Actor Michael Sarrazin, who was splendid as The Monster in the 1973 television event Frankenstein: The True Story, passed away on April 17. He was 70.
Born in Québec City, raised in Montréal, it would be in English Canada, in Toronto, that he began his acting career, appearing on stage, on the CBC and in National Film Board shorts. Spotted by Universal Studio scouts, he headed for California in 1965. In a Montreal Gazette article on Sarrazin’s then impending Hollywood career, the actor allowed that, “Lots of actors - and starlets - go to Hollywood, get a contract and are never heard from again”, adding that he expected being put to work “on TV films like the Hitchcock show or even the Munsters.” In due time, Sarrazin would appear on the Hitchcock revival series, but his Frankenstein was not of the Mockingbird Lane variety.
Sarrazin earned a “Most Promising Newcomer” nomination at the Golden Globes in 1968 and, though true stardom proved elusive, he would distinguish himself in demanding supporting roles. Prominent parts included that of George C. Scott’s apprentice in The Flim-Flam Man (1967) and Paul Newman’s troubled half-brother in Sometimes a Great Notion (1970). Perhaps his most famous role was that of the world-weary Robert, Jane Fonda’s dancing partner, in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). A smattering of lead parts included such diverse fare as The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) and The Gumball Rally (1976). Television work included appearances in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Ray Bradbury Theater, and he played Edgar Allen Poe in an episode of Mentors (2000).
Sarrazin played in several Canadian films through the years, notably Joshua Then and Now (1985), but it wasn’t until 1993 that he finally “came home’ to appear in a Québécois film with a hugely popular turn as Romeo Laflamme, a has-been lounge singer in the comedy La Florida, the year’s top-grossing Canadian film.
Rarely seen today, Sarrazin’s Frankenstein film is one of the most inventive of all variations on Mary Shelley’s tale. Directed by Jack Smight, with a literate and highly original script by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, Frankenstein: The True Story was a very elaborate, three-hour spectacle broadcast in two parts on NBC in 1973. An all-star lineup included James Mason as a mad doctor named Polidori, David McCallum as Clerval (whose brain ends up in The Monster’s skull), Ralph Richardson as DeLacey, the blind man, with small parts distributed to Agnes Moorhead, Michael Wilding and John Gielgud. Dr. Who’s Tom Baker puts in a rousing performance as a salty sea captain, Nicola Pagett was the bewildered Elizabeth and Victor Frankenstein was played by Zeffirelli’s Romeo, Leonard Whiting. In a star-making turn, the same year she played Solitaire opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond in Live and Let Die, young Jane Seymour played the disturbingly vicious Bride, Prima.
Trading on Sarrazin’s good looks and soulful eyes, Frankenstein’s creature starts out as beautiful, but soon succumbs to disfiguring decay. The film is loaded with strong and memorable scenes: The creation sequence turns the usual dark and stormy night setting on its head as The Monster is animated with blinding sunlight focused and amplified with mirrors. Victor surprises Elizabeth by reanimating a butterfly, but she is horrified by the unholy transgression and crushes the insect with a Bible. There’s a rip-roaring scene aboard a storm-drenched vessel, and an unforgettable sequence where The Monster barges in on Prima’s debutante ball and brings her evil career to a most violent end.
The film was shot on English locations and at Pinewood Studios, home to many Hammer Films, including some of Peter Cushing’s Frankensteins. Hammer’s Roy Ashton was head makeup man on True Story, but Sarrazin’s Monster was handled by Harry Frampton (rock star Peter Frampton’s dad).
Frankenstein: The True Story deserves to be seen and rediscovered. With an underplayed, controlled and heartfelt performance, Sarrazin created one of the most compelling portrayals of Mary’s Monster on film.
A selection of scenes from Frankenstein: The True Story on YouTube.
A review on The Uranium Café.