“I paid to be psychoanalysed when I was 20. It gave me a lot of understanding of other people.”
TRQ: John Fraser, Born March 18, 1931
Actor, novelist, and matinee idol John Fraser, most widely known for his roles in The Dam Busters (1955), The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), El Cid (1961), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1961), transcended his working-class Glasgow roots to become a matinee idol and a renaissance man. He worked alongside renowned actors like Peter Sellers, Billie Whitelaw, Catherine Deneuve, and appeared in various films and television productions, such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and BBC Scotland’s Truth or Dare (1996). He laid bare the ups and downs of his life in his flamboyantly candid and entertaining memoir, Close Up (2004).
John Alexander Fraser was born on March 18, 1931, in Glasgow, Scotland. He grew up in a working-class family on the Mosspark council estate, facing poverty and challenging circumstances. His father, John, was an engineer’s merchant whose business had floundered, leading to alcoholism and mental health issues. Fraser’s mother, Christina (née MacDonald), passed away a few months after his father’s death in 1945. John had two elder sisters, Chris and Jean, with whom he moved to the Battlefield area of Glasgow, living with an aunt, and attending the High School of Glasgow.
As a child, John Fraser was imaginative and resilient, possessing a natural affinity for the arts. Despite the challenges of growing up in poverty and dealing with his father’s drunken rages, he maintained his spirit and determination. His early experiences likely contributed to the empathetic nature and ability to connect with diverse characters he showcased throughout his acting career.
Fraser’s education began at the High School of Glasgow, where he successfully auditioned for BBC Radio’s Children’s Hour. He made his stage debut in 1947 as a loincloth-clad page in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, working with the Glasgow-based Park Theatre Company. He then found work with BBC Radio Scotland before undertaking national service.
After completing National Service with the Royal Corps of Signals in the Rhine, Fraser joined the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the early 1950s. By the age of 20, Fraser had found an agent. In 1952 he debuted on television as David Balfour in a six-part adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, alongside Patrick Troughton
Following this, Fraser had uncredited appearances in Titanic (1953) and The Desert Rats (1953) before being cast in Valley of Song (1953). He took the lead role in a BBC production of Troilus and Cressida (1954) and appeared in The Dam Busters and Touch and Go (1955). Fraser sang with Janette Scott in The Good Companions (1957), which led to his stint as a pop singer, complete with a fan club and appearances on TV shows such as Six-Five Special.
Fraser performed in notable films like The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), earning a BAFTA nomination for his role as Bosie, and Tunes of Glory (1960), alongside Alec Guinness.
Growing up during a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Fraser faced the challenges of navigating his identity in a society deeming all forms of sexual expression as sinful. The societal pressures of the time significantly impacted Fraser’s life and experiences, which he later candidly shared in his memoir. In the early stages of his career, Fraser encountered challenges related to his sexuality and societal expectations, as homosexuality was still illegal in Britain.
Fraser sought help from a psychiatrist to change his sexual orientation, as he appreciated women but wasn’t interested in intimate relationships with them. Despite his efforts, he ultimately accepted his identity as a “confirmed bachelor.” He experienced a loving and happy relationship, but societal norms prevented them from living together openly. Fraser believed no one should be unwillingly outed, and even noted that Sir Ian McKellen didn’t publicly come out as gay until later in his career when he transitioned to more mature roles.
Fraser appeared in El Cid and took the title role in an American TV production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, both in 1961. In 1962, he starred alongside Peter Sellers in Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. He then appeared in the 1964 TV adaptation of The Lady of the Camellias with Billie Whitelaw, following in the footsteps of Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo, who had starred in Camille 30 years prior.
In 1965, Fraser played the murder victim in Roman Polanski’s English language debut, Repulsion, and appeared in Operation Crossbow and the Sherlock Holmes movie A Study in Terror, where he portrayed Lord Carfax. In 1968, he took on the role of Isadora Duncan’s biographer in the film Isadora.
For Fraser, the casting couch phenomenon reared its head early in his career. This exploitative practice has been a long-standing issue in Hollywood and other entertainment circles and has affected not only female starlets but also male actors. Fraser encountered gay producer James Woolf, who had previously propelled Laurence Harvey to stardom in Room at the Top (1959). Fraser, however, was unwilling to trade his body for movie roles and did not engage in a sexual relationship with Woolf. Consequently, he missed out on the lead role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Later, Fraser spent a weekend in Paris with bisexual director Tony Richardson, who was considering him for a role in the film adaptation of Look Back in Anger(1958). Unfortunately, Fraser was ultimately passed over in favour of the more traditionally masculine and working-class Richard Burton.
