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An Evening with Derren Nesbitt
A Conversation with Derren Nesbitt about his iconic role as "Major von Hapen" in "Where Eagles Dare". Being a superb raconteur, he reminisces about Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Brian G. Hutton. Pictureville, Bradford, UK, 20. March 2009

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Edited for reading and clarity. Conversation originally moderated by Tony Earnshaw. Date: 04.10.2023
English actor Derren Nesbitt plays Major von Hapen in Where Eagles Dare" in Bradford, 2009. Picture: Thomas Hauerslev

Tony Earnshaw: Tonight is going to be a great guest. His name is Darren Nesbitt, and in this film he plays Major von Hapen. When we contacted Darren to ask him to be a part of this, he laughed and he said “You're only asking me because everybody else is dead”. It's not entirely true! But in terms of the character actors in this film and the character performances, Derren's is by far the best. It really is, and I'm not just saying that because he's here, it's absolutely true. He brings more to that part than just caricature. Major von Hapen is not a caricature German. He's not your standard villainous SS officer. He is far more than that. Far more. Hello and welcome to Bradford [huge welcome applause from audience].

Derren Nesbitt: Thank you. Thank you.

Tony Earnshaw: You were saying a few minutes ago that you've not seen the film in a long time.

Derren Nesbitt: I've only seen it twice. Once at the first night and once because my son wanted to see it. I don't watch it more often because I don't seem to improve [audience laughing].

[Cut to Clint Eastwood]

Clint Eastwood would come up to Richard Burton and he would say “Dicky, you know, Dicky, I don't think I need to say all these lines here. Do you want to carry them?” Richard Burton would answer with great Shakespearian gesticulations, “Yeeees, yeeees, I’ll take them”. So in the end, all Clint Eastwood would say is “Yup. No. Yup. Nope”, and you couldn't miss, watching it you know.

The machine guns [went on forever], you know. I was actually on the set when he was doing it “Tat Tat Tat Tat” [simulating a machine gun] until Eastwood said, “Hey, wait! - Wait a minute! Stop!” - So everyone stopped and Brian Hutton asked “What  - what is the matter?”, and Eastwood said, “When do I ever reload?” [audience laughing], and Brian said, “Well, I don't know. It sort of holds up the action….!”

Tony Earnshaw: Burton talks, Eastwood shoots. It sounds like it was a very happy shoot?

Derren Nesbitt: It was a very, very happy shoot. Actually, I said to Brian Hutton “Brian, you know the black uniform? You know that's not right. They never wore the black uniform in 1942” and he said “They never wore the black uniform in 1942?” [repeating me]. I said “No”, he said “Wear it, you look very beautiful”. “One other thing, they didn't have helicopters in 1942”, he said. “They didn't have …” he added some words to this … ”They didn’t have … in 1942?” and I said “No”. He said “They'll never know in Arkansas”. [audience laughing]. Absolutely great.

Tony Earnshaw: About the job on the production?

Derren Nesbitt: It was a job, and you just wanted to get it right. Well, you know, you wanted to get the uniform right - “They didn't wear it in 1942” [joking to the audience]. And all the medals -- because what I got were all wrong -- you know, and I thought “Well we can’t have this. Someone might be around who remembers”. That's all. There was no other feeling at all. You just went into the job.

[Cut to Richard Burton]

I'll say this, he [Richard Burton] drank four bottles of vodka a day. I didn't mind, because I was at the daily rate. “Have some more, Richard!” [joking to the audience]. I was on a daily rate for a long, long time! Also, you'll notice he's got long hair. Elizabeth [Taylor] liked him with long hair. Everybody else had to have army hair, but not Richard. Like, he was really very drunk.
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English actor Derren Nesbitt plays Major von Hapen in Where Eagles Dare" in Bradford, 2009. Picture: Thomas Hauerslev

[Cut to Brian Hutton]

