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Written by Timothy Sexton
Leonard Whiting was plucked from virtual obscurity for the plum role of Romeo. He was the first teenager ever cast as the teenage Romeo in a major film production of the Shakespeare’s tragedy. The high profile that the film’s extraordinary popularity gave Whiting did not translate into the long career that one might have expected. The only other major role in his career was, however, one at least as well-known and oft-played as Romeo: Dr. Frankenstein.
Like Whiting, Olivia Hussey had precious little acting experience when cast as Juliet. Unlike Whiting, however, Hussey managed to use the stardom afforded by the film’s success to carve out a career stretching into the 21st century in which she has never really been out of work. Included among the plum parts for Hussey which followed Shakespeare’s tragic heroine were the mother of Jesus Christ and the mother of Norman Bates!
Most actors will readily agree that the plum part in Romeo and Juliet is not Romeo, but Mercutio. Mercutio has all the best lines plus he gets a great death scene. For Mercutio in this version, the director chose another unknown, John McEnery. Interestingly, despite this being only his fourth appearance on film, Romeo and Juliet was actually McEnery’s third straight appearance in a Shakespearean adaptation. The character of Mercutio was his biggest role by far, however, and proof of the robust quality of Mercutio may be exemplified by McEnery's nomination for a BAFTA award as Best Supporting Actor.
The actor playing Friar Laurence likely had more credits on his resume than all the young actors playing Romeo and Juliet and their assorted friends put together. O’Shea had been steadily working in films for over a decade before Romeo and Juliet and would continue working steadily until his death in 2013.
Heywood was older than most of the younger cast members of the film, but was nearly equally as inexperienced in acting on film as most of them. Nevertheless, she snagged a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her turn as the nurse.
Little debate exists over which essentially unknown and relatively inexperienced member of the cast of Romeo and Juliet went on to enjoy the greatest movie stardom following the film’s release. While Michael York did have more experience than most of the rest of the cast around his age, none—not even Olivia Hussey—rose quite as high into the stratosphere of Hollywood success as York. Throughout most of the 1970s Michael York was one of the most in-demand British actors in Hollywood and he continued to give memorable performances in movies and on television even after star began to dim in the early 80s.
Robinson’s film debut was as Benvolio and he managed to turn that into a short career in mostly forgettable films before turning to screenwriting and directing. The high point of Robinson’s career came with an Oscar nomination for writing The Killing Fields. Robinson also wrote and directed perhaps the only film whose status as overrated is directly related to the connection between its subject and the unique quality of its hardiest fans. Withnail and I is about alcoholics and the consumption of alcohol is the only possible explanation for how anyone could find this bleak, depressing and interminable movie funnier than even the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
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