McCall's:  The Surprising Stars of "Remington Steele" - Pierce Brosnan 


 
By Rosemary Ellis
August 1984
 
Pierce Brosnan plays a debonair bachelor on TV, but in private he is a devoted husband and father of three. "There are sides of me people haven't seen yet," he says

The man sitting behind the desk, staring moodily out the window, is not Remington Steele-slick. The dazzling good looks are there, but where is the smooth, sophisticated chatter?

Not only is the demeanor different, Pierce Brosnan is dressed in a fashion that would set Remington Steele's perfectly placed hair on end. The namesake of the top-rated television mystery is sporting two days of beard stubble that casts the bottom half of his face in sooty shadow; the man so at ease in a TV tux is wearing a faded plaid shirt tucked into gray cords and a red suede bomber jacket. And propped on the desk-at a time when urban cowboy has long since been put out to pasture-is the piece de resistance: a pair of silver-trimmed, fancy-stitched cowboy boots. This, from the man one critic described as having "returned style, romance and drawing-room wit to the TV mystery."

He catches me eying the boots; the feet are promptly placed on the floor, and he flushes. "I shouldn't put my feet up," he says in a soft English-Irish accent. "You're looking at my feet." Swiveling his chair around so his back is to me, he announces only half-jokingly. "I'll face the other way. That way you won't have to look at my boots."

No matter what he's wearing now, there is little doubt that Pierce Brosnan has made Remington Steele king of TV detectives, and unlike his tough-talking counterparts, he has managed to do it as a perfect gentleman. Steele has continental charm and a charisma that won't quit. He is style personified, from his handmade Italian shoes to the carefully knotted silk cravat.

Perhaps the only style this man-the real, live one-and the character he plays might share is in jewelry. One of Brosnan's wrists is draped in a gold ID bracelet; the other is strapped in an understatedly elegant watch. Yet even there is a conflict. Steele is confirmed in his bachelorhood, despite romantic interludes with co-star/sleuth Laura Holt (played by Stephanie Zimbalist), but on Brosnan's left hand, third finger, is a heavy gold band.

For Brosnan, the ring represents not only a departure from the shaky status of most Hollywood marriages, but a security built on a solid family relationship that was missing from his own childhood. After being deserted by his carpenter father when he was barely a year old, Pierce's mother left her child with his grandparents in County Meath, Ireland, and went to study nursing in London. After his grandparents died, Pierce was shuffled from an aunt and uncle to family friends, finally landing in a school that emphasized staunch Catholicism enforced by harsh discipline. "Religion," he remembers, "was rammed down my throat. It was pretty brutal. I've got some resentments."

The resentment comes not only from the strict religious environment but also from the loneliness. Although his mother visited occasionally, Pierce mainly remembers sitting in his aunt's pub, overhearing conversations he was not part of, feeling lonely and deserted. "But maybe," he muses, "that's where the acting comes from-from spending so much time alone with your thoughts."

For whatever reason, Pierce grew into a shy, reticent child-qualities still reflected in his reserved manner. When he was 11, his mother remarried and sent for her son. Clutching rosary beads' and an aspirin bottle filled with holy water, he arrived in London to find a new family and a new freedom.

Settling in with his mother and the stepfather he describes as "a kind, gentle Scot," Pierce entered school, excelling in English and art. While he was working as a commercial artist for Harrod's department store, he attended an acting class one evening at the invitation of a co-worker.

From the beginning he knew he had found what he had been looking for. He quit his job and, as is often true of young actors, "I starved. I washed dishes - anything." And, although they never met, Pierce recalls with a touch of pride that he and Jeremy Irons worked for the same cleaning service: Domestics Unlimited. "We would," he says succinctly, "clean people's houses."

Ultimately, he was accepted for study into London's Drama Center, and from there went on to perform a repertoire from Shakespeare to Noel Coward, including the lead in the British production of Tennessee Williams' Red Devil Battery Sign. He still treasures the telegram from Williams, now framed, that reads: "Thank God for you, my dear boy."

If Tennessee Williams appreciated the young actor, the tall, tanned blonde whom Pierce met at a party in 1970 did not. With hair shorn short and 20 pounds added to his frame for a part, Pierce's looks did little to charm Australian-born actress Cassandra Harris. But his persistence did. After leaving champagne and flowers on her doorstep, the style and charm he now evidences finally won out. It was the start of a partnership that has lasted 14 years, producing Charlotte, 11, Christopher, ten; and, most recently, Sean William, born last September. Of the three births, Sean's is the only one he has been present for. "It was very serene, very gentle," Pierce recalls. "We both wept." 

Meanwhile, the career was moving. After the Williams play, Pierce landed a small part in the 1980 movie The Mirror Crack'd, with Elizabeth Taylor, and then the lead in ABC's 1981 mini-series, "The Manions of America." The part brought Pierce more than notoriety: It took him back to his native Ireland and connected him with the father who had exited 29 years before. A cousin, spotting Pierce in all the publicity, called to say that he believed his uncle, Tom Brosnan, was Pierce's father. Understandably, the news was disconcerting. "I had never even heard my father's name," he remembers. "I hadn't a clue if he was alive or dead. And I had gotten over the unhappiness of my childhood." Unable to sort through his mixed emotions, he decided not to call immediately.

