The actor and illusionist Eric Lindsay peacefully passed away in the early hours of Saturday, June 19 at the Royal Free Hospital in London after a short illness. He was 91. Eric had the distinction of being the last actor to play Renfield opposite Bela Lugosi when they toured the UK in a revival tour of Dracula from from April 30 – October 13, 1951.
Born within the sound of Bow Bells in London’s City Road Hospital on November 13th, 1929, Eric discovered that he had the theatre in his blood at an early age. Making his first tentative steps onto the stage in a Salvation Army production of Aida while still a schoolboy, Eric went onto enjoy a long and varied career in the entertainment industry.
At the height of the Blitz during the Second World War, Eric Joined the Angel Players at the age of 12 before being accepted at the Marion Ross Drama School. He made his professional debut at the age of 17 as Octavious in The Barretts of Wimpole Street with the Barnstable Repertory Company in Devon. In 1949, he got his first big break when he played opposite Ruth Dunning as Dude in the West End production of Tobacco Road. During the play’s run at the Playhouse Theatre, Eric caught the eye of French director Henri Marchal, who invited him to France, where he appeared in the kitchen sink drama Metro Pigalle. On his return to England, Eric found that far from enhancing his reputation, his year in France merely meant that he had lost ground through his absence from the English stage.
Eric and Ruth Dunning in the West End production of Tobacco Road
In 1951, he won the role of Renfield in Dracula. With the prospect of a West End run with a Hollywood star, it seemed the ideal vehicle to get his career back on track. When I interviewed in 1997, he described the part as “the best role apart from his (Lugosi’s) in the play. It was a gift, because although the roles of Dracula and Renfield are the smallest in the play, whenever we were not on stage they are talking about us.” Throughout the tour, Eric’s performance drew an enthusiastic response from audiences and praise from critics across the country. Of Bela Lugosi, he said, “The man was a star. He was a gentleman in every way. He was great and very funny. He was generous in all ways.”
Eric as Renfield and Arthur Hosking as Van Helsing in Dracula
Through a combination of bad luck and under financing, the production never made it to the West End. It toured the provinces for six months waiting for an opening in a West End theatre, but the rigours of life on the road and twice-daily performances took a heavy toll upon the 68-year-old Bela Lugosi. Exhausted, he told producer John C. Mather, “John, I can’t go on, it’s taking too much out of me. Please finish it quickly.” With his irreplaceable star unable to continue, Mather brought the tour to an end. After a few weeks recuperation, Lugosi filmed the horror spoof Mother Riley Meets the Vampire before returning to America. As for Eric, it was back to the typical life of a jobbing actor. Periods of work were punctuated by non-theatrical jobs to make ends meet while trying to secure a new role. While “resting”, Eric filled in as a salesman for non-slip floor polish at the Ideal Home Exhibition and a ladies hairdresser. His dream had been to break into films, but with little prospect of making progress, he decided to use the money he had earned from Dracula on a new venture.
With his partner, the theatre and film actor Ray Jackson, Eric decided to invest in on the 1950s coffee bar boom. The couple opened the Heaven and Hell coffee bar next door to the famous 2I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street in the Soho area of London. The 2I’s featured live music in the basement and was a training ground for future successful British skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll musicians. Heaven and Hell had a Heaven theme on the ground floor and a Hell theme in the basement. Despite the success of Heaven and Hell and a second coffee bar called The Regency Coffee Bar, Eric continued acting on stage and television. In 1956, he played Antoine in the Antoine and Antoinette episode of The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a television series starring Marius Goring in the title role.
Eric in The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel
In 1958, Eric and Ray took advantage of a new law which allowed striptease to be performed in private members clubs. They opened the Casino de Paris at 5-7 Denman Street, Piccadilly Circus. W.1, one of London’s first strip clubs. The club was a sensational success, prompting Eric to retire from acting to devote himself full-time to the club’s management. When the lease on the building which housed the club expired in 1977, Eric decided that it was time to embark upon the next stage next stage in his colourful career.
During the Dracula tour, Bela Lugosi had told Eric that he had “the eyes of a magician.” Lugosi’s words proved to be prophetic. The shows at the Casino De Paris had often featured magicians, including the first nude male magician, Malcolm Vadell. It was at this time that Eric met the celebrated magician Robert Harbin. Under his guidance, Eric bid farewell to the Casino de Paris and began a career as an illusionist. Under the name of Zee and Co., Eric enjoyed great success in the UK, both on the stage and TV, and in Las Vegas. Eric’s act featured Scorpio, a leopard which he and Ray had raised from a two-week-old cub after it was abandoned by its mother. The magic circle described Zee and Co. as the greatest illusion show in the UK. After appearing at the London Palladium, Eric took the act to America in 1982. He performed at the Sheraton Bal Harbour Hotel in Miami for 6 months, Las Vegas, where he rented Juliet Prowse’s house for a year, and the Reno Hilton as Entertainer of the Month. The Miami Sun-Tattler reported that he was “as impressive as his American, David Copperfield and Doug Henning.” After America, he toured Europe.
Eric as Zee
While starring in review built around Zee and Co. at the Scala Melia Castilla in Madrid, Eric and Ray decided to move permanently to Spain and build their own villa in Marbella for themselves and their parents. By the time that the lengthy construction was finished, a series of tragedies had change the course of Eric’s life. Both his and Ray’s parents died and on October 25th, 1989, Ray himself died prematurely at the age of 58. While living alone, depressed and drinking heavily, in the large empty villa, one final tragedy unfolded. On October 18th,1991, Scorpio the leopard attacked Eric, seriously damaging his neck and had to be put down. Eric blamed himself. He could no longer live with his memories in Spain and moved back to London, where I met him in 1997 to interview him for Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain. As for his career as an illusionist, Eric said, “After Ray died I never really properly worked again. It was as though all my amazing luck had gone.”
Eric eventually retired to Thailand. During this time he began a popular blog, which recounted the many adventures of his colourful life and indulged in his love of travel. He occasionally emerged from retirement to perform again as Zee and Co. His last public engagement was in a command performance for the Sultan of Dubai in 2001.
I last met Eric when he dropped into Tokyo and spent a few days with my family in 2011. Three years ago, he returned to the UK and spent his contented final years living at the historic Charterhouse in London. Although a very sprightly and active nonagenarian, his penchant for travel was checked by the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in him spending most of his last year in reflection and corresponding with his many friends around the globe.
It would take the average person several lifetimes to pack in the adventures and achievements which Eric chalked up during the course of his remarkable life. But despite all of that, Eric’s greatest achievement was to simply be a wonderful human being. He enriched the lives of so many people, mine included, earning in return their fierce, undying loyalty. He will be truly missed by all who were lucky enough to have known him. (Andi Brooks)