TV STORE ONLINE talks with Dr. Who's very own Sergeant Benton. Actor and Comedian John Levene talks about his work on Classic Dr. Who as well as the cult classic film, PSYCHOMANIA.
TV STORE ONLINE: One of the earliest roles of your career was in a rather wonderful and strange film called PSYCHOMANIA ...How did that role come to you?
LEVENE: PSYCHOMANIA was one of the movies that were given to me by director Don Sharp. I had done three movies with him. It was wonderful to work on because I got the opportunity to work with Robert Hardy who I had always enjoyed. He was quite a prankster and he loved to play jokes on people but he was very good to me.
TV STORE ONLINE: Your death scene in PSYCHOMANIA is really impressive too...
LEVENE: Don Sharp had wanted me to be dead in a very gross way. I did something that nobody knew about....I went up to the prop guy and asked him if he had any ten inch nails. He said, "Yes, what do you need them for?" Don wanted my body to be twisted in a very supernatural kind of way. I thought that the one way I could do it would be if I could jam one leg up against an object that couldn't be seen. So we put the nails into the floor and I put my foot on the nail. It went just under the wedge of my heel, and Don was thrilled with it. He told me afterward that it made the entire scene.
TV STORE ONLINE: Where did you shoot those scenes in PSYCHOMANIA?
LEVENE: We shot at Pinewood Studios.
TV STORE ONLINE: I read online while I was doing my research prior to speaking with you today that your real interest in pursuing acting came after a chance meeting with actor Telly Savalas?
LEVENE: That's right. I was born in Salisbury in Wiltshire...Most Americans don't know where that is...But it's in Europe where all of the real history comes from...laughing
At eighteen I left home because I didn't want to live with my father anymore. My father had come home from the war and as you know war can change a person. I ended up working in a menswear shop. I was a brilliant menswear salesman because I was very honest, I had a great sense of style and people trusted me, therefore they spent more money in the shop. One day Telly Savalas walked into the shop. I was in awe. My manager at the shop told me that it would do me good if I served him and got the opportunity to meet a famous person. I sold him some raincoats and while he was there he said to me, "Young man you have a great face, have you ever thought about becoming an actor?"
I had never thought about becoming an actor. Growing up in school I was very shy and awkward and I had no confidence. He went on to tell me that they were shooting this film called THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and that they were looking for a new stuntman because one was recently injured. He said, "If you know of anyone that is big and good-looking send them my way. Here's my dressing room number come out and see me sometime." So I went down to Pinewood Studios the following Monday to see him but the doorman at the studio didn't believe me and he wouldn't let me in. So I never got to see my brief idol at work on THE DIRTY DOZEN.
TV STORE ONLINE: Can you tell me how Dr. Who and your character "Sergeant Benton" came to you?
LEVENE: Well I was in London working at the time and I met comedian Joe Baker. I'd meet Baker against many years later in Hollywood but that's another story. Baker told me that I should try to do extra work. So I went down to this agency called Denton De Gray. Not long after that, I got offered the chance to play a "Cyberman" on Dr. Who. Of course, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity and eventually I became friendly with the cast and crew on the show. I came to the attention of Barry Letts, Douglas Camfield and Jon Pertwee on the show because I had an attention to detail and a good work ethic.
TV STORE ONLINE: Getting the Sergeant Benton character on Dr. Who...How did you envision the character initially? How did you find him? Who was he to you?
LEVENE: That's a great question in which I've never been asked before. To be honest...I had no idea what a character even was back then. I didn't even now that what I had done on Dr. Who was any good until about fifteen years after it was over with. I was unaware of my own talent back then. I was a nervous young man working on Dr. Who.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did your background in comedy help you any on Dr. Who?
LEVENE: I think so. I still enjoy doing comedy. Eddie Izzard is a genius and he's the type of comedian that I think that I really wanted to be but I just didn't have the courage to do it back then. Now that I'm older...I have no fear of an audience. My biggest comedy influence is Tommy Cooper. He wore a fez and he was very tall and very ugly looking and I only mention that because him being ugly was what made him very funny, and that's the type of comedy I'm doing myself today.
TV STORE ONLINE: You've just put out a CD of music called The Ballads Of Sergeant Benton  as well...
