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Brian Cox

Danny Scott / 19 November 2021

His outstanding performance in TV series Succession has won huge critical acclaim and now Brian Cox has written his life story. Here he talks to Danny Scott about his mother’s breakdown, why he’s careful with money and finding new love later in life.

Brian Cox

In his 61-year stage and screen career, Brian Cox has played some of history’s most iconic names including Churchill, Trotsky and Marlon Brando. But nothing could have prepared him for the praise heaped on him for his powerful portrayal of his latest creation, Logan Roy, the grizzled, Machiavellian manipulator who sits at the heart of the hugely acclaimed Sky TV drama Succession.

Logan is the arrogant, embittered head of a family that runs one of the world’s biggest media corporations. Not many people like Logan, including his family, but that doesn’t bother him. He’s a businessman and his sole passion seems to be making money. We’re only on series three, but Logan has already earned Cox a hatful of awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe. No wonder people are calling it ‘the role of his life’.

When Logan first appeared in the 2018 opening series, there were rumours that Cox’s performance had been inspired by real-life media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell, something the 75-year-old continues to deny.

‘You might as well say Logan’s based on me because he was born in Dundee, which is my birthplace, too. There’s a complex story behind this man; you can’t base him on one person. He’s rich, but he’s not from inherited wealth. He’s also a nihilist, like quite a few other characters I’ve played. His curse is that he loves his children, but whenever he tries to show that love, he fails. And there’s nothing he or his children can do about that. They’re stuck with each other.’

Is money the great corruptor? If he was penniless and living on a council estate in Glasgow, would we see a kinder, gentler Logan? Cox lets out a loud, quick laugh.

‘If you’re trying to imagine Logan in a council flat, you’ve got the guy all wrong. That does not feature in his plan. He knows how to make a buck and he’s very successful at it. There’s a scene in the new series where the children are moaning about him not sharing his huge pile of money and he says, “Make your own pile of money”.

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‘He wants them to escape from their financial entitlement, but they can’t. It’s their destiny. And that’s been a recognisable story for generations. I have things that my father didn’t have, but he had things that I don’t have. Is the road I’m supposed to take different from the road he took? It’s one of the many ways we make sense of life.’

Making sense of his life has been high on Cox’s agenda over the past couple of years. He’s been working on a recently released autobiography, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, which attempts to explain how a working-class kid whose father died when he was eight and whose mother tried to commit suicide became one of the most admired stage and screen actors of his generation.

Alongside the Golden Globe for Succession, he’s picked up theatre awards for Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew, a Primetime Emmy for his portrayal of Hermann Göring in Nuremburg and was a scene-stealing CIA bad guy in Hollywood blockbusters The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, starring Matt Damon. He’s also got the dubious honour of being the man who first brought cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecktor (sic) to the big screen in the 1986 film Manhunter. Anthony Hopkins may have won an Oscar for the role in The Silence of the Lambs, but many horror fans think the statue should have gone to Cox.

‘Putting everything down on page has been on my mind for a while,’ he says of his autobiography, which charts his illustrious career as well as telling his personal story, ‘but it’s hard to go back and revisit tragedies like losing your dad so young. I knew he was ill, but at that age you don’t think anything bad is going to happen to your dad. Turned out he had cancer.

‘Even though their marriage had its problems, Dad’s death hit my mother hard. Physically, she was still there in the house, but over the next two or three years it became obvious that her brain couldn’t cope. She attempted suicide; she was eventually hospitalised… it was a nervous breakdown. Again, I was probably too young to know what was going on. It was only later that I started to piece things together.

‘The irony is, of course, that my father’s death and my mother’s breakdown became the catalysts for my own journey. Although I had sisters, I no longer had parents to look after me, so I became an independent spirit. I could do whatever I wanted. I could even be an actor.’

Cox may be worth a few bob these days, but his attitude to money is still shaped by those childhood experiences.

‘There were long periods when we had nothing. Not a bean. Yes, I’ll admit that it’s made me a little… canny with money. If I’m out for dinner with Torin, my youngest son, and he points to the $40 steak on the menu, I might direct him towards something that’s less ostentatious. He’ll say, “Dad, you can afford it.” I say, “Yes, I can, but that’s not the point.” When you’ve been through real poverty, the sword is always hanging over you. It retreats into the background, but it never completely disappears.

As he is in real life, Cox’s memoir is refreshingly honest. There’s even a mention of the Princess Margaret incident, backstage at the Royal Court Theatre in 1969 – complimenting Cox on his acting, HRH apparently slid her hand inside his shirt and seemed intent on, er, getting to know him better. Somewhat bemused by the surreality of the situation, Cox made a quick exit, telling HRH that he needed to return to his dressing room. Does he regret putting that or anything else in the book?

‘There are a couple of things in there that I ummed and ahhed about. Embarrassing situations. But if it’s in there, it’s probably in there because I wanted it to be in there.’

Cox is candid in the book about his affairs and shortcomings as a father in his first marriage.

‘I was just in my twenties when I got married to Caroline [Burt]. Far too young. But I wanted the stability of marriage and kids. I wasn’t one of those middle-class actor-types, taking drugs and letting it all hang out. After what I’d been through, I craved the normality of a home and a family. Caroline and I managed 18 years [they divorced in 1986] and we had two children [Alan, 51; Margaret, 44], so it wasn’t so bad. Having said that, I always struggled with fatherhood because, well… to be honest, my job meant that I was hardly ever there.

‘I remarried in 2002, to Nicole [Ansari, a German-born actor] and became a dad again at 56. With our two sons [Orson, 19; Torin, 17], I’ve tried to make up for all the things that happened before. These days, my career doesn’t always come first. Maybe I was better prepared for it the second time around.’

The couple’s 23-year age gap has raised an occasional eyebrow but, as you’d expect, Cox isn’t losing any sleep over public opinion.

‘What do they want me to say? Love is love, and Nicole is the love of my life. I had a relationship before this one where the age gap was 26 years and it started when she was 18. Although we had a great time together, I knew there were limitations because she still needed to find herself. Nicole was in her thirties when we met, and she’d already had a pretty amazing life. She’d been all over the world.’

If nothing else, Cox says the book has made him realise that life is a ‘work in progress’ and his does seem to be moving in the right direction.

‘My family is one aspect of that. And my career, being able to pick and choose what I want to do. But I’ve also got to the age where I no longer have to care about what I say or who I say it to. It feels wonderful! At 75, I’m happier than I was at 55 or 25. I’m happier being me.’

Brian Cox’s autobiography Putting the Rabbit in the Hat (Quercus, £20) is out now

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