Matt Zimmerman interview

Martin Hutchinson
Matt Zimmerman
Matt Zimmerman

How did you get into the industry and did acting run in your family?

No, acting does not run in my family at all but music does. When I was a young lad my father had an orchestra and I sang at a very early age. By the time I was 10 1 was appearing on radio in Canada and America as a singer. Because I was around theatrical people I began to be interested in acting and dancing and started lessons. I auditioned for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in 1957 and was invited to appear in that season. Up until then I had only been doing theatre full time. I'm happy to say that since then I have been a full professional actor.

What kind of education did you have?

I trained as a Certified Public Accountant and studied shorthand and typing. I went to Wayne University in Detroit where I took the Liberal Arts Course majoring in Drama. I am a graduate of the Advanced Professional Course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA for short).

How did you come to settle in Britain and when?

In 1958 1 won Best Actor Award in Canada for my performance as Pyrrhus in Jean Baptiste Racine's play Andromache. This led to me being awarded a Canada Council Grant to study abroad. The English director Richard West was an adjudicator at the Festival where I won the Best Actor Award and he suggested LAMDA. Whilst over here, although I had planned to return to Canada and the States I was lucky enough to meet my wife Shirley Chaprian who was over here studying singing. She was offered a contract with Sadlers Wells so after being married in Vancouver we returned in 1962 and settled in London.

Have you kept your Canadian citizenship and do you get homesick?

Although my father was a naturalised American citizen, I decided to go for a Canadian passport (as I was born in Canada) because I thought it was easier to work with that than with an American one. I can't say that I get homesick. We were in Toronto in '91 for a holiday with my sister and though it was lovely, I realise that if anything, I may now be European. The snow and open spaces were spectacular and the people warm and friendly but London has everything going on.

Going onto Thunderbirds, were you familiar with Gerry Anderson's work and how did you get involved with the show?

No, I wasn't familiar with Gerry Anderson's work before I worked on Thunderbirds. I had been appearing in West Side Story at Her Majesty's Theatre in London with David Holliday. He had been hired to play Virgil. Gerry said they were looking for someone to play Alan Tracy and David suggested me. I went along and read for Sylvia Anderson and, luckily enough, was hired.

What had you been doing before Thunderbirds?

At the time of the casting I was doing a musical at the Savoy Theatre called High Spirits in which I played Bob. Before that I had just returned from Dublin where I had been appearing as Matt in The Fantasticks at the Eblana Theatre, having just finished a European Tour of West Side Story with David Holliday.

Alan Tracy
Alan Tracy

Were you told much about the show beforehand?

All I knew was that I was to play Alan Tracy, the youngest brother and that it was a puppet show. I think it is interesting how the scripts that came along gradually made Alan grow more and more into an interesting character. There was real development in his story line which I find fascinating.

In the pilot episode Trapped In The Sky, we have noticed that you do not do Alan's voice — I think it was Ray Barret. Was there a reason for this?

If I remember correctly Alan was hardly in the first episode. Also, I think they had recorded it as I was being hired. Yes, I suppose it could have been Ray.

Was there any difficulty for you in putting a voice to a puppet?

We never actually put the voice to the puppet. Each episode was recorded like a radio play. Sometimes we had to do 'wild tracks' and add a line into the scene.

Did you alter your normal voice in any way for Alan?

No, I didn't. This was 26 years ago and being a tenor, I have always had a light voice and it was even lighter then. I just used my normal voice at the time.

Was the work enjoyable and did you get on w1th the rest of the cast?

The work was an absolute delight. I don't ever remember a cross word or any form of confrontation. If my memory is correct we used to record three episodes on a Sunday once a month. We all got on famously and I think that comes across in the series as well.

Were you happy with Thunderbirds and have you seen the repeats?

I was delighted with Thunderbirds and yes, I have enjoyed the repeats. There were some episodes I hadn't seen and I loved it. Especially the technical side. Gerry was a genius and years ahead of his time in that field.

