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Robert Newton, www.robertnewton.net

A Legendary Fan

The physical resemblance may have been coincidence, but flamboyant rock and roll drummer Keith Moon of The Who spent most of his short life purposely imitating the vocal intonations, rolling eyes, and manic facial expressions of his piratical hero, Robert Newton. Here are some other connections between the two:

Moon was four years old when Treasure Island was released; he was enthralled with Newton's larger-than-life performance from childhood on.

Together with Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, and Sam Peckinpah, Moon once plotted a remake of the 1951 Robert Newton/David Niven/Stewart Granger comedy Soldiers Three.

Moon was instrumental in the conception of Graham Chapman's 1983 pirate spoof Yellowbeard (but died before the film was realized). (Click here to view video of Chapman reminscing about Moonie.)

Singer Jim Keays of the Masters Apprentices toured Australia with the Who in 1973 and recalls his adventures with Keith: "Another time we were in the limousine going back to the Melbourne Motor Inn after the show and he suddenly transformed himself into Robert Newton. One minute he was normal, the next minute he was all, 'Jim, me lad, arr it was a good show and no mistake.' By the time we got back to the motel he was a fully-fledged pirate. he walked up to the reception desk, slammed his fist down on the counter and shouted, 'Get me the keys to my cabin, wench!' I'll never forget the terrified look on this poor receptionist's face.

"He opened the door to his room and he took a running jump and grabbed hold of the chandelier. He was swinging on it like it was the rope hanging from a ship's yard arm or something. I'm looking at this chandelier and it's coming out of the ceiling and I thought, "Oh god, if that smashes, it's going to be worth a fortune." Keith jumped off in the nick of time and went off pirating in the corner" (from "A Fortnight of Furore! The Who & the Small Faces Down Under," by Andy Neill, Ugly Things #27, Summer/Fall 2008). (CC)

In the Who documentary, The Kids Are Alright, Moon can be seen in a brief clip dressed as a pirate, with a rubber duck falling off his shoulder.

When he found out that Oliver Reed (who had recreated Robert Newton's famous role of Bill Sikes in 1968's Oliver!, was the nephew of Odd Man Out director Carol Reed, and was also famous for his heavy drinking) had been signed to work with him in 1974's rock-opera film Tommy, the starstruck Keith decided to introduce himself, arriving by helicopter on the actor's lawn. A furious Reed emerged from the house threatening the intruder with a sword. (The two became great friends, and Reed later credited Moonie with showing him "the way to insanity.")

While his vocal performances on The Who's soundtrack to Tommy, on their song "Bell Boy" from the Quadrophenia album, and on his own solo album Two Sides of the Moon sound distinctively Newtonesque, Moon's acknowledged Long John Silver impression can be heard in the background on the Alice Cooper song "Space Pirates" from the 1975 concept album Flash Fearless Versus the Zorg Women Parts 5 and 6.

He also managed to work his Robert Newton impression into his performance as a gay dress designer in the 1978 Mae West farce Sextette. As a humorously scathing review at Jabootu's Bad Movie Planet describes it (apparently not realizing that Keith Moon was the inspiration for the Muppets' Animal, not the other way around): "Moon gives perhaps the film’s most undisciplined performance, which is saying something. He’s so far over the top that if he fell he’d crash through the Earth’s crust. Either that, or he’s just unimaginably happy at being the sole male cast member who doesn’t have to make goo-goo eyes at the antediluvian Marlo [Mae West]. ... [He] camps it up with all the reserve of Animal from The Muppet Show. His ‘highlight’ comes when Marlo dons a gold-lamé dress (no, that’s ‘lamé’ with an ‘é’), allowing him to extrapolate from the word gold into an impromptu pirate bit, complete with copious arggh-ing." (LH) View the scene for yourself here.

His favorite record to play while riding in his chauffeured Bentley was Treasure Island. He listened to it so many times that he and his co-passengers had the LP memorized. (Robert Newton also drove a Bentley. Both owned vintage Rolls Royces as well.)

Keith Moon got his start in a surf band called The Beachcombers; Robert Newton appeared in two films called The Beachcomber. (The 1938 version starring Charles Laughton--known in England as Vessel of Wrath--was remade in 1954 with Newton in the title role.)

Both Robert Newton and Keith Moon were uninhibited nonconformists known for their outlandish escapades.

Their friends described both as kind hearted and gentle.

Near the end of their lives, both moved from their native England to Los Angeles for the sake of their acting careers.

Both died prematurely as an indirect result of alcoholism.

Keith Moon's biographer, Tony Fletcher, concludes his foreword with these words:

"Those who remember the Robert Newton impersonations of his youth and who saw Keith's transformation over the years into the living personification of Newton's Long John Silver will maybe find it all the more poignant if I suggest that Keith's own unscripted journey ended with him marooned on a private Treasure Island ... . The scene in which he was rescued from this isolated existence to live happily ever after was unfortunately never written. In true-life dramas there often are no happy endings."

Keith Moon died on September 7, 1978, from an accidental overdose of Heminevrin, a medication for combatting alcoholism, at the age of 32.

Keith Moon links:

Other celebrities who've claimed Robert Newton's Long John Silver as a major influence in their lives: underground comic artist Robert Crumb and actor John Malkovich.

Many thanks to the following contributors, whose initials follow their contributions: Louise Hansen (LH), Chuck Ciriello (CC)

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