A year passed, and Pierce, thinking of his own children and encouraged by Cassandra, at last called his father. The conversation was strained not only by telephone static but by the emotions father and son were trying to squelch. When both men began to break down, the call was quickly terminated, and Pierce instead wrote to his father, telling him recollections of his childhood, of his mother's remarriage, of his own family and of his new success. His father wrote back, and they plan to get together the next time Pierce is in Ireland.

When "Manions" became big news in America, Pierce knew it was time to hit Hollywood. The move was no easy decision. The Brosnans had just bought a house in Wimbledon, and it was necessary to take a second mortgage on it to finance the trip to Los Angeles. Again, it was Cassie who urged him to action. "I was worried about the money, the kids. . . but she encouraged me to risk it." Staving off his banker with promises of certain employment waiting for him in America (“a total, shameless lie”), he left for L.A.

The risk paid off. Brosnan arrived for his Remington Steele interview elegantly dressed in a suit and tie, but driving a beat-up rented Pacer. He jokes that the producers, seeing the car, hired him either for his sheer nerve or out of pity. And as the show begins its third season, Remington Steele has become the sexiest shamus on TV, all the more attractive for his understated chic and his sometimes bumbling, but always charming, manner.

But try to talk about the Steele charisma, and the 32-year-old actor is quick to deflect the conversation. His favorite subject is Cassandra. "She," he says, "is wonderful. She is a great spirit in life. She's got vitality and energy and humor." Her husband is not alone in his opinions. Cassie was featured in Lord Lichfield's book The World's Most Beautiful Women, played a Bond lady in For Your Eyes Only and was even on “Steele” last year, guest-starring as an old flame of Remington's.

Is there any trouble in this paradise? "No," he says, "but adjustments - yes. The people here are different. We've missed our friends. And episodic television is pretty barbaric on the social life. In fact, you don't have one." When "Steele" is taping, 14-hour-plus days are not unusual, making the little time Pierce is able to spend with his family all the more precious. Infringements on that time are not welcome. And, as the show's popularity grows, so does the inevitable group of hangers-on. "We've become more wary, I suspect, of who our friends are and why they want to be our friends." He smiles a little sadly. "And we have grown" - he searches for the diplomatic word - "protective."

The move to Los Angeles created problems for the children also. Whatever scars were incurred in his own youth now obviously contribute to Pierce's sensitivity as a father. When they first moved to Los Angeles, he admits, "There were times when it was painful to come home and see Charlotte and Christopher going through traumas at school, being rejected by their peers because they were different. I had to wonder, Have I done the right thing by bringing them here? But," he quickly points out, "you have to look at the positive and say, Yes, I did do the right thing."

The life, while good, is much different. In England, the Brosnan children had the freedom of going down the street and asking playmates to come out, ride bikes or take the dog for a walk. Not so in Los Angeles. "We're up in Hollywood Hills," Pierce explains, "with an electric gate and a swimming pool. And it's wonderful. . . but it can wear a bit thin after a while."

Yet the seclusion and strained work pace have, Pierce feels, strengthened the family. "When we went to L.A.," he says, "we banded together more as a family. Cassie and I did, too, as man and wife, as partners and friends. We thought, We just really have to hold on to each other and keep a tight reign here of what is happening with our lives, not to let it get away from us. And know why we're here and what we want from it."

At the inevitable question-what do you want?-he sighs, a little exasperated. "I . . . I want to be able to provide for my growing family. I want to make as much of this opportunity as I possibly can. I don't always want to be stuck in a television series-I want to go on to movies. But the Steele image," he says ruefully, "blinkers a lot of producers and directors. They think, He's just suave and sophisticated and all that kind of baloney." He leans forward in his seat, and for the first time the volume of his voice increases. "But you have to reeducate people. People here say, 'Oh, you must have done a lot of modeling before you did Remington Steele.' " He jabs at the desk’s edge with his left fist. "I've never modeled in my life! I am an actor. And down the road there are other sides in my acting which people haven't seen yet. I hope I'll be allowed to show those sides." The face relaxes; the voice returns to its soft, steady volume. "But I've got everything going for me."

Indeed. "Steele" is a third-season smash, and his recent role in the PBS Masterpiece Theatre production of "Nancy Astor," playing first husband Robert Shaw, garnered excellent reviews. A feature film, as well as a TV movie, is in the works. The Hollywood transplant is taking to the soil quite well.

"I'm just -" the brow knits in frustration- "happy," he finally manages. "I'm extremely happy, I really am happy."

Smiling at his own redundance, he kicks back his chair and the boots go back up on the desk.

"How's that?" he asks, with a smile as charming as any Remington Steele ever produced. 

That is fine, Pierce. 
 


Interview transcription and photos courtesy of Ellen


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