Do you think they stand up well today, 25 years on?

Yes, very much so. I don't think they could do a series like that in this day and age and better it.

Did you have any idea of how big an impact the show would have?

None at all. The only time we knew that something exciting was happening was when we were about half way through recording the series, Lew Grade had a talk with Gerry and insisted they be an hour long instead of a half hour. So we had to go back and re-do the earlier episodes. We all had a feeling then that there was something special about Thunderbirds. But there was no way to know that it would take off as it did.

Were there any practical jokers amongst the cast?

That I don't remember. I do remember getting the giggles however and having to stop recording a couple of times. Particularly when Ray Barrett played The Duchess, ( The Duchess Assignment). It was always a happy time — though there were moments when Gerry said, 'Come on pull yourselves together.' And we did.

Do you get fan mail from the show?

Yes, I do get a lot of fan mail from the series and mostly from people in their forties, believe it or not, and of course young children.

Were you able to suggest any dialogue or have any say in the development of the characters?

We probably had loads of discussions about character but nothing specific. I know Sylvia had a 'soft spot' for Alan and that was probably why he was featured so much in the films.

I have heard that there was a plan to marry Alan and Tin Tin off. Would you have liked that to happen?

I think Alan would have liked it. Gerry tells the story that at night they used to hang the Alan and Tin Tin puppets away from each other because everyone thought they were getting too amorous.

Do you have any firm memories of working on the show?

Apart from Ray Barret's Duchess nothing specific. I have very fond memories of everything connected with the show.

Do you have a favourite episode, and if so which one?

Yes — Move and You're Dead!

Do you think Alan was the most popular character and that is why perhaps he was such a major character in the two movies?

I think that the youngsters associated with him but as far as being the most popular characters. I think Scott, Lady P. and Parker would qualify more. As regards the movies, as I said earlier, it was because Sylvia Anderson had a real thing about Alan that he was featured in the movies so much and let's not forget, though Alan was young he was the astronaut.

Staying with the movies, was the set up different to working on the TV series?

Not really, except there were more people involved and we didn't have to do as many voices, other actors did that. It always bothered me when I had to change my voice to play another character and like in Sun Probe, end up talking to myself.

Personally, I've always thought that Gordon got a rough deal in the films — do you agree?

Not as bad as John — although I replaced him a couple of times in orbit, he always seemed to be stuck up there, neat as a pin and very dedicated. I think John liked being alone and disapproved of his other brothers in some way. At least Gordon seemed to be around even though we only used Thunderbird 4 occasionally.

Were you disappointed that the films were not a big success?

All I can say is 'Yes!'. I still don't understand it. But that's showbiz.

It's been mentioned in the past that some people have managed to get hold of items from the series after production finished. Did you manage to get something as a personal souvenir?

No I didn't although I would have liked one of Alan's uniforms.

What did you do after Thunderbirds?

This will bore the pants off everybody... Lots of TV, radio and movies and I have also appeared in over 20 musicals and plays in the West End.

Can you give us any examples of your West End appearances?

Well, I've done Singing in the Rain at the Palladium, West Side Story at Her Majesty's and Shaftesbury Theatres and The Odd Couple at the Queens. I also understudied for Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind at Drury Lane.

And away from the West End?

I've done a lot of plays and musicals all over the place, for example, West Side Story on tour. In Catch 22 at The Leeds Playhouse, I played 4 roles; and in Colchester I've played the Pharaoh in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Lennox in Macbeth and would you believe an Ugly Sister in Cinderella.

You've done a lot of work on radio haven't you?

Yes, quite a lot for the BBC. I played Cheswick in a Radio 4 adaptation of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and for the same station I was Sir Henry Baskerville in Hound of the Baskervilles. For Radio 3 I was in In the Jungle of the Cities. Notes from the Orchid Farm for the World Service and of course Thunderbirds for Radio 5.

