As a special Easter treat, Movie Dearest is proud to bring you this exclusive interview with actor, singer and writer Barry Dennen, best known for playing Pontius Pilate in both the stage and screen versions of the legendary musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
The most controversial figure associated with Easter after Jesus’ disciple-turned-traitor, Judas Iscariot, is Pontius Pilate. This real-life Roman governor of Judea gained notoriety for allowing those critical of Jesus to sentence him to death, according to the scriptural accounts.
Over the last 40 years, one actor has made Pontius Pilate his signature role. Barry Dennen first voiced Pilate in 1969 on the concept album of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s now-classic Jesus Christ Superstar. He subsequently originated the part on Broadway and played Pilate in the musical’s 1973 film version. Since then, Dennen has revived his performance in numerous concert productions of Jesus Christ Superstar around the world.
Dennen recently spoke with Movie Dearest about his storied career, which has included parts in such other memorable films as Fiddler on the Roof, The Shining, The Dark Crystal (as the voice of the evil Skeksis Chancellor) and the most successful movie of all time, Titanic. He also shared much about his background as a closeted gay actor and one-time boyfriend of Barbra Streisand.
CC: How did you initially get cast as Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar?
BD: I was in London in 1968 playing the Emcee in the West End premiere of Cabaret, with Judi Dench as Sally Bowles. It closed after about a year, but I didn’t want to leave London. I started to think about ideas that would keep me in London. I wrote a rock & roll musical movie script called Diminishing Perspective, and lyrics for a series of songs. I went to my agency at the time, William Morris, and asked if anyone could help me compose the music. They recommended an up and coming singer-composer named Murray Head. Murray is also an actor and a few years later played the bisexual lover in the movie Sunday, Bloody Sunday.
Murray was recording a rock opera that would become Jesus Christ Superstar. He told me the writers saw me in Cabaret and were interested in my playing a role. I went to a meeting with Tim and Andrew and was offered Pilate. I was burning to do it. I thought it would either be hugely successful or offensive to many, many people. It turned out to be both!
CC: How did the experience making the movie of Jesus Christ Superstar differ from the creation of the stage production?
BD: First, we recorded the “brown album” concept version, then we opened it theatrically on Broadway — which I played in for four months — then the movie by Norman Jewison. I had done the movie of Fiddler on the Roof for Norman. While we were filming Fiddler, Norman mentioned that he’d love to film Jesus Christ Superstar. I put Norman on the phone with Tim and Andrew, and they made the movie deal on the spot. We filmed on location in Israel for months.
CC: What have been some of your favorite stage or screen roles?
BD: The two most important roles I’ve done were in Jesus Christ Superstar and the Emcee in Cabaret. The latter was a wonderful cast and a wonderful show. The original London production has fallen into a kind of obscurity compared to the New York production and the film. The original London cast album with me and Judi Dench has become almost impossible to find.
CC: You’ve worked with some other big-name actors in your time, haven’t you?
BD: Yes: the late Christopher Reeve in Superman III; Jack Nicholson in The Shining; and I spent five months on the Titanic set with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
CC: And you lived with Babs back in the day?
BD: Yes, we were both struggling kids in New York City in the early 1960’s, trying to break into the business. We worked the cabarets and the Catskills with the likes of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. You can read all about it in my book, My Life with Barbra: A Love Story. It’s availableat Amazon.com.
CC: Is it true that, for a little while, you and Barbra were more than just roommates?
BD: We were friends, collaborators and lovers. She was so sweet in those days … but volatile. It’s all in my book.
CC: You are openly gay, and yet you were married to a woman at one point and have three children (one biological, two adopted). Anything to say about that?
BD: Being married to a woman was wrong, just totally wrong. I’m the poster boy for being gay, because I tried everything to not be gay. It can’t be done! I grew up in a day and age which is almost not remembered any more, thank God, when being gay was considered a perversion and mental disorder. I was terribly bullied at school and hated it. I came out when I was at UCLA, but it was still hidden and being outed was so shameful and humiliating.
I had my first relationship with a man in New York. When that fell apart, I was in despair and thought I’d never find another gay relationship. I became involved in a therapy group where homosexuality was seen as a character disorder, like overeating or alcoholism, and I began dating women. My biological son was actually the result of a one-night stand in NYC. I met him years later as an adult. His eyes are my eyes. He and his family have been very kind to me.
CC: You finally did find love with a man, correct?
BD: Yes, at age 40. I fell so totally for James and we spent twenty years together prior to his death from cancer. That relationship was what finally set me all right. I feel so upset today for young kids across America who are being browbeaten into reparative therapy and chastised for who they are. It must be so awful. All I really needed all along was someone to tell me, “It’s all right; you’re all right.”
CC: What are you working on now, and what’s next for Barry Dennen?
BD: These days, I’m doing voiceover characters for video games. I like it a lot. I’ve always enjoyed doing voice work, and I don’t have to dress up or memorize lines!
Back when I was working with Murray Head, I was smart enough to drag him into a studio to record eight songs I’d written for Diminishing Perspective. Nothing became of it, though, and the demo tape sat on my shelf for the last 40 years. More recently, a young Jesus Christ Superstar fan, Scott Kuchler, approached me about releasing it with fully orchestrated arrangements. It will be downloadable through iTunes and CDBaby.com this May or June.
CC: Sounds like you’ve had a long and illustrious career, Barry, and you keep on going!
BD: I don’t know how “illustrious” it’s been, but it has been long! I’m satisfied that long after I’m dead, people will still be watching me and remembering me in the greatest rock opera of all time and the biggest box-office movie of all time.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.