In February 1965, as the Beatles and director Richard Lester alighted in the Bahamas, Mal took on his famous role as the befuddled Channel Swimmer in “Help!,” the group’s second feature film. It was a bit part, to be sure, but a cameo appearance that never fails to warm the hearts of Beatles fans across the globe.
It was a role, in many ways, that Mal had been born to play. In his teen years, he had toned his large frame through a dedicated regime of swimming and cycling. He had been known to bike for hours — full days, even — on the rural outskirts of Liverpool. And when it came to swimming, there was scarcely a body of water that he didn’t — simply couldn’t — pass up. From the frigid Irish Sea to a serene country lake to the modest dimensions of a chlorinated motel pool, Mal lived to swim. And no mere soak would do. For Mal, thrashing about and playing in the shallows was for amateurs. He preferred the vigorous exertions of a breaststroke to the comparatively pedestrian aquatic ministrations of ordinary folk.
When it came to “Help!,” Lester and his production team couldn’t have dreamt up a better role for him to play. Humble to a fault, Mal couldn’t wait to take his place on the set. When Lester called for action, Mal was treading water just off the beach at Nassau. As the wayward Channel Swimmer, he was clad in a bathing cap while searching in vain for the White Cliffs of Dover. As it turned out, Mal’s first day on the set would be anything but amiable.
“As the scene is finalizing on the beach,” he later wrote in his memoirs. “I had to swim out to sea for one-half mile and tread water until the scene is ready to be shot. The film crew are situated higher up on the beach and suddenly, Dick Lester is shouting at me saying, ‘Come in Mal. Come back Mal!’ And so, just thinking they weren’t ready for the scene, I swam leisurely to shore, not knowing at the time there was a huge stingray chasing me!”
Safely standing with the crew back on the beach, Mal spotted the giant fish, which in his estimation was more than 15 feet long. But his hair-raising experience didn’t end there. In mid-March, Lester’s production shifted a continent away to Austria, where Mal reprised his role.
As with the Bahamas, what should have been a simple cameo appearance turned into something much more harrowing. Beatles press officer Tony Barrow would never forget the sight of Mal, clad only in his bathing suit against the bitter cold. “Poor Mal must have been absolutely frozen,” Barrow wrote in a column for “The Beatles Book.” “All he was wearing was an old fashioned swimming costume with cap and goggles and a very thick layer of grease to protect him from the cold. Everyone was a bit concerned that he would freeze to death before the scene was over.”
Working amidst the snow-covered mountains, the scene called for the Beatles to be engaged in a good-natured curling match, when one of the film’s villains substitutes a bomb for a curling stone, which blows a hole in the ice and allows the Channel Swimmer to surface. “This scene had to be shot three times,” Mal recalled, because “I was so cold, I just couldn’t speak! Going down again and coming up, I spoke my lines, but on submerging again, could not stay down and kept popping to the surface.”
At this point, “somebody had the bright idea of putting a large weight in the bottom of the hole for me to hang onto, with the instructions from director Dick Lester, ‘Stay down as long as you can Mal so we can finish the shot.’ Being a real trooper, after I said my lines I submerged, took hold of the weight and stayed down holding my breath.”
And that’s where he stayed, holding out as long as he possibly could. Unbeknownst to Mal, the director had been shouting — with increasing desperation — “You can come up now. Mal, come up now!” Meanwhile, the roadie was nestled below the surface, pushing himself to the limit in order to land the scene.
“Finally, self-preservation brought me up for air,” Mal wrote. “Wrapped in a towel, I walked in my bare feet about 400 yards to the local police station, while the whole crew stood up and cheered. I spent two hours in the hottest bath with a bottle of rum, thawing out. It was pins and needles from head to toe, but the cheers and the clapping made it all worthwhile.”
Mal’s bravura turn as the Channel Swimmer was a highlight, to be certain, in the roadie’s storied career with the Beatles. But coming fewer than two years into his tenure with the band, it was still early days yet. By the mid-1960s, he had proven his mettle among the entourage for his ability to lug gigantic amplifiers onto some far-flung stage. And he prided himself on being able to assemble Ringo Starr’s drum kit in a matter of seconds.
But the quality that would see him through, that would ensure his place among their tightly knit circle, was far less tangible than his capacity for hoisting heavy objects with minimal complaint. By the time that Help! enjoyed its gala premiere at the London Pavilion that July, as he and his wife Lily mingled with the Beatles and their friends and relations, he knew that he had made it.
This essay was originally published in Salon.