Jungle VIP: The Secret Behind Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Mat Colegate is granted an audience with the reclusive star of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, which is reissued by the BFI this week

Four decades is a long time to keep a secret. Sure, that silence has been bought – and at a pretty price too, if the gated Surrey mansion that my taxi rolls up to on a crisp October morning is anything to go by – but secrets burn for a long time, and after a while it’s going to take more than all the bananas money can buy before the truth finally gets flung into the face of the public.

I’m in Surrey to interview one of the great unsung actors of the 20th century, a craftsman who has had a hand in some of the major cinematic epochs of our time. From his discovery by Stanley Kubrick to his later retreat from the pressures of the entertainer’s life, Cassius T. Flynn has become the ultimate actor’s actor. He’s an actor so actor-ly that no actual actor has ever heard of him; a craftsman so crafty that his craft is craftily occulted. As I’m sworn to secrecy I can’t reveal the exact details of how I came to hear of his incredible story, suffice to say it involved sitting for days in an improbably high tree house and that my informant lacked the required thumbs to send a text message.

I give a sharp knock at the door of the elegant mansion, which blends perfectly into its genteel surroundings, and am only left waiting a few seconds before Cassius himself – tall, wearing a silk dressing gown and with the slight odour of expensive old-fashioned pomade – opens the door. He grips my hand in a predictably formidable handshake and ushers me into an immaculately appointed drawing room, furnished with two tasteful sofas and a small climbing frame. Reclining on one of the sofas he runs his hands through his magnificent mane of greying hair and politely enquires of my day so far, before pouring me a cup of tea (earl grey, naturally) and enquiring as to what I want to know. I decide to start at the beginning:

So it’s been very hard to research what kind of questions to ask as there’s so much secrecy surrounding you. I suppose I should start at the beginning. Where are you from?

Well that’s a hard question to answer because I don’t actually know! I haven’t the foggiest! My earliest memories are just a blur of foliage, wire fencing the occasional horrified face. I was discovered in a zoo, you see.

Do you know which one?

Whipsnade. What on earth Stanley Kubrick was doing in Whipsnade zoo I have no idea, but I suppose I’m very fortunate that he was.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit here. Did you know your parents at all?

Not a jot, something that I used to be very angry about. I was extremely angry about it actually; hence the blur that should have been the 70s.

So Stanley Kubrick discovered you, how did you attract his attention?

Well, you have to remember that Stan was a very particular fellow; very particular indeed. It was often extremely difficult to read his moods and fathoming what he required from people could be all but impossible, let alone when they hailed from a completely different species. All I can really remember was acting up in front of him – I’ve always been a bit of a show-off. He seemed to enjoy that, said I had a melancholy aspect that reminded him of Kirk Douglas. Then he sort of… well, adopted me.

There and then?

You have to remember Stan’s obsessive nature. It wasn’t enough for his just to see something, he had to own it. I suppose he thought he could own me. He later found out that wasn’t true. We did later reconcile but there were always problems.

Such as?

Well you’ve heard the stories of how demanding he could be with actors?


Take after take after take after take. He may as well have given me a pair of bloody cymbals to bang together. That scene with the bone in 2001? The really famous one? Have you any idea how long I was walloping that carcass? Four and a half hours. And of course we perceive time a little differently to your lot so it felt like a ruddy aeon. Months he’d been working on me, keeping me engaged, teaching me to read and all that – Nietzsche mostly – all in search of the mother of all authentic performances, and all that work was nearly undone.

What happened?

Well, I’m not proud but I, shall we say, reverted to type. It wasn’t just a bone that got flung in the air that morning, I can tell you, to the eventual ruin of some rather expensive camera equipment and the spoiling of a lot of people’s lunches.

How did your co-stars take to you?

Stanley didn’t tell them, and I was under strict instructions to keep it a secret. Imagine the kerfuffle! No, I think Stanley was right about that. Mind you, he treated the fellows in the suits a lot worse that he treated me. You know the chap that gets pounced on by that leopard?


He had absolutely no idea that was going to happen. Came as a complete surprise, poor sod. Talk about an authentic performance!

So what did you think of the finished film?

Well, you’ll understand that I have a somewhat…different view of ‘human evolution’ than either Stanley or Arthur C. Clarke – who’s a lovely man, incidentally. I confess a fair amount went over my head, but I think the opening sequence is one of the best war films ever. It really does have it all: action, romance… it’s almost a shame it has to go into space really. Not a popular view, I fear.

And then at the Oscars that year there was the irony of John Chambers winning an honorary award for the make-up he’d done for Planet Of The Apes

Oh we had a real laugh about that. I didn’t attend the ceremony as I was on a trekking holiday on Dartmoor, but I called Stanley the day after for a chuckle. It was a shame, in some ways, as the make-up for 2001 was magnificent.

But you weren’t wearing any…

Nonsense! I was slathered in the bloody stuff. I was wearing more eyeliner than a bad day full of Brigitte Bardots.

So what came after 2001?

The 70s… oh dear me, that was a tumultuous decade. You have to understand that it wasn’t just me that was indulging, there was an entire panoply of excess available for anyone who cared to look for it. I had some wonderful times, mind you, but they were a bit of a blur. Made some excellent friends, too.

Such as?

Well, you’re familiar with Robert Vaughn, I take it?

Of course.

Marvellous fellow. We bonded almost immediately, as two gentlemen of similarly refined tastes are wont to do. It led to some terrific adventures which I probably shouldn’t go into here. Suffice to say that I would like to apologise to everyone who was working for P&O Ferries on boxing day, 1971! It was around that time, of course, that myself and Robert came up with our wickedest wheeze.

That being?

(Chuckles) well I suppose the statute of limitations has run out on this one, so no one will be too angry. You remember that after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert did a marvellous programme called The Protectors? Well, just before filming started Robert called me up: “Cassie…” he said “I’ve got to get out of the country for a bit…” – something of a common occurrence for our Robert in those days – “but I’ve got this bloody caper series coming up and I’m contracted to do it. Would you mind helping out?”

You don’t mean..?

Nobody noticed! Not a single bloody person! Not the crew, not the critics, no one. They didn’t even twig when they saw how much difficulty I was having piloting a speed boat, let alone firing a hand gun! You would have thought the somewhat single-minded trailer requests would have tipped them off, but no! 52 episodes and not one person thought to mention how much more hirsute Robert seemed. God, those days were fun. That was my last major role, really.

So were there years of limbo?

God no, the work just kept on coming in! There were difficulties, of course. Not getting picked for Gorillas In The Mist was a bit of a blow, but it was more than made up for by all the absurd things I got to do in Scent Of A Woman. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade? Well, you couldn’t expect a dignified gentleman like Sean Connery to do all that leaping around. I was happy to lend a hand, and very happy with the pay cheques that came along with it.

Any regrets?

Auditioning for Platoon. That was a bloody stupid idea. And, let’s face it, Dangerous Liaisons was always going to be a stretch. I must admit to being a bit miffed not to have been asked to appear in any of The Expendables films as well. Every other bleeder got a go. Not Steven Seagal though, I was pleased to note – awful bloody man.

With that our time is up and Cassius politely informs me that he has a busy day ahead of him. “I need to answer some correspondence, and then I thought I might climb up a branch and masturbate. Retirement does have its perks.” He shows me out, bestows another crushing handshake and is gone; retreating back into his home and sanctuary. Ladies and gentlemen: Cassius T. Flynn.

2001: A Space Odyssey is out in selected cinemas now

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today