It was A day of mixed emotions for chart-topping singer turned film star John Leyton.
He’d arrived at mac Birmingham full of the joys of life to help promote a new Steve McQueen book for city author Richard Sydenham.
And then he left feeling a little bit subdued after joining an audience to watch a 50th anniversary screening of The Great Escape in the cinema.
“I haven’t seen the film for years,” says 77-year-old John.
“And a part of me wishes I hadn’t seen it this time because so many of the other friends I made on set are now dead.”
As soon as the film opens, John is on screen with Charles Bronson (Danny ‘Tunnel King’) and by the end, when they are in a boat, only one other character has managed to escape along with them – James Coburn’s Sedgwick ‘The Manufacturer’ on a bicycle.
In 1961, John had a No 1 hit with Johnny Remember Me – produced by Joe Meek of The Tornados’ Telstar fame – but The Great Escape was his debut film.
“Why Steve McQueen’s fictitious character Hilts was written in I really don’t know and nobody else knows either,” says John.
“Steve himself was not doing much on set and, as the main star of the film, he wasn’t too happy about it.
“We had to shoot around his stuff, out of sequence.
“He would stay with his wife and young child, Chad, now grown up of course.
“People would think he was always messing around, but he was really quite the family man.
“At the time, James Garner was far better known because of his TV series, Maverick. Years later he was in The Rockford Files.
“We didn’t see too much of Steve McQueen on set because he wasn’t in scenes with me, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Richard Attenborough.”
To join this stellar cast, Essex-born John didn’t even have to audition.
Recommended by Paul Wilkins, a Hollywood agent he’d never even met, he went to the Savoy Hotel to meet director John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957).
John was sitting behind a desk with his producers.
“He asked me what I’d done and if I knew Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen from another of his films, The Magnificent Seven,” says John.
“The next thing, he turned to one of his producers and said: ‘I think he’d be good as the Tunnel King (Willie) alongside Charles Bronson.
“So I’d got the part even though I hardly knew what the film was about and didn’t know what I was being offered.
“I didn’t even have to audition.
“John just pushed the script across the desk and said: ‘Welcome aboard!’ and I thought: ‘Well, that was easy!’.
To get this far, after just a year at the Theatre Royal, York, John had won a part in a Granada TV series called Biggles, playing Ginger.
At this point, his career might have taken a different twist altogether – if he’d become a character like Ken Barlow on Coronation Street.
“I used to know the show’s creator Tony Warren and was talking to him in a pub,” says John.
“He told me he had this idea for a series, a street, with a pub, in Manchester.
“I didn’t like the sound of it, so I said: ‘Good luck with that!’
“But when I saw Coronation Street on screen, I thought it was sensational.
“Meanwhile, I’d been getting sacks of fan letters from girls, some of whom were saying: ‘You look like a pop star. Why don’t you make a record?’
“If you ask an actor something like ‘Can you sing?’ he doesn’t say ‘No’.
“Joe Meek was a troubled man, but I never had any problems with him, perhaps because I was an actor not a singer.”
John starred in another TV series, called Harper’s West One (1961-63), was about a fictional department store in London.
It was a decade ahead of Are You Being Served? (1972), but it also starred future EastEnders’ queen Wendy Richard (whose song Come Outside also reached No 1 in 1962 – three months before Telstar).
“I made a one-off appearance playing a pop star called Johnny St Cyr (Sincere), who opens a record department,” John laughs.
“I’d already recorded Johnny Remember Me so I thought why doesn’t Johnny St Cyr sing that here.
“It became an enormous plug and almost went straight to No 1.
“I had to remember, though, that I’d come into the business to be an actor and that’s what I wanted to be.
“And that’s when my London agent Robert Stigwood said I should get representation in Hollywood.”
John attributes part of his success in life – and in The Great Escape – to having had the rough edges knocked off him during National Service.
“I did two years of National Service from the age of 18,” he says.