He [Brian Hutton] was a lovely, lovely man and he bought big apartment blocks in Los Angeles and retired. He really didn't like the business ... Not only that, but a very, very nice man. I mean a very, very nice man. Most film directors are really – awful. [audience laughing]. I must tell you a story about when he was there. There's a scene in the big, BIG hallway where I get killed. The whole of the reason that all the MGM [management] is sitting there -  you probably asked about why the whole of MGM is sitting watching this scene - and everyone's like this [nervous] because there's MGM and Brian and Clint Eastwood is standing there, and I'm standing there, and Brian says “OK, can we just do a quick shot? You see that German frau over there?  ... Here, take the gun. Shoot her. You don't need rehearse it. So ... “Action!”", [the] woman runs, “Bang” and he [Eastwood] goes like this [doing a gun twirl]. There's this terrible silence. [audience laughter]

… and Brian Hutton, being the nice man he is, he said “Oh, that's great Clint! Great! But I don't think we need the gun twirl”, and Clint Eastwood said “Oh shit, I thought I was doing a western”. I should have known then what sort of man Clint Eastwood was. [audience laughing]

[Cut to Elizabeth Taylor]

His wife was Elizabeth Taylor; she was on the lot [with us] in Salzburg. What a lovely lady! What a lovely lady. I mean, charming woman, charming women but one of the worst dressed women I've ever seen in my life [laughter]. She was so beautiful! This wonderful, gorgeous woman came in - no side to her at all. It was winter and she was wearing - and they were very popular - pink fur boots and a pink tight top with a fur pink snowcap. So she looked like a squashed snowball. She had the worst language I had ever heard in my life. I had to ask people what it meant. But she was charming.

We were all stuck in Werfen, where the castle was, because there was an avalanche and everybody said, “Ohh, I'm awfully sorry, but we're stuck here for the night”. I just realized I spent the night with Elizabeth Taylor – with 2500 other people! And she said, “Well, we're stuck here for the night?”. And they said, “Well yes, there's an avalanche. We can't get out”, she said. “Right, food! So where is the kitchen and where are the potatoes, and where's the wine?” And then she went in there, peeling potatoes saying “Let's have a meal. Let's keep cheerful”. Amazing woman. Very, very pleasant, nice lady.

[Cut to Gestapo man]

Well, I arrived in Salzburg, and usually, when I go on a film, I usually go to the production manager and I say, “Look, you're gonna have to pay me the hotel bill and everything else like that. You're gonna put me into a five star American hotel. Don't do that! Give me the money, and I'll go and stay in a wonderful Austrian hotel or wherever I am". Which I did. Everybody stayed in the Österreicher Hof and I stayed in Hotel Goldener Hirsch, which had been a hotel for 800 years.

I said to the manager there [in a low voice] “I would very much like to meet a man from the Gestapo”. “But of course” he replied. He always said “But of course”. Had I said I want an elephant, he would say “But of course”. So finally, this man turned up, and he was wearing a long leather coat. He came up and he had a paper bag, and he said “I believe you wanted to speak with me?” and I said “Well yes, you see, because I'm playing, in this film, a Major in the Gestapo, and [whispering] I believe you were in the Gestapo?” “YES, I WAS IN THE GESTAPO” [in a loud voice]. And I said “I'm particularly keen to get all the medals right”. When you see the movie, I've got a medal, a thing that's huge across the uniform, which is in gold. Now there were three classes in this medal. One was brass, which meant that you went into hand-to-hand combat twice. The silver one was when you were in hand-to-hand combat six times. The gold one was you were a homicidal maniac. You threw away the gun, drew two bayonets and went for it. I had all this and he said “Would you like to see my medals?” And I said, “Yes I would, thank you”. So in this paper bag which had BRUT written over it, he went like this [emptying gesture] on the table and then all these medals with the swastika knocked out, because if you knocked the swastika out, you could keep the medal. And he had one! He had one! Wow, and I said “You've got one of these! Where did you get that?” “Stalingrad”, he replied. I said “Very nasty there?” and he replied “Very bad". Then he asked me: "Can I see you in your uniform?”. “Well, I suppose, yes, of course”.
Derren Nesbitt with Thomas Hauerslev (left) and Duncan McGregor (Right) and the Danish "Where Eagles Dare poster in Bradford, 2009. Picture: Thomas Hauerslev

