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Robert Newton, www.robertnewton.net

Robert Newton, the Web, and me

People sometimes ask me how this page came about. Well, it's a long story ...

In 1975, Disney's first all-live-action film, Treasure Island, was re-released in theatres, and my mom took my younger sister and me to see it. I had just discovered rock and roll, and my hero was The Who's wild drummer, Keith Moon. Upon first glimpsing Robert Newton in the role of Long John Silver, I noticed an uncanny resemblance to Moon--not only in looks but in manner. (This was far from coincidental, as I would find out many years later on reading Tony Fletcher's biography of Moon.)

I was entranced as Newton brought to life Robert Louis Stevenson's lovable villain, with his expressive face; rolling eyes; and growling, now-classic (thanks to him) pirate dialect. Ordinarily a slow and then-reluctant reader due to what was later diagnosed as ADHD, I bought a copy of Stevenson's novel and couldn't put it down; in fact, I read it twice! It's still among my favorite books (and Stevenson among my favorite writers) and led to an enduring fascination with pirate lore and the sea. Of course, I made Mom bring me back to see the film again before it finished its run.

I soon began to seek out other Robert Newton films. Fortunately, they were shown even more frequently and in greater variety on television than they are today--and this was before cable! Seeing him next in Oliver Twist sealed my impression of him as a spellbinding villain who commanded the screen and whom I couldn't wait to see more of.

So when I saw Jamaica Inn, in which a younger, fresh-faced version of that crusty, seafaring rogue played a handsome romantic hero, Jem Trehearne, opposite Maureen O'Hara, I barely recognized him!

The story of Jamaica Inn captured my imagination with its setting on the Cornish coast and moors and its performances by Newton, Maureen O'Hara, and Emlyn Williams. (I had no idea at the time that Daphne du Maurier had actually claimed Treasure Island as an inspiration for her romantic adventure tale of a band of shipwreckers operating on the lonely Cornish coast!) We just happened to have a collection of du Maurier novels on the family bookshelf, among them Jamaica Inn, and in no time I had finished another book. It was far superior to the film version in many ways and quickly pushed Treasure Island out of the top spot as my favorite book of all time--where it remains today (although Treasure Island is still a close second). In my imagination, not only did a young, dashing Robert Newton play Jem, but the older, gruffer Newton of Treasure Island and Hatter's Castle could play his villainous brother Joss at the same time. Daphne du Maurier became another of my favorite writers. As she has done for many other people, she made me fall in love with Cornwall (which I finally got to visit in person in 1993--where I learned, with sadness, that the author had passed away just four years earlier). Little did I know until recently that Robert Newton himself had Cornish roots.

In high school English class, we were assigned the book Wuthering Heights, and I was transported to the moors of Yorkshire, with Robert Newton becoming the character of Heathcliff in my mind. I only discovered many years later that director William Wyler had also recognized how perfectly suited Newton was to portray Emily Brontë's dark, broodingly romantic antihero; if not for Samuel Goldwyn's veto, Robert Newton would have played Heathcliff in the 1939 film in place of Laurence Olivier.

I soon got to see Hatter's Castle, The High and the Mighty, Androcles and the Lion, Around the World in 80 Days, The Desert Rats, Major Barbara, Fire Over England, Long John Silver, and Blackbeard the Pirate. In the late '70s, I got the chance to see Henry V on the big screen at George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, where it was being shown for the last time before being sent off for restoration--one of many films recorded on celluloid before it was found that celluloid deteriorates over an all-too-short period of time.

Robert Newton not only exposed me to the classics, but, with his multifaceted potrayals of Long John Silver, Bill Sikes, James Brodie, and Bill Walker, he helped to establish a lasting fascination for complex movie villains. Actor David Warner in particular caught my attention in 1979 in his classic role of Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, to which he subtly added depth and even pathos. Like Newton, Warner turns out to be a kind, gentle, well liked and respected person (and a bit of a nonconformist) in real life, and I suspect that this conflict between their own personalities and their characters' (and perhaps even their eventual distaste for such roles) helps to make both actors' villains so much deeper and more likable than a "bad guy" ought to be!

My sister, a classic-movie buff, found some information for me about Newton in her film books, but there wasn't much to be had--just a brief listing in The Filmgoer's Companion and a passage from David Niven's autobiography in The Moon's a Balloon. I didn't search too much further for fear of bursting my own balloon by discovering things about him that I didn't want to know; I was content just to enjoy his work. (We also had a copy of Niven's follow-up, Bring on the Empty Horses, sitting on our bookshelf, but I never realized until recently that he had devoted an entire chapter to "Bobbie"!)