“The years are really flying by now which is quite scary but, looking back, it was a good thing even though it felt like 22 years at the time.
“I didn’t want to do it, but ended up enjoying myself.
“A lot of the people there were from quite troubled or humble backgrounds. The Army, or whatever you went into, sorted a lot of young people out.
“It would teach you about trades, comradeship and discipline. I was in towards the end before they abandoned it.
“I thought: ‘I might as well see some of the world’ so I put myself down for the Far East.
“In the second year I ended up in the Directorate of Manpower Planning in the Berkeley Square War Office.
“In the first year, we had basic training and you got to fire live rounds. That was great fun. Machine guns, too... all were good, whether it was moving targets or still targets. My brother saw active service during the Second World War in Italy in a tank and thankfully came back.”
As actors get older, the number of decent parts tends to become fewer and fewer with exceptions like Dame Judi Dench and knights Ian McKellen and Michael Caine.
So, apart from playing Callum Dixon in Telstar, Nick Moran’s 2009 biopic about Joe Meek’s life, he’s now back on the road as a singer.
“I’m comfortably off – not rich like some of my contemporaries – so I don’t have to do it, but I really enjoy it,” says John.
“I sing songs from the late 50s and early 60s. There’s a window there of timeless tunes.
“They include Buddy Holly’s Oh Boy and That’ll Be The Day and Treat Me Nice and All Shook Up by Elvis.
“People were teenagers then are now in their mid 60s, but they bring their children and their grandchildren, too.
“By 1964, The Beatles were changing pop music forever. That’s the year I did a national UK tour – including playing Birmingham – with The Rolling Stones supporting me!
“I didn’t sing again after that for many years.
“I have always loved film and to do any more would be wonderful. The trouble is, I don’t look like a 77-year-old should and I don’t look right for a 56-year-old, either!
“I could play a retired rock star who comes back and does it again at 70!
“I was born in Frinton-on-Sea on February 17, 1936, not 1935 like Wikipedia says.
“I don’t know where they’ve got that from, although when I was No 1 in 1961 it was like I was too old to be a pop star at 25 even if I didn’t look that old.
“I was told ‘You’d better lose a few years’, so I then said I was born in 1939 and went down from 25 to 22 overnight.”
Married to wife Dini (Diana) for 47 years, they have a daughter called Lara Leyton, a trained lawyer now running a Caribbean hotel business called Sabre Rock.
Son Dominic Leyton, has just published a children’s book called The Magic Walnut, about a mouse helping a swan that can’t fly.
“He wrote a story about teenage drug addicts that became a film, but unfortunately when a film is made on the cheap it shows,” says John.
Surprisingly, perhaps, John has never been on Desert Island Discs but would jump at the chance.
“I think I’d have a piece of classical music sandwiched in between something from the early days of both Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
“That would be reasonable!”
John Leyton is one of the contributors to a new book called Steve McQueen: The Cooler King (£16.95, Big Star Creations) by Birmingham fan and sports journalist Richard Sydenham.
The paperback includes 100 exclusive interviews about people who knew the star and has been released in line with the 50th anniversary of his most iconic film The Great Escape.
The book is focused on the 50-year life of McQueen (1930-80) through his movie career. There are around 100 exclusive interviews with famous Hollywood personalities such as Jacqueline Bisset, Eli Wallach, Robert Wise, Robert Mulligan, LeVar Burton and Martin Landau, while Robert Vaughn has written the foreword.
John Leyton launched the book at mac Birmingham where Richard was joined by sporting friends Gary Shaw (Aston Villa) and ex-cricketers Dennis Amiss (England), Mushtaq Mohammed (Pakistan) and Ron Headley (West Indies).
The Great Escape (PG, 168 minutes) has 50th anniversary screenings at The Electric Cinema, Station Street from 11am and 8.45pm on Sunday, December 22 and at 1.30pm on December 26.
To book John Leyton as a singer, call Steve Etherington on 0208 943 1559.