Born in Hungary in 1944 as Katherina Freiin Schell von Bauschlott, the early life of actress Catherine Schell is more astonishing than the fiction of any of the dozens of film and TV credits she amassed in a career which spanned thirty years. Her father was Baron Paul Schell von Bauschlott, her mother was Countess Katharina Etelka Georgina Elisabeth Teleki de Szek and at the beginning of the Second World War, the family were forced to flee from Hungary when the Nazis confiscated their estates. They lived in relative penury in Austria for a while before immigrating to the United States in 1950 and moving to Germany in 1957 where the young Katherina first developed an interest in acting, a career which would eventually see her living in the United Kingdom where she became better known as Catherine Schell. It’s easy to see why, her connection to Gerry Anderson’s 1970s sci-fi hit Space: 1999 aside (where she portrayed shape-shifting Psychon alien Maya in the second series), Catherine’s autobiography is entitled A Constant Alien.
“If you think about the journey of my life, starting in Europe, over to America, ending up in England and nowadays my life in France, it’s not so much that I felt like an alien, it’s that I actually was an alien,” recalls Catherine. “It’s about knowing that you’re different, you like being where you are but you know you don’t really belong there. But my experiences when I was younger, made me strong and unconsciously willing to accept something different. When you’re dragged from one place to another you have to keep changing and learning different languages and that becomes the norm in the end so I was never frightened of leaving one country and going to the next.”
Settled back in Europe in the early 1960s, one of Catherine’s first screen appearances, now aged 22 and credited as Catharine von Schell, was in the German-language exploitation adventure movie Lana: Queen of the Amazons alongside Anton Diffring. Catherine’s tales of her treatment by the film’s crew, who regarded her as a disposable ‘mere’ female in the film-making process, is one of her books most vivid and remarkable highlights – and it was nearly enough to make her question her decision to become an actress. “We actually filmed in the Amazon,” she recalls, “and on one occasion I was abandoned on a snake-infested island. Another time I was made to cross rivers full of piranha and alligators. I had to do all my own stunts and I was being left on the Amazon during a rainstorm - it’s unbelievable how quickly it comes towards you and how much it falls from the sky! The canoe we were in was sinking and getting deeper and deeper. The production didn’t care, it was incredible. But I was still very young, I wasn’t that experienced although I’d done two tiny parts in films before but I thought ‘If this is what it’s all about, I don’t like it’ and apart from Anton Diffring I didn’t like my fellow actors. I’d not been used to such crude language and filthy jokes; I’d had a good sense of humour when I was a kid but this were horrible and I thought ‘My God, I’m going to be with these people for the rest of my life and if this is going to be my career, I’m going to be running around with such awful people.’ I came to England shortly afterwards to do a film called Traitor’s Gate and suddenly it was more like I imagined it would be. Nobody’s a saint in the business, for heaven’s sake, but at least we know how to speak to each other and how to behave with each other. That changed my mind and although I learned a lot from the Lana experience I never went through such a bad time afterwards. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Lana may have been a steep and gruelling learning curve but once in the UK, Catherine’s career began to pick up steam as she won roles in a number of feature films and TV productions. 1969 was a landmark year with a part in the cult sci-fi title Moon Zero Two followed by her indoctrination into the acting elite known as ‘the Bond girl’ when she appeared as Nancy, one of arch villain Blofeld’s ‘Angels of Death’ in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. “It was my introduction to quite a glamorous world,” says Catherine. “The girls and I all got on really well, we were well looked after and the location in Switzerland was spectacular. But it wasn’t really very taxing. I didn’t really think of it as a ‘big break’. I knew that Bond was enormous but although the part was not very big it was a proper part, I had to say lines, I spent a night with James Bond in his room but I didn’t really think it was going to be that important or that I would be noticed. But in the end, I was noticed because I was asked to work quite a lot thereafter.”
OHMSS is the only Bond movie to star Australian George Lazenby and although the film is now regarded as one of the best of the long-running series, Lazenby himself hasn’t been similarly rehabilitated – his co-star Diana Rigg remains frosty about her working relationship with the short-lived Bond. “I think he has to be given some credit for following Sean Connery in such a popular series and a lot of people still think it’s the best one because it humanises Bond a bit more,” says Catherine. “George wasn’t an actor, he was a model so he didn’t really know how to act and how to behave. He didn’t know about film etiquette and set etiquette and he was a little bit crude but on the other and I’ve met him again – he and I did a convention – and he was charming, quite sweet. We had a few giggles. He changed career, he went into property and made a lot of money.”
Throughout the 1970s, Catherine was in demand for numerous TV series and feature films including 1975’s well-received The Return of the Pink Panther alongside the legendarily-troubled Peter Sellers. She and Sellers became good friends. “Peter was lovely to work with – we enjoyed a platonic relationship long after the filming had ended and I was there, like a little sister to him in a way, when he would ring me up late in the night and ask me to come over because he was so depressed and had to have someone to talk to. So I’d go over and there’d be this litany of complaints and regrets but I just sat and listened to it and when he finished he felt a lot better and I’d go back home! I have a feeling he was bi-polar; he should possibly have taken medication because he really did plummet to the depths and then he flew when he was hyper so I think there was a proper problem there.”
