kelly (Victoria’s Lily Travers), Danny Kaye (David Keeling) and director Alfred Hitchcock (Doc Martin’s Ian McNeice).

Apart from Archie, it is Dyan Cannon (played by various actresses at various ages), the actor’s fourth wife – a three-time Oscar nominee and mother of his daughter Jennifer – who commands most screen time in the show. 

And it’s the depiction of their marriage, during which he was highly controlling and introduced her to LSD but possibly wasn’t entirely to blame for their break-up, where most of the conflict occurred while the script was being written.

‘It was the battleground,’ admits Jeff Pope, an executive producer on the controversial recent Jimmy Savile drama The Reckoning. 

‘The way the break-up is presented on screen isn’t necessarily how Dyan thinks it should be depicted but you have to stick to your guns. I made it clear I didn’t want the series to be a cuddly, approved version of Cary Grant’s life.’

He was first alerted to the possibility of a warts-and-all biopic about Cary when he read Good Stuff, Jennifer’s book about her father. 

‘On the back cover it talked about Cary retiring from acting when he was still very successful to become a single father, and that intrigued me.

‘It led me to Dear Cary, the book written by Dyan, who I then met. She told me about Cary’s life in Bristol and what drew him back to the city after he’d found fame in Hollywood – a call from his dying father to tell him his mother was still alive.’

Dyan, now 86, and Jennifer are executive producers of Archie and provided advice and guidance to the two main actors. 

‘There was a day when Dyan and Cary were having a big argument and he does something heinous towards the end,’ says Laura Aikman, who plays Dyan. 

Archie aged four in 1909. A timid boy, he grew up in poverty with a selfish father and a mother traumatised by the death of Archie’s brother John from meningitis

‘I texted Dyan and asked, “How much would you have shouted at him and stood up for yourself?” and she replied, “I like what I’m seeing so far from the footage I’ve seen, so just do what you feel is right.”

‘She was really supportive and clearly has a lot of love for Cary. There was probably a time when she wanted to pull his hair out but she’s the other side of that now.’

Jason agrees. ‘Both Dyan and Jennifer have been incredibly trusting. They’ve given us crucial insights that we swore we wouldn’t tell anybody about – and we never will.’

He hopes the series proves compelling viewing, though he’s sure there’s someone who wouldn’t have enjoyed it – Archie Leach. 

‘As an artist he might have appreciated that we’re trying to tell a rounded picture of a man surrounded by baggage that can destroy you if it’s not addressed,’ says Jason. 

‘But I suspect he’d have hated it because he was so private. I don’t think he’d have enjoyed seeing his real self revealed in this way.’

  • Archie, from 23 November, ITVX.

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