A new start after 60: ‘I almost died of cancer. Then I became an actor – at 63!’
When Julian Bird was 60, he was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. He had a series of operations, “all very unpleasant”, and learned that he “was likely to die pretty soon”. After 34 years as a psychiatrist, in that intense state of mind, he began to daydream about becoming a professional actor.
The bleak prognosis held for only a few months, and as he recovered Bird reevaluated his life “and what to do with what was left of it”. At the age of 63, he enrolled at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. This month, at 80, he is the lead in the play Freud’s Last Session, at the King’s Head theatre, in north London.
“I was brought up in a theatre family,” Bird says. His father, Henry Bird, was an artist who designed sets. His mother, Freda Jackson, was an actor, “a name in the 40s, 50s and 60s”. She was the lead in the play No Room at the Inn, about the abuse of evacuees during the second world war, which was so scandalous that she needed police protection when it transferred to the West End in 1946. “There were always women at the stage door wanting to kill her.”
Despite this, Bird “always loved theatre”. Indeed, the Drury Lane stage where his mother performed No Room at the Inn was the venue for his fifth birthday party. He was then a newly returned evacuee himself and recalls “being the centre of attention”. There were “all the kids in the cast”, though many were teenagers playing younger children, which must have felt a little strange.
An only child, at 13 he went to boarding school. “There were lonely times,” he says. “Every time I returned, there would be somebody else looking after me, a housekeeper/secretary.”
He gave little thought to following his mother into acting. When he was seven or eight, he fell ill; the illness was mysterious, with aches and pains. His mother found a doctor in Harley Street and the consultation proved decisive.
The elderly physician “was very empathic and wise. He was interested in me as a person,” Bird says. “He got books down off his shelf and invited me to join him in understanding the problem. And that’s very seductive …” Curiously, Bird has no memory of the diagnosis. “But I left that consultation feeling: ‘I want to be like him. I’m going to be a doctor.’”
His parents were delighted. Bird studied natural sciences at Cambridge, before going on to medical school in London. He had scarcely dabbled in Cambridge’s drama scene for fear of profiting from his mother’s renown, but in London he directed and starred in a production of The Doctor’s Dilemma. (His mother, in the audience, was complimentary.)
By now Bird had become interested in neurology and psychiatry. The neurologist who supervised him was distinguished but dull, while the consultant psychiatrist was charismatic. So Bird became a psychiatrist. I wonder why he was so susceptible to the charisma of the Harley Street medic and the psychiatry teacher. “I suspect it has something to do with my relationship with my father. He was not an emotionally expressive man. He painted. In his studio. Every day. Seven days a week,” Bird says. “Perhaps I wanted, needed, to have a close relationship with a father figure.”
As a psychiatrist, in academia and in practice, Bird studied the patient-doctor relationship and his research included roleplay. He enjoyed this “emotionally expressive” dimension, but it was not until he arrived at drama school in 2004 that he saw the connection between psychiatry and acting.
Almost immediately, “there was joy, and a realisation that this was the right place … I was hooked.” At drama school, Bird understood, “I am an actor. I can’t understand the notion of retirement. It doesn’t exist. I’m an actor. That’s what I do.”
It is tempting to wonder what his mother, who died in 1990, would have made of his career change. He has worked in TV and theatre for the past 15 years. “I would have loved her involvement and appreciation,” he says. There’s a pause. Recently, he has had “a passing thought. Maybe that freedom was partly possible because they both had gone. I was free of their influence.”
On stage, Bird says, “I can feel the audience. This focus of attention is very important, and it is a powerful feeling and it gives me power … I feel most real on stage, and connected.”