1976 saw Catherine take on one of her most fondly remembered roles when she joined the cast of the revamped second season of Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi saga Space: 1999. “It was a very happy group,” she recalls. “Of course, Martian Landau and Barbara Bain were the stars and they were delightful. Eventually, once we all got to know each other, we spent a lot of time together socially and Martin and I got along brilliantly, we had a very similar sense of humour so we did an awful lot of laughing. Tony Anholt (Tony Verdeschi) and Nick Tate (Alan Carter) were comic characters and there was a lot of good banter between them in the morning which was quite amusing in make-up room. It was an amazingly wonderful year; the crew were fantastic and it was a joy to go to work. But we had to take it seriously and we couldn’t send anything up. On the whole, they had good scripts but there was one with living rocks which I couldn’t help laughing at even though the writer probably thought it was a good idea when he wrote it.”
Space: 1999 came to an end after its second season but Catherine’s shape-shifter Maya nearly found herself with her own spin-off series. “Gerry and Freddie Freiberger mentioned it to me as a possibility but it never happened,” she says ruefully. “Yet oddly enough, much later, there were lots of people who were fans who were close to the series who found out all sorts of information about the series and they’d heard there was going to be a spin-off but sadly it wasn’t to be.”
The Doctor came calling in 1979 when Catherine was cast as the sophisticated Countess Scarlioni in the classic four-part Doctor Who serial City of Death starring Tom Baker. But Catherine had no idea what to expect and no real inclination of just how good the script, by Douglas Adams (under the pen-name David Agnew) really was. “Well, I had nothing to compare it to because I didn’t know Doctor Who. I’d caught half an episode here and there when I’d visit friends and their kids were watching and I knew about if, of course, but I had no real idea and if you don’t watch a programme you can’t make comparisons. As far as I was concerned it was a very good script directed by Michael Hayes and with Julian Glover in the cast, all of that was very good. Tom Baker was very dishevelled, his shirt should have spent some time in the washing machine, but he was all right on set, he was very boisterous, he spoke very loudly and as very full of himself but he was fine, we had no arguments. Everybody’s on their best behaviour. I had no idea that it was ever going to be that popular. I’ve never seen it and I might take a look at it if you say it’s really very good!”
As the 1970s wore into the 1980s the industry began its inexorable change and Catherine found that work was starting to dry up. “From 1979 onwards, I was with Bill Hays, a very well-respected director and he was working all the time and I was doing a lot of work and then slowly it began to peter out until it became a desert and every now and again a little oasis would appear and save us. That had a lot to do with how the business was changing, how television was going shows and the investment in drama was far, far less and those were the people that employed us so that was, for me especially, the hay-day. In the end, my career sort of gave me up! We had to survive and London is a very expensive city.”
Catherine and Bill sold up and moved to France where for a number of years they ran a very popular guest house in Bonneval in France until Bill’s death in 2006. A Constant Alien has allowed Catherine to revisit and possibly even re-evaluate her former career and she tells her story with a refreshing candour and honesty. It’s real warts ‘n’ all reading. “Well, this is how it was!” she says. “I’m talking about what made me and the things that coloured me and affected me so I had to talk about all that and mention it. Maybe some of it is embarrassing but I don’t care, I set out to write a truthful book.”
She clearly enjoyed and relished the actual creative process itself and the discipline of just sitting down and writing. “In my acknowledgements, I mention the cafes and bars I wrote in and that was my discipline. I couldn’t write at home. I had to put it onto the computer at home which was another process but the actual creative stuff happened in these places and I had my notepad - because I did it in long-hand - my books and dictionaries and the bar owners were very sweet and they allowed me to just spread myself around a table. People would come up and look and of course the French are very appreciative of anything that’s artistic so on occasion I was bothered by people who wanted to know what I was writing, why I was doing it by hand when I should have a computer, why was I writing in English and I just wanted them to go away so I could just get on with it! I actually wrote another book before which is going to come out later, it’s the French adventure, post-acting, so I was used to it. I’ve always liked to write. I put pen to paper many times but nothing has developed from it. I’ve written poetry and short stories and it usually happens immediately; I’m not the sort of person to suffer writer’s block, it just goes on the page and I write for a good hour-and-a-half without stopping and that’s about eight pages which is pretty good.”
What about a return to the acting career she clearly enjoyed for thirty years? “Well, I wouldn’t know until something was offered to me so I don’t have a wall against it. If it happens, it happens; I read a good script and I say ‘Yes’. I would have to make sure that my animals are well catered for and looked after because I’ve got two horses and three cats and I can’t just up and go. But it’s not something I hanker for.”
Today, living a quiet life in France socialising with friends, painting, writing and looking after her animals, Catherine has no regrets about her career. “I was once told that I would have to sacrifice and completely concentrate only on my career and every decision had to do with my career and my acting and I have to say that I did not do that. I was very fortunate to be offered work but I still had my private loves and I did not eat, drink and sleep acting. I had friends who did and one of them, even today, is working fabulously but she was like that, there wasn’t a decision she made where her acting wasn’t the most important part of it. I didn’t do that and I don’t regret it at all and I can’t blame anybody but me. My career was how I earned my living but it was not something I was completely enveloped by or totally passionate about. It wasn’t a religion for me, it was simply a job.”
Catherine’s autobiography, A Constant Alien, is available now from Fantom Film Books.