Now he'd be raised solely by women and, as both his sisters would marry shady geezers and move out, he'd spend long hours alone and lonely. Much like Robin Williams, another great mimic, he was rescued by his imagination, dressing-up, play-acting, inventing characters, inhabiting worlds far less harsh than New Cross. He recalls making a Batman utility belt from empty cigarette packets, and also, in a spooky foretelling, entering a Butlins fancy dress competition as Dracula.
Name: Gary Oldman
21 March 1958 (Age: 56)
Where: London, England
Awards: Won 2 BAFTAs
When the producers of The Prisoner Of Azkaban, the third in the massively popular Harry Potter series, were casting for their main villain, they had a major problem. The man who would be Sirius Black needed the requisite pedigree to stand alongside the weighty likes of Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. He needed sufficient charisma to carry off the movie's final revelation. And, of course, as the titular prisoner, possible killer of Harry's parents, possibly now after Harry himself, he needed to project a frightening phantom menace from the shadows. Let's consider this for a moment. British . . . stage actor . . . impressive CV . . . charismatic . . . terrifying. It simply had to be Gary Oldman.
Having "arrived" in the mid-Eighties as part of a Brit Pack including Tim Roth and Daniel Day-Lewis, it was Oldman who led the way, mastering American accents and starring in American films. Like Streep and De Niro, he was known as an actors' actor. He didn't limit himself to "serious" roles, yet no matter how fantastic the movie's premise, he would always bring something serious, something real, something intelligent to the party. He was always watchable. And what performances he delivered - as Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Beethoven, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, the vicious Alcatraz warden in Murder In The First, the lunatic pimp in True Romance, the endlessly corrupt copper in Leon. Once seen, never forgotten. This is always the way with Gary Oldman.
He was born Leonard Gary Oldman on the 21st of March, 1958, his family living in Hatcham Park Road, close to New Cross Gate station in one of south London's rougher areas. His mother was an Irishwoman named Kathleen, his father was Len, a former sailor who'd toiled in the engine-room (and was later a welder and pipe-fitter), the couple having met in Cardiff during World War 2.
Gary had two sisters, much older than himself. They would help Kathleen in raising the boy, and also provide him with a far wider education than is usual. When he was 5, one of them, at the time a teenage mod, would take him to the Sombrero Club and have him perform for her friends. "What have cowboys got?", she would ask. He would cry, not wishing to give the required answer, but the question would be repeated until he blurted out "Big bollocks!" and the in-crowd fell about laughing.
This could still be described as fun. But the fun did not last for long. When Gary was seven, Len left Kathleen for a younger woman and it hit the young boy hard. Though he didn't know it then, therapy years later would reveal that he blamed himself for his father's departure and missed the man terribly.
. He did not enjoy school, did not appreciate the attitude or the rules. He remembers being constantly told "Oldman, you're stupid, you're thick, you'll never amount to anything". It was no surprise when the place was shut down soon after his departure.
He wasn't thick, just uninspired. When he found an interest, his enthusiasm was unbridled. Having been taken to see A Hard Day's Night by one of his sisters, he obsessed over the Beatles and treasured a guitar featuring the Fab Four's faces. At 13, he'd find a Liberace album in the attic, Liberace playing classics, and he dumped pop music, now obsessing over Chopin. He took up the piano, teaching himself to play. Then the famous confrontations between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier led him to take up boxing. There was football, too. Oldman's take on all this is fascinating. He believes, with hindsight, that he was only interested in these subjects on an acting level. At the piano, in the gym and on the pitch he looked great, was utterly convincing in his roles even though he was actually not very good. Without realising it, he was trying to master the appearance of musicians and sportsmen, rather than their crafts. He was already acting.
Having left school at 15 with next to no qualifications, Oldman took a job in a sports shop. Acting as a profession had not crossed his mind. But then came a moment, or rather two moments of revelation when, on TV, he saw the movies If... and The Raging Moon. Both starred Malcolm McDowell, the first as a schoolboy defying then machine-gunning the Establishment, the second as a young man trapped in a wheelchair and screaming against his lot. And both appealed to Oldman enormously. McDowell was expressing Gary's own feelings of loss, anger, alienation and imprisonment, and turning the whole mess into something positive. Here, at last, was something that made sense.
Of course, it wasn't going to be easy to escape. Gary signed on at the Greenwich Young People's Theatre, but was soon drawn back into his former life. He did not enjoy the social life of south London, the pub culture, the bragging, the put-downs, the racism and violence. But his peers pulled him in and he acted his way through, even acting his way into a gang. For money, throughout these early years, he would work on assembly lines, as a porter in an operating theatre, selling shoes, beheading pigs in an abbatoir and, naturally, stealing things.
But acting was still in his mind and, encouraged by drama teacher Roger Williams, he applied to RADA. They advised him to do something else, but he persisted and won a scholarship to the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent. One lecturer told him that, with his tenor voice, he would only ever play Puck, nevertheless he graduated in 1979 with a BA in Theatre Arts. He was on his way.
. Experience was what he needed, and he went into rep, first at York's Theatre Royal, where he'd make his pro debut as Puss alongside Michael Simkins in Dick Whittington And His Wonderful Cat, then in Colchester, then with Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre. He'd study mime, the commedia dell'arte, everything. 1980 alone would see him appear in Massacre At Paris, Chinchilla, Desperado Corner and A Waste Of Time. And he loved it, loved acting all day, loved the collaboration, the notion of a group of supportive individuals working towards the same goal. He could re-route all the anger, tension and confusion of his youth into his parts, and quickly gained a reputation for intensity. Indeed, he was so wired up that, he later recalled, a 6-month West End run of Summit Conference in 1982, opposite Glenda Jackson, "nearly killed me".
With his theatre stock rising, in 1983 he turned down the chance of a screen debut in a film to be called Mutiny and moved on to Chesterfield to play the lead in Joe Orton's 1964 masterpiece Entertaining Mr Sloane. It was a perfect role for Gary, himself a New Cross interloper in the comfy world of theatre. He moved on to Westcliffe and Edward Bond's 1965 effort Saved, another well-chosen work as it was an emotionally draining representation of the effects of cultural deprivation. Indeed, it had once been banned by the Lord Chamberlain due to a scene where a gang of bored kids stone a baby.
Saved actually proved a landmark performance for Gary. He'd written to Max Stafford-Clark, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, and asked that he come see the show. Stafford-Clark received many letters from young actors, but Oldman's had something different - most notably a set of good reasons why he should be taken on at the Royal Court. So he went, and was impressed, both by Oldman's efforts and the fact that 30 members of the audience walked out. This was the kind of confrontational work for which the Royal Court had long been famous. Indeed, it was the Royal Court that had first performed Edward Bond's plays. And, as they were about to revive Bond's debut, The Pope's Wedding, Oldman seemed an ideal choice for the main role of the frustrated Scopey.
This would be a major breakthrough for Gary. For one thing it would lead to a run of work with the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Company, performing Rat In the Skull, , The Desert Air, Abel And Cain, The Danton Affair and all three of Bond's War Plays. In 1986 would come Women Beware Women and Real Dreams, the next year The Country Wife and Serious Money.