Fraser contributed to the public’s awareness of the thalidomide drug disaster with his novel, Clap Hands If You Believe in Fairies (1969), and authored In Place of Reason (1985), and a play called Cannibal Crackers. The Bard in the Bush(1978) is Fraser’s memoir recounting his experiences traveling the world with the London Shakespeare Company.
Fraser also co-founded the London Shakespeare Group, which, sponsored by the British Council and Japanese businesses, toured internationally for over 15 years, bringing Shakespeare’s works to cities across Africa, China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Europe.
Fraser’s final regular TV role was as Dr. Lawrence Golding in all 47 episodes of the drama series, The Practice (1985). His last appearance was in the BBC Scotland-produced Screen One feature, Truth or Dare (1996).
In 2004, Fraser published Close Up, the vivid memoir in which he bares his soul, revealing the highs and lows of his life with an unapologetic and colourful candour. Actor Richard E Grant describes the book as a “supa-candid-gossip-expo” that delves into the lives of Dirk Bogarde, Sophia Loren, Bette Davis, and Rudolf Nureyev during the sixties, urging readers to “grab and gobble it!” Fraser’s memoir packs tantalising stories including his passionate and fleeting affair with Soviet ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, and a memorable visit to Bogarde’s mansion.
Bogarde confided in him about the waning physical aspect of his same-sex relationship with long-term companion Tony Forwood, explaining that he refrained from seeking casual lovers because of concerns over publicity. The top British romantic screen star of the post-war era revealed to the younger actor the secret substitute that ignited his passion: high-revving a stationary Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his loft, while fixing his eyes on a poster of himself. There, he dressed as a seductive Spanish bandit in the 1961 film The Singer Not the Song, his body adorned in tight, crotch-hugging leather trousers that left little to the imagination:
“This is my playroom,” his (Bogarde) voice thick with feeling. He climbed on, kick-started and rode for 10 minutes,” his expression like the rapture on the face of a medieval saint”. Afterwards, he slumped over the handlebars. Dismounting, wiping sweat from his forehead, he said: “Now you know”.
“It looked like a Narcissus fantasy come to life,” according to Fraser.
In his memoir, Fraser conveys a deep sense of frustration with those who deliberately hide their true selves, especially with Bogarde. Bogarde consistently denied his homosexuality, which Fraser found disheartening given the tender and loving relationship Bogarde shared with Tony Forwood. Forwood had made the hard decision to leave his wife and children to be with Bogarde, yet Bogarde never publicly acknowledged their partnership as anything more than professional, merely referring to Forwood as his business manager.
Fraser dubbed the British star Laurence Harvey “a whore,” hinting at Harvey’s unabashed willingness to do whatever it took to succeed in the movies and described Woolf’s habit of preying on young men after enticing them with promises of stardom. According to Fraser, Nureyev was scruffy, often smelling of sweat rather than cologne, and even neglecting to shower after performances. These seemingly unappealing habits made Nureyev more irresistible to Fraser, who found the dancer’s lack of vanity appealing.
Fraser’s memoir gave readers an unflinching look into his personal life, including his relationships with some of the biggest names in entertainment. While he was initially hesitant to reveal details of his affairs, he eventually embraced his sexuality and wrote about it openly. However, he showed some consideration for the privacy of his former partners by not always using their real names. He even left out one of his major relationships to protect their anonymity.
Fraser found a stable and loving relationship with his partner Rod Pienaar, a painter, that lasted over 27 years. In his later years, they moved to Tuscany and then returned to London to enjoy a quieter pace of life. Fraser passed away at 89 after a year-long battle with oesophageal cancer, for which he refused chemotherapy, on November 7, 2020. Rod survives him.
Fraser’s candidness about his experiences and the challenges he faced as a gay man in show business has paved the way for more openness and acceptance in the industry. His willingness to share his story is a reminder that everyone’s journey is unique and living openly and authentically is an essential part of finding happiness and fulfilment.
Through his acting and writing, John Fraser he brought attention to the experiences of gay men in show business and helped to pave the way for greater representation and acceptance in society and the entertainment industry. Through his talent and candour, Fraser continues to inspire future generations and make a lasting impact on the entertainment industry and beyond.
About the Authors
Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.
Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore.