Marcus Hearn pays tribute to the late Michael Ripper, one of the most memorable actors from the Hammer repertory company.
Character actor Michael Ripper, who died on 28 June 2000 aged 87, made a unique contribution to Hammer's films from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. While Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee came to represent the company by personifying its most prominent fictional characters, Michael Ripper achieved a more intriguing kind of fame. By appearing in more Hammer films than any other actor he became regarded as a personification of the company itself.
Michael Ripper served his film apprenticeship on a multitude of quota quickies, beginning in 1935 with Twice Branded. Ripper admitted that even he couldn't be sure how many films he subsequently appeared in. "I made films every six weeks and each one took 12 days," he said. "I don't know how many I made, probably hundreds."
His long association with Hammer began in 1947 when he was chosen by company director James Carreras to appear in The Dark Road. Between The Dark Road (released in 1948) and That's Your Funeral (1973) he notched up over 30 appearances. Ripper played the archetypal inn-keeper to the hilt in The Reptile (1966), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) and Scars of Dracula (1970), but he was capable of much more. In Joseph Losey's A Man on the Beach (1956) Ripper was third-billed to Donald Wolfit and Michael Medwin as a hapless chauffeur who falls victim to a Machiavellian criminal. While shooting the film Ripper met Anthony Hinds, one of Carreras's fellow board-members. He introduced Hinds to sailing and the two began an enduring friendship.
Upon joining Hinds and co's informal repertory company, Ripper was put to frequent use. He exhibited his natural talent for comedy in Up the Creek, Further Up The Creek (both 1958) and The Ugly Duckling (1959), but he was at his most effective when lightening films such as The Mummy (1959) and The Phantom of the Opera (1962) with expertly judged cameos that proved the ghouls at Hammer House weren't entirely without a sense of humour.
Ripper's outstanding portrayal of the myopic Longbarrow in The Mummy's Shroud (1967) invests the role with considerable humanity, and we regret the character's brutal fate all the more for it. "That poor little fellow in The Mummy's Shroud... was a victim of the awful things done to gentle human beings by ruthless people," Ripper told Fantastic Worlds magazine in 1969. "When he died, the picture ended as far as I was concerned."
Such opportunities were rare, although Hammer kept Ripper steadily employed with more minor roles throughout the 1960s: characters such as the mutinous Mac in The Pirates of Blood River (1962), Mr Mipps the coffin-maker in Captain Clegg (1962), Sergeant Swift in The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and the Sea Lawyer in The Lost Continent (1968) are eagerly anticipated highlights of any repeat screening.
If there is one film that illustrates the breadth of Ripper's range, and the mercurial quality of his talent, then it is What A Crazy World, the pop musical directed by James Carreras's son Michael in summer 1963. In a nod to Michael's Hammer background, leading man Joe Brown proposes to his girlfriend during a performance of The Curse of Frankenstein. The presence of Michael Ripper, playing no less than nine different characters in his credited role as 'The Common Man', is similarly totemic.
As his memory began to fail him, Ripper reduced his workload and had effectively retired by the early 1990s. In 1997 Ripper made one of his final television appearances, in the Sci-Fi Channel documentary The A-Z of Hammer. Ripper and Hammer enthusiast Don Fearney play a pair of furtive bodysnatchers in a specially filmed introductory sequence. The scene recalled Ripper's grave-robbing double-act with Lionel Jeffries in the classic The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and was a moving evocation of a long distant filmmaking tradition.
Michael Ripper was a character actor who gave our best-loved horror films much of their character. In doing so, he became a star.