(Copied in full from The Times, for those who might be paywalled)
Baron Clement von Franckenstein obituary
Colourful Eton-educated son of an Austrian ambassador who moved to Hollywood and became a bit-part actor, socialite and roué
June 11 2019, 12:01am,
The TimesIt may be unkind, if not untrue, to say that Clement von Franckenstein’s boisterous life would make more riveting viewing than most of the dozens of films and television shows in which he appeared during a 40-year career as a bit-part actor on Hollywood’s fringes.
What, however, should the tone of the script be? How best to portray the picaresque, certainly Rabelaisian journey of a nobly born but impoverished Anglo-Austrian Old Etonian orphan with a taste for the arts and a love of cricket, tireless in the pursuit of jeunes filles sportives?
Was all of this tragedy, or comedy, tipping frequently into bedroom farce? Yet, whatever the director’s take on it, that would not have mattered to the born performer that was von Franckenstein. He was, after all, a pro.
In this, he was helped by a lifetime’s experience of introducing himself by that name. Family legend, which he was happy to burnish, had it that Mary Shelley had borrowed it, with a slight amendment, for her book after meeting an ancestor of von Franckenstein’s, who was consul in Geneva when she was there.
What was certainly true was that the Franckensteins could trace their roots to medieval Germany, even if there was debate about when their branch had gained their title. To his friends, he was always known as Clem.
Not of course that that proved a bar if protocol demanded otherwise, such as at dinner with his fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California. “I rarely use my title in LA,” von Franckenstein divulged, “but Arnold always calls me ‘Baron’.” In fact, when he arrived in the city in the early 1970s, he was so worried that casting directors would not take him seriously that he called himself Clement St George. Before turning to acting, he had spent several years training as an opera singer, eventually admitting his baritone was not up to Covent Garden’s standard.
The lessons did not go to waste: the first job that he landed in America was as a singing Henry VIII in a Tudor theme restaurant in Anaheim, California. 1520AD had been opened by the ex-tycoon John Bloom (obituary, March 12, 2019) after his business, Rolls Razor, went into liquidation.
Franckenstein’s first role on camera, improbably, was as an extra in Mel Brooks’s spoof Young Frankenstein (1974). He went on to appear in films such as Death Becomes Her (1992) and another Brooks parody, Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), as well as much fare destined for video only.
Perhaps his biggest part was as France’s head of state in The American President (1995), with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. The script allowed him to show off his French, although his Teutonic accent led to complaints from Gallic patriots.
Meanwhile, on television, he featured in episodes of programmes such as Northern Exposure, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Californication. He twice played a gentleman’s gentleman in promising shows that did not go on to ring audiences’ bells.
While resting between parts, von Franckenstein became a notable figure in his community. He was an opening batsman for the Beverly Hills Cricket Club and often read the lesson at its Episcopalian church, All Saints — this doubled as an audition for any agents and directors in the congregation.
With his stentorian voice and garrulous tendencies von Franckenstein sometimes talked himself out of roles. Yet his remarkably wide range of friends could overlook the bombast, admiring his resilience, his commitment to his work, his kindness to animals and his willingness to put himself out for others. He was a rarity: a larger-than-life character who also liked other people.
In his quieter moments, he showed a touching vulnerability, the façade of human hurricane concealing a spirit compared by some to Peter Pan or the Little Prince. Undoubtedly, he had a need to be loved and it was his unceasing search for a physical manifestation of this that led to the escapades of a roué with which most associated him.
Many do not bear repetition in a family newspaper. There was the time when he had to sit through dinner with friends having discovered that the young lady he was expecting to meet later had cancelled, though not before he had taken Viagra. Meanwhile, the tale of who unsuspectingly drank the contents of a bottle of Spanish brandy that von Franckenstein had been using to sterilise himself after dalliances with women in Tijuana is, perhaps, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.
Clement George von Franckenstein was born in 1944 at Sunninghill, near Ascot, Berkshire. His father, then 66 years old, was Georg Freiherr von und zu Franckenstein and, until 1938, had been Austria’s ambassador for many years in London.
Appalled by the rise of the Nazis, however, he had refused to return home after the Anschluss and had taken British nationality. He was knighted by King George VI and, a year later, married the much younger Editha King, who had herself tried acting.
Clement, their only child, carried the name of his paternal uncle, a former director of the Munich Opera. When he was nine his parents were both killed in an air crash at Frankfurt. Much to his sorrow, Clement was not allowed by his prep school to attend their funeral.
Yet he never appeared to be sorry for himself, aided as he was by being fostered by friends of his mother’s, the Taylors, a rumbustious Oxfordshire farming family. Like them, he rode and hunted, and at Eton particularly enjoyed athletics. There he also appeared in a noted production of The Birds, Aristophanes’ comedy, staged by the actor John Wells, who was on the staff, and Brian Rees (obituary, May 21 2016).
Franckenstein was commissioned into the Royal Scots Greys, with whom he served in Germany and Aden. A harbinger of things to come was when he was discovered in a Hamburg nightclub “in full mess kit — boots, spurs, the lot” with two ladies of the town.
“I was supposed to be guarding Kuwait from Nasser,” he recalled. “I was very much a soldier’s officer. I would have been fine in a war, but I was lousy in peacetime.” A love of gambling meant that he quickly ran through his inheritance — he was short of money for years afterwards until his nanny left him a legacy. Before leaving for America, he worked for the nightclub owner Harry Meadows, who had London haunts such as Churchill’s and 21.
While he enjoyed the limelight, he was happiest among his close-knit circle, with whom he could verbally spar; or when simply enjoying his love of painting and the company of his cats, notably the late Tallulah. He was a dandy dresser, who did not think twice about leaving his house in a designer suit and a pair of fancy slippers.
Sometimes he enjoyed social events too much, once telephoning a friend to confess that he had woken up in hospital after passing out from the effects of consuming 15 double vodkas in a bar in Santa Monica, California. In reply to the friend’s query as to what was the noise in the background, von Franckenstein said that he was now at a party.
All this took its toll on his health, although after a heart attack some years ago he had curbed his irrepressibility. In 2016 he enjoyed appearing in the Coen brothers’ comedy Hail, Caesar!, in which George Clooney got to share a scene with him.
The passing of time did, however, prompt him to seek a wife at the turn of the millennium — “one doesn’t like to see an old title die out”. People magazine nominated him one of America’s top 50 bachelors and he told an interviewer that he would prefer a spouse who was “smart, independent and buxom”.
He did not find one, but at the start of his funeral, a woman in her twenties matching von Franckenstein’s requisites and known to his friends placed herself in the front pew. Then another arrived and announced it was she who was Clem’s girlfriend. Something of a contretemps ensued.
Well, nobody is perfect.
Clement von Franckenstein, actor, was born on May 28, 1944. He died from complications related to a heart attack on May 9, 2019, aged 74