I went upstairs and I got changed into the uniform. I came out and he looked at the uniform and there were tears in his eyes. And he was saying “In 1933 – nineteen ….”, he said “… would you like to see a photograph of me in my uniform?” I said, “Well, I would like that very much”. So into his pocket he took out this big album and on one side there was he in his uniform - like this [Derren posing with right arm in his side] and on the other side was a naked woman by an apple blossom tree. And he said. “This is my wife. This is me”. Yeah, that was a nice lady. He was amazing and he told me about the medals. So what we've got there is absolutely correct.

[Cut to Hotel Goldener Hirsch]

The Golden Hirsh, as I said, had been a hotel for 800 years, and the walls were eight foot thick, and it was run by a Baron and a Baroness. I decided that I was not going to go to the castle to change, because everything that I have [been wearing] is frozen by this time. No way I'm going to take my trousers off in the freezing cold. So, I thought well, when I get up at 4:00 o'clock in the morning, there's no reason why I can't get dressed, walk down the hotel, get in the car and go off. Warm. Comfortable with all the rest of it. So that's what I decided to do. I didn't know that the Baron was a piss artist [a very heavy drinker, ed], and he was always drunk. Now, he had no idea that there was a film being made, because no one else was there [in the hotel], except me. So, at 4:00 o'clock in the morning I walked down this corridor as an SS officer. I see him weaving up towards me, and he had a fit. He collapsed on the floor, and I had to undo his shirt and all this, and knock on the doors and everything. He was Himmlers driver!

[Cut to about location / studio]

We were on local location in Austria most of the time [in Werfen]. Only at the end did we go into Pinewood for little bits and the close-ups of the cable car, and for interiors [of the castle including the big hall]. And of course the cable car wasn't there! The cable car was somewhere else [Ebensee, Austria, ed]. And they left me in the cable car! Yes, I was doing something in the cable car, and everybody went. And it's going like this [waving back and forth]. “Oyyy!, get me out of this cable car!” Finally, they said, “Oh, you're in the cable car”. I said “Yes, I'm in the [mumble] cable car”, and they got me out.

[Cut to Major von Hapen]

Well, if you're playing someone like that, I mean, everybody is a real human being. There's no reason to be snarling nasty, because you're actually quite unpleasant anyway. So be pleasant about it, you know. I mean, his mother loved him, I'm sure. So that's what you do you. You don't try to be …. This is why when I get a script and it says “angry”. I get it out, out, out, out. Otherwise you're angry, you know? So you know you don't do that, you don't put in these problems for you, you just play someone who is real. You understand him. You try to empathize with him, and I mean it's quite different. I mean, I'm Jewish. The Jewish chronicle called me afterwards and said, “How could you play a German?” I said “I do it because I play them very badly”. That seemed to satisfy them [audience laughing]. You might fool another critic. No, but it's a real person. No more, no less, and that's it.
Tony Earnshaw: Are you talking about Düsseldorf?

Derren Nesbitt: “Yes, I always thought ze cathedral was on the other side of ze square”?.

Tony Earnshaw: The look on her face is “Oh shit!” and he knows something is going on.

Derren Nesbitt: Yeah, because, film acting is thinking. And that is what you do. You think it. When you're on stage and there's a lot of people, then you have to present it, so back there [Derren pointing in the direction of the audience members towards the back of Pictureville] and right there, get it. But you don't need to do that on the screen, and that's why it's so fascinating. All you do is think it, and you hope it comes across.

Tony Earnshaw: How much of that was down to you, and the way you conceived the character, and how much of it was you being directed by Brian Hutton?