What about TV?

Oh, many productions, such as Dick Turpin for ATV (later replaced by Central); Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for the BBC. I played Shooty, who tried to arrest Zaphod in that. Whoops Apocalypse for LWT; Oppenheimer again BBC. Never the Twain for Thames. Oh yes, also for Thames, I've played Doc Leaf, Saul Wright and Max Clapper in T.Bag and I've even appeared in a sketch on Crackerjack.

Any commercials?

Only a handful, the latest was as an Art Critic in the Harvey's Bristol Cream advert.

And finally films, any blockbusters?

That depends on your point of view, I played a messenger in A Man For All Seasons, a reporter in The Two Mrs Grenvilles and I've also appeared Crazy Like a Fox, Haunted Honeymoon and The Birth of the Beatles.

Did you appear in any other Gerry Anderson productions?

Yes, I appeared in an episode of Space:1999. And also in UFO as Paul Foster's co-pilot in Exposed.

Have you seen any other Gerry Anderson shows since Thunderbirds and what is your impression of them?

Being a busy actor it is difficult to watch much but I have caught some of Gerry's later shows and always enjoy them tremendously although I wasn't keen on the Zeroids in Terrahawks.

Does it bother you to be sometimes remembered as Alan Tracy rather than Matt Zimmerman?

Not at all. In some ways I rather like the name Alan Tracy better than my own. Maybe I should have changed it all those years ago to Alan Tracy. Now there's a thought.

You are a frequent guest at the conventions, obviously you enjoy them but what do you enjoy most about them?

I just enjoy people who enjoy themselves so much and are so open about being 'fans'. Everyone I've ever met at them has treated me so nicely and been so friendly that it has been a joy to attend the conventions when I could. I was sorry to miss Fanderson '91 in Leeds but unfortunately work comes before pleasure. Maybe the next one.

A rumour abounds that you are the vocalist on Flyin' High, a piece of music featured in the episode Ricochet. Can you confirm this?

(After hearing a tape of the song). Well, after hearing the tape I can definitely say that it is not true. I couldn't begin to tell you who it is.

Have you released any records?

I appear in many show albums, but have never released a single.

Are you a science fiction fan?

Yes I am. Thunderbirds and Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy were great to do, as was Caves of Steel by Asimov for BBC Radio 4. I am an avid reader of anything to do with science fiction.

Do you prefer to be in musical productions rather than straight acting?

I don't really think there is any difference except one is a play with music and the other isn't. I try to bring 'straight acting' into musicals. I think the time of having those kind of distinctions in theatre is past actors sing and singers act and therefore a play, be it with music or not, is still a play and needs actors... And I am an actor.

Do you prefer theatre or film/TV work?

I am an actor I just prefer to work.

Do you have any ambitions and what are they?

My ambitions. Now, that's a tough one. I'd like to keep working as an actor well after my retirement age because it's something I enjoy doing tremendously. Not many people have the luck to be doing a job they love. A job that is also their hobby and their life. Other than that I'd like to keep my health and my very happy home.

Outside the profession do you have any hobbies?

Another difficult question. I collect books on the theatre and musical theatre. I am also a very big opera buff. My wife and I are keen gardeners and love our garden. We also collect prints, especially anything to do with the theatre and my wife is a devotee of butterflies and collects them... On plates, note paper... Anything.

What are your future plans?

An actor is one of those people who don't know what's around the corner. In November 1991, I'll be busy recording an episode of Spats for Thames TV, an episode of Jeeves and Wooster and an episode of Rab C Nesbitt in Scotland. What the future holds no-one knows but I certainly hope a nice show comes along in the West End, as I do enjoy working in theatre.

Matt Zimmerman, 1 would like to thank you for your time and patience in this interview and on behalf of Century 21 would like to thank you for your involvement with the conventions and, of course, Thunderbirds and we wish you all the best for the future

article originally appeared in Century 21 magazine #9