'When I was a boy,' recalls George Coulouris, ' it was the habit of lower middle-class families to take their children to see dead bodies.'
Despite the surname inherited from his Greek immigrant' father, the actor was born in Manchester, and it was around this part of the world that he was regularly conducted to observe the ' laid out ' corpses of family friends. 'I remember gazing at one yellowed old lady while the adults recited the details of the dropsy she had suffered. And when I saw my grandfather's body, I cried out: "He's not dead, his eyes are open "! Which they were.'
At 77, George Coulouris is himself alive and kicking - more alive, says his young wife, than many people in their 30s - but there was a bizarre occasion when he believed he was about to perish. After a heavy day's filming, his co-star Trevor Howard announced that he was driving to a nearby pub. Coulouris jumped into his own small Austin and set off after his colleague towards the recommended hostelry. Suddenly, he found that he was on the wrong side of the road and a huge bus was careering at him. 'This is it,' he told himself. Then the car swerved of its own accord; the bus merely grazed a mudguard. To this day, he has no idea what saved him.
George Coulouris is not superstitious. With characteristic impishness, he claims to enjoy walking under ladders. But he admits that his life has been dotted with incidents that were not wholly explicable, and he understands all too well the success of a professional frightener like Algernon Blackwood. As a young man, Coulouris would often go camping in the Welsh mountains. One night he set up his tent in the middle of a wood beneath an ample moon. For no sensible reason, he soon became so racked with fear that he packed up and returned home to astonished parents. This was, he feels, the kind of situation Blackwood might have relished. Everything was apparently normal, but a moment of unease led rapidly to abject terror.
Algernon Blackwood is one of the few luminaries of modern culture whom Coulouris, in a career that has literally taken him to Hollywood and back, has not known personally. But he admires the author's 'subtle, delicate, even sedate' methods, and says he will not need to affect 'Boris Karloff voices' for his late-night readings. This he contrasts approvingly with some of his earlier, 'silly' roles-barging around a padded cell in a Hammer film, for example, or persecuting Claudette Colbert as a fake psychiatrist in Sleep My Love. He stresses that thrillers should take themselves seriously, and respects Blackwood for the awesome credibility with which he unfolds events. As the supreme master of macabre writing, however, Coulouris nominates William Shakespeare.
His patrician features have helped him win numerous noble Shakespearean roles, but it is an obvious disappointment that Macbeth - the most ghoulish of them all - has remained elusive. In 1943 he played Richard III on Broadway, but that he describes as an actor's nightmare.
He remembers: ' I found myself in a large theatre with a f ashionable audience and I hadn't the faintest idea how to play the part.' In just ten days, the production lost $20,000. It was all his own money. With greater success, he was Mark Antony in a modern-dress Julius Caesar opposite Orson Welles as Brutus, and the pair worked together again on Citizen Kane. He recalls sitting in their shared dressing-room drinking Scotch and listening to the young Welles proclaiming: 'I can out-Barnum Barnum. I can out-Hitchcock Hitchcock .'
And life has had other compensations. He has played cricket in Beverly Hills with Laurence Olivier. Once he dined with President Roosevelt at the White House. 'This man was running the war, but he talked like a country squire in his mansion without a care in the world. I admired him greatly.'
Other rewards are, for George Coulouris, more significant than the huge fame he has never enjoyed. 'I played King Lear at Glasgow. I wasn't good at first, but in time I got the hang of it. A student who was "walking on" in the production came up and said that he'd not slept the previous night, he had been so moved by my performance. That was worth everything.'
But he trusts no listeners will be kept awake all night after A Book at Bedtime ...