August 11, 2008 This is London, The Evening Standard, by Alison Roberts
I meet David Soul in the dimly lit basement room of a Cuban-themed bar in Soho, which, were it not for the clean-cut French waiters and the smoking ban, might easily pass as a nightclub set from Starsky & Hutch, the California-based cop show that made Soul globally famous in the 1970s. There is something mildly illicit about the venue, which he has chosen: it’s 4.30pm and a sunny day outside, but we’re indoors, underground in a windowless room. Soul is drinking white wine and water.
He looks a little dishevelled, unlike his snappily-dressed alter-ego Ken Hutchinson, in denim jacket, blue T-shirt and loafers without socks. But he’ll be 65 next month and, of course, his blond hair is grey, his eyes not nearly so piercing, and his face rounder and less refined. At last, Soul has escaped his beauty. “All my life I tried to run away from my looks,” he tells me at one point. “I was really a pretty boy, but I hated all that stuff. That blonde hunk thing, that ‘gorgeous blue-eyed guy’ image. That was bullshit.”
Soul is about to take part in the BBC’s Maestro series, an upmarket reality TV show following eight celebrity contestants as they learn the rudiments of orchestral conducting and then battle it out, on live TV, to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra at Hyde Park on the last night of the Proms.
The opening documentary introduces each contestant — among them Goldie, Jane Asher and Alex James — with a short film, and in Soul’s case we see clips of, yes, the blonde hunk Hutch, and then of Soul singing his 1976 hit single Don’t Give Up On Us looking sweetly, girlishly beautiful. Even then, he says, he didn’t know how to handle the fame his looks, and voice, brought.
“When you first get that crazy fame, by God, it’s difficult. No one teaches you how to handle that. I came from the Mid-west and we didn’t know about any of this stuff. Our lives there in the 1960s revolved around the family farm; that was the bedrock. Fame was very much a Hollywood or a New York concept.”
When Soul first started singing — well before Starsky and Hutch — he took to the stage, and later the set of Merv Griffin’s popular 1960s talk show, wearing a ski mask, creating a cultish persona known only as The Covered Man. “I didn’t want to be known for my face, but for my music,” he asserts. “Really. That’s why I put that mask on … I think I always fought against the image that was created of me. The mask was still there, even after I’d taken if off.”
Armchair psychologists might say that many of Soul’s subsequent, well-publicised problems — four divorces, alcoholism, near penury in the early 1990s (“I didn’t have any money,” he laughs, “the bank took my house away in 1993”) — all stem from that initial, internalised, battle.
In 1995, Soul settled in London with his then partner, actress Alexa Hamilton. Rarely, it seems, has he been single for very long. He has six children by his various wives, ranging in age from late teens to 45, plus five grandchildren, scattered across America. He calls it the Soul “diaspora.” “It’s one of the drawbacks of not living in the States that I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like. But they’ve all visited.”
He now lives in north London and has a long-term British girlfriend who is an arts PR. In 2001, he took a cameo role on Holby City, but has since carved out a solid acting career in theatre, with the lead role in the West End production of Jerry Springer: The Opera, and a starring performance in a 2006 production of Mack and Mabel. He has directed episodes of TV series and written scripts.
Most peculiarly, in 2004 Soul took British citizenship. “Yeah, I had to go up to Haringey, that’s where the dirty deed was done,” he cackles. “I swore, and sang God Save the Queen.”
Soul’s life here revolves at least in part around the Emirates Stadium. As a young man he was good enough to play baseball professionally, but is now a passionate Gooner. He says he gave up his season ticket because he’s “away too often to make it worthwhile,” but is not above begging or borrowing to get a regular football fix. “That’s kind of my definition of a friend,” he says, laughing, but not entirely joking. “Someone who has access to Arsenal tickets.”
Soul’s musical ability came from his parents, though he didn’t appreciate it as a kid growing up. In the late 1940s the family — Soul and his four younger brothers and sisters — lived in Berlin, where his father, an academic and Lutheran minister, went to help refugee organisations.
Back in the States they settled in Little Sioux, South Dakota. “I was force-fed classical music all the time. This was the mid-1950s, the time of the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, and that’s what all my buddies were listening to. But I was never allowed to.” He imitates a shrill female voice: “Stop that now!’ my mother used to say. She would sing Schubert and Schumann and Brahms. She had this women’s singing circle, and they’d all come round once a week, and it was the last thing I wanted to do, sit around with all these … chickens.
“I was dragged to concerts, too — but I do remember being fascinated by my father’s emotion during them. He’d make these little noises, these gasps for breath, and there’d be a little wetness in his eye. It was a very conservative household, suffused, I guess, by this religious morality. Father came from German-Norwegian stock so he was pretty dour, but here he was, actually feeling something, and expressing it.”
As soon as Soul could escape, he did, and fled first to Minneapolis with his high-school sweetheart Mim, whom he married, and then to New York. In the back of his mind he still clung to some of that Midwest morality.
“Some of it definitely rubbed off on me. A work ethic. And the looks thing, again. I grew up believing that looks weren’t something you judged someone by. The substance of a person was much more important.” To an extent, then, Soul believed that his own handsomeness was a fraudulent means of attracting interest; vaguely immoral, even.
But he did attract interest — and plenty of it. After appearing in the 1973 Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force alongside Clint Eastwood, Soul signed a deal with 20th Century Fox, “bought a white sports coat,” and moved to L.A., where in 1975 he began filming Starsky & Hutch.
In Britain it was one of the few U.S. shows on TV in the 1970s, creating an iconic version of urban America that, even now, generations brought up on it find hard to shift. Every schoolboy had a red and white Starsky & Hutch toy car, and every schoolgirl (subconsciously absorbing the casual 1970s sexism of the show alongside the macho sentimentality and exciting violence) had a pre-pubescent crush on either Soul or his co-star Paul Michael Glaser.
“I guess it sounds pretty arrogant,” says Soul now, “but we ran 20th Century Fox. From the guard at the front gate of the lot to the crews on set to the guys who made the money. Paul and I were clear in what we wanted that show to be and we delivered. A lot of it was tongue-in-cheek. We’d take these shit scripts and we’d insert stuff, improvise stuff. We made fun of ourselves and of each other. It was a cash machine to the network and I guess the producers thought: Hey, these guys have got something.”
Of course, he should have made millions from the show. But in the early days no one had expected such a hit, and Soul and Glaser, alas, each signed away their 7.5 per cent share in the show for $100,000 shortly before international syndication made the real money. Naivety, or bad advice? “Both, both,” says Soul. Of course, he still had enough to fund a period of lavish living in L.A. — but not enough to sustain it. And though he kept working throughout the 1980s — his CV lists a raft of mini-series and TV movies — the conflicted boy from South Dakota, caught up in a world of Hollywood excess, also began to fight the booze.
Problems with alcohol are mundane and boring, he says now, curtly, uncomfortable with my questions. He acknowledges the selfishness of that time, though, and has said in the past that he was difficult to live with, which is surely an understatement. In the early 1980s Soul made headlines for hitting his third wife Patti Carnel, who was then seven months pregnant, and landed up in [jail]. Later he went on an anger management course, and, to his credit, visited a number of gaols to discuss publicly domestic violence with inmates. He claims he has always been a “mellow” person, though the evidence clearly suggests otherwise.
When I ask him what his greatest regret is, he pauses and then talks at his wine glass. “My biggest regrets deal with personal behaviour, for which I am very remorseful. But shit, man, I’ve seen it all. I grew up in Berlin right after the war. I’ve travelled the world, I’ve scaled the height of fame and watched the cockroaches creep up the walls, I’ve had a lot of money and I’ve had none.”
Did the anger come out of frustration? “No, anger is a good emotion because it’s a form of strength,” he replies. He differentiates between uncontrolled rage and controlled anger. “If anger is used well, it’s a valuable tool. It’s the difference between putting your car in gear and going forwards with purpose and putting it in reverse and smashing into a brick wall. Well, I’ve hit too many brick walls in my life.”
I ask him why he took out British citizenship. He is vehemently anti-Bush — he once stuffed envelopes for JFK’s campaign in South Dakota — but that can’t be the reason? “No, I could be angry about the political and military course the U.S. has taken and still go back there. You know, I’ve finally got a life here. I have no desire to go back to L.A. It’s such an impersonal and business-oriented place. I want to stay here, maybe move to the country.”
But what he really wanted to do with his shiny new Britishness was go to Cuba — a trip you can’t make with an American passport. In Havana he hung out with Cuba’s most popular band, Buena Fe, who have since restyled Don’t Give Up On Us in extravagantly Cuban fashion — the single is released today and an album of greatest hits follows next month.
But there’s a flash of anger when I ask whether the album, as well as Maestro, is a concerted attempt to relaunch his career. “I’ve been 45 years in this business,” he says crossly, “and it seems like I’ve been relaunched so many times I’ve lost count. I have tenacity and joy and passion for what I do. I don’t think about it in terms of relaunching anything. I don’t think in terms of acquisitions or money.”
As we leave, I notice two women eyeing Soul curiously. They don’t recognise him properly — they’re too young — but they know that they should recognise him from somewhere. And there’s something a bit sad about that: such a huge star, such a slice of TV history, walking away unknown.