The Edinburgh beat bobby who became a Star Wars’ legend
ON the ninth of March 1942, in a tiny back-room in a tenement on Yeaman Place, Star Wars’ favourite Jack McKenzie made a traumatic entrance into the world as tragedy struck when his mother and unborn twin died in childbirth.
Eighteen months later, his father was killed in action, leaving the young Jack to be raised by his granny and granddad at 28 Saughton Loan.
Jack, now known to millions the world over as Hoth rebel Cal Alder in The Empire Strikes Back, is currently playing Max Kellerman in Dirty Dancing at the Festival Theatre and, on the eve of his 77th birthday, he’s in an upbeat mood as he recalls his early life as a police officer in the Capital in the 1960s and 1970s.
“My mother died in childbirth with my unborn twin and my father, who was in the Royal Navy, only just got home for the hurried funeral at Warriston on the 12th of March before being recalled to his ship, where he was later killed in action. So I never knew my parents,” the actor reveals.
Educated at Heriot’s - “I was a fish out of water, I wasn’t a posh kid,” he says, - Jack enlisted in the Royal Marines at the age of 15, serving four years before being offered the choice of joining the police, prison service, ambulance service, fire brigade or post office.
He chose the police, initially serving with Lothians & Peebles Constabulary before transferring to Edinburgh City Police - A Division.
“When I joined at 19 we didn’t even have personal radios,” recalls the actor who looks much younger than his years, something he puts down to keeping fit.
“I’ve been running for 65 years and nobody has caught me yet,” he laughs, by way of explanation, adding, “and that includes seven London marathons.”
But back to his early days and lack of radio, which made life less than ideal for a young beat constable.
“The only radio was in the van. If you arrested a drunk you had to drag him to a telephone box and phone HQ to ask for the van.
“You were also required to ask for a specimen of urine, which usually meant they peed all over you in the telephone box,” he grimaces.
In the Capital, Jack, who also appeared in Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film A Bridge Too Far, Gandhi in 1982 and last year’s The House That Jack Built with Matt Dillon and Uma Thurman, began his policing in Edinburgh on ‘1 Beat’.
Looking out the window of the Festival Theatre, he’s reminded, “The Empire Bar, on the corner of Nicolson Square, we called it the Rat Trap, was full of villains and, just across the road,” he points at a maroon door, “was where my colleague and I saw smoke billowing from the top window.
“I ran up the stairs, met this old boy coming down with his hair on fire, got him out and went back in.
“There was an Indian family trapped on the top floor but there was no way I could get to them.
“A fireman appeared from nowhere and threw me down the stair and told me to get out... people often say they don’t understand how you can be beaten back by flames... well, I can.
“Thankfully, firemen got everyone out.”
Another incident while patrolling the city in a panda car won Jack a commendation.
Casting his mind back to 1970, he recalls, “We heard there’d been a robbery in Pilrig. Two guys had broken into a shop, beaten up the owner and his wife, stolen all the money, smashed the place up and disappeared.
“All day long police across the city were looking for these thugs but, what we didn’t know was, they’d run around the corner, into a stairwell, broken down a door and were holding two sisters and a baby hostage.
“One of the sisters was heavily pregnant, we learned later that one of the pair, had a proclivity for raping pregnant women.
“When the husband came home they beat him up, drank all his booze, and decided to leave, taking the baby hostage.
“The pregnant girl said, ‘Take me instead,’ and of course he couldn’t resist that.”
He pauses for a moment, “You know, I can remember their car registration to this day - HSF 807 E, a blue Hillman Minx.
“They drove off with the girl, one holding a knife to her throat.
“Next thing, I was driving towards the Commonwealth Pool with my colleague George Hunter when we got a message about a stolen vehicle coming through Holyrood Park.
“Suddenly, there it was stopped in traffic in front of us.
“We jumped out of the car and ran forward as traffic piled up around us.
“I got in the back of the car and the guy said, ‘If you come any closer I’ll take her head off.’
“What could I do? I backed off and at that moment the other thug panicked, hit the accelerator and went straight into the back of a bus.
“I got the girl away as other officers dragged the guys out... that baby will be 48 now.
He adds, “It was a frightening episode because I was helpless, the Procurator Fiscal put it more eloquently than I could when he said, ‘PC McKenzie deemed it politic to retreat from the vehicle,’ but I tell you, I was cursing and swearing as I did.”
Jack left the police force on 23 June 1972 having landed a regular acting role in the BBC series Sutherland’s Law, as the local bobby, PC Merengie.
“I thought, ‘Just step into space,’ it was a big step’,” he says.
That said he already had a few credits under his belt from moonlighting as an actor while still in uniform, literally.
Look closely next time you watch Maggie Smith’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and you’ll spot Jack... as a policeman.
“I was a walk-on and supplied the uniform,” he laughs.
“We filmed outside the ‘Marcia Blaine’ school at Stockbridge. If you watch it, you’ll see the bobby taking the girl across the street is me.”
Right now though it’s Dirty Dancing that’s keeping him busy, and as his birthday approaches, he smiles, “When I joined the police, they said, ‘Don’t forget you’ll get your pension at 44.’
“I thought, ‘44! That’s a distant speck on the horizon... well, that was 33 years ago and here I am, home for my birthday and for the first time in 50 years in the business, on stage professionally in my home town.
See Jack in Dirty Dancing at the Festival Theatre until Saturday 9 March