Derren Nesbitt: Totally mine, that's why he was such a good director [smiling]. Usually you have opposition. I did “Special Branch” and it was a terrible opposition with the producer. A director will suggest things, and so you work it together, but basically it's yours. Because it has to be! Because you can't suddenly have a conception of it, and have someone come in and say “Well, no, I never thought of it that way”. Well, it's too late then. It's too late because the whole thing is part of you by then, because you can't be someone else. So he is me in those circumstances. Hopefully I wouldn't do quite the same things, but I could understand why he did them.

[editorial cut]

Yet you may not be aware of this, but I'm shot in the head, and he [Eastwood] shoots twice, but you only see one shot. I'm shot in the head, and I'm supposed to be shot in the chest. The special effects man comes out and, you know, when they're missing a finger, you worry about special effects [audience laughing]. And so, they put a wooden thing on [my chest] with a metal plate and they put these … like condoms … on you, full of blood, and an explosive charge. And you stand there and Clint Eastwood comes up and he goes "Bang! Bang!" And this thing goes beep ... beep, and Brian Hutton said “Jesus Christ! “beep, beep”. That guy’s is being shot for God's sake to …. Beep, problem ... put a bullet” [Derren Nesbit mimes Brian Hutton’s frustrations]. So all the blood goes down here. Second jacket. “Action! Bang! Bang!” and “Beep ... beep" blood comes up. This happens five times! The last jacket is there. I put the jacket on. By this time … I mean blood is everywhere. So I'm standing there and he goes “Bang! Bang” and it blows a hole from here to here [Derren Nesbit illustrates size of explosion] [Audience laughing]. I mean, it's a 45 and he's Bazookaed me! And because I was very careful I moved my head before it all happened, but it still got me in the eyes and there was blood, pieces of material, scratched and all the rest of it. I, of course, was taken to the emergency at Denham Hospital with a huge bandage around this bullet hole. So here comes an SS officer with a bullet hole in his forehead, a hole in the chest and soaking wet pants, trailing blood everywhere on the hospital floors. In emergencies you hear people with broken arms complaining, and here I come in “Ohh….”, and they said “He's had an accident with a bullet hole”. I'm sitting there and they're all going in with your eyes, and of course, being blind is not that great a way to finish the evening. They're all talking, and they say “It's not punctured. It's not punctured”, because I then found out, if it's punctured, then I go blind.

So I said to the nurse, trying to be terribly British in my SS uniform, “Could you give me something for the pain?” And she said, “Well, we've got some aspirin”. I said “I was thinking more in the lines of morphine”. I was sitting in the London clinic after about four weeks, when my eyes were better, and they brought in a huge thing of fruit from Fortnum and Masons, from Clint Eastwood. In the middle of it was a bottle of Optrex [eye drops solution].

So when you see Clint Eastwood go "Bang! Bang!" and there's only one bullet - the next moment this goes up, and I'm in hospital. So watch for it.

Huge applause!

Final thoughts

Most of the conversation was video filmed that afternoon. A "highlight" about "Where Eagles Dare" was edited and posted on YouTube 10. June 2013. 10 years later, by July 2023, the video had been seen 130.973 times, and produced 168 comments.

A Few Viewer Comments

Derren Nesbitt was probably the most convincing Gestapo Major in all movie cinema. Fantastic actor. I will never forget his amazing performance in this movie.

When you picture an SS officer in your mind's eye, you automatically think of Derren as Von Hapen! His portrayal was so good. My all time favourite war film and Derren was such a great character in it. Funny guy too.

Don't know much about the acting lark but think Mr Nesbitt's Nazi is still one of the scariest, creepiest characters I've ever seen on a screen. And what a superb raconteur.

A great actor indeed and mimicked by millions across the globe. I wake up every morning thankful he is not asking me for my papers.

Fantastic interview! He really is a great storyteller and a nice chap. Von Hapen is certainly in my top 10 of movie villains and every time I hear mention of the Gestapo I think of the creepy, sinister major Von Hapen.

Sit down Colonel! What an amazing character, played by an amazing actor. But here we are talking about such things as Dusseldorf......all from a Jewish British actor, bravo.

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Updated 21-01-24