LEVENE: Yes if you're reading this interview spend the ten dollars that you'll spend on dinner tonight on my CD. You'll love it, and I only need to sell about sixty more copies in order to record my next CD in Hollywood.
TV STORE ONLINE: I checked out the CD. I really love your arrangement of The Beatles "In My Life."
LEVENE: Oh...Bless your heart. I'm not a good singer, I'm just an actor who likes to sing that has put out a CD. I would appreciate it if anyone reading this would check out the CD though.
TV STORE ONLINE: What are you memories of shooting the Dr. Who episode The Three Doctors ?
LEVENE: It was pure magic. I loved working with Jon Pertwee. I learned everything from him. Recently a new interview with Jon has surfaced that has been buried for over ten years, and in the interview he talks about how I was his closest friend and that I was one of the reasons why he came back to work on the show. It was just a wonderful experience, and it gave me some time to shine. When I wasn't on the screen everyone else was always saying, "Where's Benton?" I loved it, and it did more for my confidence than any other story.
TV STORE ONLINE: On The Three Doctors there are some special effects like the "Anti-Matter" blob...Does not having that creature there make it difficult as an actor to produce a reaction?
LEVENE: Not really, because that is just what we do. Sometimes it can be difficult but often times it isn't. We all took it very seriously. I think that's why Jon Pertwee loved all of us actors so much. When we were doing The Doctor episode Invasion of the Dinosaurs ...The monsters were so pathetic but we did those for Jon and we did it for the sixty-eight million fans of the show that were waiting for the next story. I loved it.
TV STORE ONLINE: What about the Doctor episode: The Daemons ?
LEVENE: That's the one that made me. I got to do everything in The Daemons that I wanted to do. I've heard little stories since that The Daemons almost got me James Bond but we'll never know I guess. It was magic for me because I looked good, I was good and the whole story was magnificent!
TV STORE ONLINE: I love the whole cinema verite style of The Daemons...
LEVENE: Oh yeah...That was brilliant, wasn't it?
TV STORE ONLINE: On The Three Doctors episode you guys shot a lot of stuff in that rock quarry...Where was that?
LEVENE: It's near Maidstone in Kent.
TV STORE ONLINE: Could you talk a bit about the low budget aesthetic of making the show?
LEVENE: Well, it worked didn't it? Otherwise, millions of fans wouldn't haven't gotten hooked on it! The budget for the show was very small. It was like 40 or 60,000 thousand pounds per show. I was only making 100 pounds an episode. The budget had to be scrimped and saved, but it never stopped the creativity. The writing was always brilliant and the directing was usually fabulous. We didn't let the budget stop us!
TV STORE ONLINE: With The Three Doctors...I love that surreal stuff with Jon Pertwee and the creature fighting on that all black sound stage. There's a great surreal tone to some of the Doctor episodes as like we'd seen in episodes of The Prisoner  with Patrick McGoohan...
LEVENE: Right yeah...There was a surreal feel to some of them certainly. I actually was almost cast on an episode of The Prisoner, I knew one of the writers on the show.
TV STORE ONLINE: If you had a real TARDIS where would you travel back to in your own life?
LEVENE: I'd go to Machu Picchu in Peru to have a picnic lunch with the one woman in my life that got away...Then I'd go back in time to see Douglas Camfield, Roger Delgado, and Barry Letts again to thank them for my life!
TV STORE ONLINE: Any memories of shooting the Doctor episode The Green Death ?
LEVENE: It was a great experience. We went up to Belgrade in Wales and shot down in that mine. We were shooting in a mine a mile underground. That was very grueling because I'm claustrophobic. I loved the story because Benton got to shine again. Of course, working with Jon again was wonderful. He gave me so many clues on how to become a better actor.
TV STORE ONLINE: I do love all of the camera tricks in episodes like The Green Death and Inferno (1970)...
LEVENE: Right. We used rear projection in The Green Death and then in Inferno for example...When they had to create the earthquake they would just stretch a piece of tin-foil over an empty frame and tap on it. I loved the ingenuity of the '60s and '70s, and the creativity of those working on Dr. Who then. It was very-inspired work. I'll take that anytime over all of this CGI stuff.
For more with John Levene visit his official website HERE:
Looking for a Dr. Who or Doctor Who t-shirt? Check out our amazing selection HERE: