The veteran actor believes he’s earned the right to say what he likes as he offers some priceless descriptions of his fellow actors
It helps, when you’re reading an autobiography, if you can hear the author’s voice. Brian Cox’s rasping tones bellow forth from the pages of Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, and every time he curses (which is often), one thinks of Logan Roy. For younger fans of Succession, it must seem that Cox sprang from nowhere in his dotage to hit it big with this cutting-edge drama.
But Cox has been a very good actor for a very long time, and in this bluff and breezy memoir he gives a robust assessment of his own career, his early life, his shortcomings — and everybody else’s. And if there’s a single word that sums up his approach to all this, it’s honesty. Most showbiz autobiographies are self-serving, ghost-written puff jobs in which everyone is a darling to work with because you might have to work with them again.
Cox clearly has not time for any of that: he has earned his stripes, proved his worth time and again. In Logan Roy, he has created the televisual equivalent of King Lear, a role of such scope, richness and depth that the only TV character in remotely the same orbit is James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Cox is an acting legend, and now reckons he can say whatever the hell he wants.
He is not a fan of method acting, suffers fools reluctantly and his descriptions of colleagues are sometimes priceless. Of Edward Norton he writes: “A nice lad but a bit of a pain in the arse because he fancies himself as a writer/director”. Johnny Depp is “so overblown, so overrated”. And Michael Caine is “an institution — and being an institution will always beat having range”. Ouch.
Through the book, Cox has a running joke about Steven Seagal, whom he had the misfortune to work with on The Glimmer Man. “Seagal,” he writes, “suffers from that Donald Trump syndrome of thinking himself far more capable and talented than he actually is.”
Laurence Olivier later reveals to Cox that he frets about how good he is; so do Anthony Hopkins and Nigel Hawthorne. All actors do, it seems, but “not Steven Seagal”.
There’s a funny moment in season two of Succession where Roman Roy tries to please his dad on a trip back to Logan’s native Scotland by buying him a football team. But by accident he buys Hearts (a traditionally Protestant team) instead of Hibs (the Catholic one). Logan is not amused because, like Brian Cox, he is a ‘mick-mack — that is, a Scot of Irish descent.
Cox’s mother, Molly, was born a McCann and clung fiercely to her Catholic faith: and his father, Charlie ‘Chic’ Cox, traced his ancestors’ arrival in Scotland to the Famine. Brian was born in Dundee in 1946, and recalls his early years as relatively prosperous: his dad ran a grocer’s shop, though he ate into his profits by giving alms to all and sundry. “My king and my hero,” is how Cox describes his dad, but when Brian was eight, Chic died unexpectedly. “All of a sudden,” he writes, “we were dirt poor.”
Thereafter, his mother suffered with her mental health, and Brian was mainly raised by his older sisters, a “latchkey kid” who learnt early how to be self-reliant. He loved cinema, and tells how he once fell asleep in one, and woke to find himself locked in at four in the morning.
Molly would describe Brian to his first wife as “not awfully bright, but he’s got a good heart”. Too much of a daydreamer to excel at school, he left early and had the great good fortune to land a job as ‘general factotum’ at the Dundee Repertory Theatre. Within a few months he was playing walk-on parts, and as soon as he did his talent was obvious.
London beckoned, where through the late 1960s and 70s he would emerge as one of the most exciting stage actors of his generation. He worked at the Royal Court, and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, tackling the classics with bracing gusto, most memorably teaming up with Deborah Warner to stage a rave-reviewed Titus Andronicus in the late 80s. It remains the performance he is most proud of.
Film work was slower in coming. Cox had realised early on that he was “an actor rather than a star”, and “too short” to be a leading man. When movie parts came, they tended to be gritty and often villainous ones, like his memorable portrayal of Hannibal Leckter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), a much scarier turn than the Anthony Hopkins pantomime to come.
He is very amusing on the fact that he has never won an Oscar. In 2017, he played Winston Churchill quite brilliantly in a film called, not very imaginatively, Churchill. The same year, Gary Oldman played the great leader in Darkest Hour. Oldman won the gong, Cox didn’t even get nominated, but his was by far the better performance. “I was robbed!” he says, perhaps with tongue in cheek.
Cox has great war stories about working with drunk actors back in the day. Nicol Williamson, John Thaw and John Hurt and others all hit it hard, sometimes leading to chaos on stage. Michael Gambon is described as an inveterate prankster, who once got into trouble with Olivier for standing on Sir Laurence’s cape every time he made an entrance.
All of this is recalled with bluff good humour, and makes one pine for the time when theatre was suffused with a rebellious, rock ’n’ roll sensibility. Some reviewers have discerned a certain flatness in Cox’s writing, but he’s an actor, not an author, and he certainly knows how to tell a story. He’s justifiably proud of Succession. “I just love playing him,” he says of Logan Roy, though he admits he is still constantly asking “who is this guy?”.
Cox’s book is digressive and gossipy, as all celebrity biographies should be. It’s also very funny, and as salty as you would expect from the man who has conclusively proved that there are at least 50 different ways of saying f*** off.
Memoir: Putting the Rabbit in the Hat by Brian Cox
Quercus, 384 pages, hardcover, €21; e-book £9.99