Finally, in the '80s, my longstanding dream came true, and home video was a reality. I quickly collected several of Newton's films on tape, including Tom Brown's School Days, They Flew Alone, This Happy Breed, The Hidden Room, and Soldiers Three. But by this time, with the onset of adult responsibilities, my teenage obsession had subsided, and, when the Beta machine finally died, I packed my Newton films away for safe keeping.

But Robert Newton never left my pantheon of favorite actors, and, with the advent of the Internet, I began to do periodic searches for information about him. Almost nothing ever turned up--certainly no images or fansites dedicated to him as there should have been! Eventually, even a slew of fan pages on the underappreciated David Warner turned up ... but the only thing I could find on Newton was Hal Erickson's one-paragraph bio on the All-Movie Guide site and the filmography on the IMDb.

Meanwhile, I had been thinking about how much free information I was always getting from the Internet and felt an urge to contribute something too--but first I had to find a topic that would be of interest to people which I knew something about and that hadn't already "been done." I didn't know much about Newton, but I had collected a few pictures of him over the years, and I had slightly more information than what was out there already. Maybe this could be my niche to fill. A visit to the library yielded brief mentions of him in a few film books, including several passages in Kevin Brownlow's bio on director David Lean. And then I discovered that long-neglected chapter in Bring on the Empty Horses. I figured I could at least compile and share that much with the world. So, in December 1999, I established this website, which, at the time, consisted of a single page combining text, photos, and a few links.

I announced my new page to several friends, including David Warner Webmaster Louise Hansen. And I made my first convert! (Not including my dad, that is, who had apparently become a fan years before without telling me I'd influenced him!) She began seeking out Newton's films and eventually became almost as big a fan as I was. Her Web presence is also known as Cinéphilia, and she has quite a respectable knowledge of film. So, with her cinematic research experience (and a handy cinema library right near her home!), she began digging and turning up tidbits of information about him and generously e-mailing her findings to me, encouraging me to expand my Web page. As I realized there was more to be found out there if one had the time and energy to put into it--and got to know, admire, and often identify with Robert Newton as a person as well as an actor--I began spending more time at the library and digging up more information myself. (And spending a pirate's ransom buying more photos for the site!) Within just a few months, I had so much material, I had to divide the page up into the format you see here. Louise has given me so much material and so many ideas for this site (and, in the process, rekindled my obsession), I feel she's my co-Webmaster. (In fact, she created her own companion site in French.)

My next convert was my husband Chuck--who didn't even know about Robert Newton till I created this site. He especially likes the pirate films, sharing my excitement whenever I manage to get a hold of another episode of the Long John Silver series (although his favorite RN film is now The Hidden Room), and he often contributes links and stops by the site to see its progress. (Hi, Honey!)

The responsibility of being a "Webmaster" has caused me to start (re)watching all of Newton's work that I can find. The more I watch, the more I am struck by his range and versatility: He could go from children's hero to cruel villain to romantic lead to intellectual to comic relief to debonaire straight man to Cockney rogue to lovable eccentric to being gentle and wise or doing Shakespeare and be utterly convincing in every role, even transforming his voice and appearance to suit each one. Until I became familiar with his work, it was sometimes difficult to recognize him from one film to the next. But all his characterizations had in common a particular magnetism and charisma. I deeply admire the wholehearted way in which he attacked every role. Even when he went a little over the top, Robert Newton always took you right along with him!

In time, this site began getting picked up by search engines, and people--like you, I hope!--started signing the guestbook, posting on the forum, and sending me e-mail. I'm always thrilled to discover how many other fans are out there. I had thought of eventually trying to contact members of the Newton family to let them know about my page, but I wanted to get it just perfect first. (As if that will ever happen!) Well, can you imagine my excitement when, less than one year after I established this site, Robert Newton's two sons, first Kim and then Nicholas, contacted me to let me know that they liked the site (!), correct some misinformation I had gotten, and provide additional facts! Nicholas even wrote a whole passage on his father's stage career for the biography section. (Only the first and last paragraphs of Part 2 are my words.)

Technology can be a great thing, can't it? It makes me wonder what Robert Newton, the accomplished Shakespearean actor who believed all actors first needed to have a solid background on the stage, would have thought if someone had told him that, in the next millennium, people around the world be talking about him and even watching his movies and episodes of his TV series all from our home computers!


Susan D. Ciriello
December 2000

Susan (age 15) waits for her pirate ship to come in:

Capn' Suky prepares to hit the high seas--arr! (Fasching party, February 2000)


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