Vladek Sheybal (1923-1992)

Wladislaw Sheybal was born in March 1923, into a Catholic family at Zgierz, near Lodz in Poland, the son of a university professor. Imprisoned in a concentration camp during the war, Sheybal escaped only to be captured and to escape once again. During each spell in prison, he was forced to face a mock execution as part of the Nazi ‘punishment by terror’.

As an actor, Sheybal’s first major role came in 1957 with a part in Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, a film about the Polish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, but the increasingly Soviet face of his native country dismayed Sheybal, and in 1958 he fled his homeland and re-established his career in Britain. He arrived almost destitute, unable to speak a word of English and knowing no-one.

His first employment in London was as a dishwasher in the kitchens of a drama college, where

he eventually began to teach acting to the students who recognised him from Kanal. He learnt English and gradually involved himself in the London theatrical world, staging Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina for the Oxford University Opera Club. This led to a job with the BBC, directing

opera for television, and in 1960, he became joint director of a theatre company based at the Little Theatre, Bromley, where his first production – Donald Howarth’s All Good Children – was promoted to Hampstead Theatre Club.

Sheybal had originally wanted to be a romantic actor, but the course of his acting career was laid down by his friend Bette Davis, whom he met in Hollywood. She told him, “Just be the bitch, darling. You’ll never stop working then.” In 1962, on Sean Connery’s request, he took the role of the villainous Kronsteen in the James Bond film From Russia With Love, and this led to a career of similarly creepy roles as middle-European or Soviet villains, in episodes of The Man In Room 17 (twice), The Saint, Danger Man, Strange Report and The Champions.

In the cinema, he was particularly liked by Ken Russell who used him in the award-winning film of D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love (1970), in which he played the artist-sculptor cavorting in the snow with Glenda Jackson; The Music Lovers (1970); and The Boyfriend (1971), in which he played the film director Cecil B. de Thrill. Russell had previously ‘discovered’ Sheybal in the BBC canteen in 1961, and hired him to play Debussy in his television production Strauss. Sheybal also appeared in John Boorman’s Leo The Last, in which he played a political schemer in the entourage of Marcello Mastroianni’s Italian prince.

However, it was his role as the Eurosec physician Dr. Beauville in Gerry Anderson’s Doppelgänger, that led to his being cast as Dr Doug Jackson in the UFO episode Exposed. Vladek reprised the role on an episode-by-episode basis during the first production block (he was not contracted for the whole series) as his character was required, more often than not as a replacement to Maxwell Shaw’s Dr Shroeder when Shaw became seriously ill during production. This resulted in an intriguing character whose real loyalties were uncertain, and whose area of expertise enabled him to function in a variety of roles for both SHADO and the International Astrophysical Commission. For the second block, Jackson’s function within SHADO was more clearly defined as a psychiatrist, and Vladek became a more permanent member of the cast.

Following UFO, Vladek appeared in such films as Puppet On A Chain (1971), in which he played the smuggler pursued by Interpol along the canals of Amsterdam, and The Wind And The Lion (1975) as Sean Connery’s brother, while on television he made a brief return to the Anderson fold as Sandor Karolean in The Protectors episode Brother Hood, and also made a memorable guest appearance as the bird-man Zacardi in The New Avengers episode Cat Amongst The Pigeons.

More recently, Sheybal had forged a second acting career for himself in France. Leaving his villainous roles behind him, he found a niche playing middle-aged romantics in love with much

younger women. His last screen appearance was in The Bill episode Sympathy For The Devil in September, while his last interview was with Fanderson for a forthcoming UFO video documentary. He died suddenly of an abdominal haemorrhage at his home in London on October 16th, 1992.

Originally published in FAB 8.