Somewhere right now someone is watching David Suchet portray Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. An estimated 600-700 million people watch the television series worldwide. The reruns get better ratings than many new programs. Suchet has filmed more than 60 episodes, with only six to go to complete Christie's entire body of work about the eccentric little sleuth.
Suchet was an actor long before he began doing Poirot in 1988. One of Britain's most popular performers, the 65-year-old Suchet began his acting career in theater. At age 23, he became the youngest professional actor in Britain to play Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He spent thirteen years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has played such diverse parts as Salieri in Amadeus, George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the predatory professor John in Oleanna. His film credits include A Perfect Murder, Executive Decision and Bank Job.
Although everyone recognizes Poirot, not everyone recognizes Suchet when they see him perform. And he loves that: "It means that they've been caught up in the role rather than the actor . . . . I don't just play a part, I inhabit it."1
Suchet's last name is derived from the profession of his great-great-grandfather on his father's side, a Lithuanian shochet, one who performs (according to kosher law) the ritual slaughter of animals. But when his grandfather married a gentile, his family lost acceptance in the Jewish community. Suchet's mother was of Lithuanian/Russian Jewish descent on her father's side, but she was a practicing Anglican (Church of England). His Jewish father was agnostic, and Suchet says that in terms of religion, "I was brought up as nothing—nothing at all."
Yet, he goes on to say, "I am very pleased that my whole background is rooted in Judaism. . . . I remember my first visit to Israel, when I went with the Royal Shakespeare Theater Company and did some performances in Jerusalem. I really was so thrilled to be there because of my Jewish roots."
His mother, Joan, a former professional dancer and actress, was his inspiration to become an actor. His maternal grandmother was also an actress. But his father, a distinguished gynecologist, was less than enthusiastic about his son's interest:
"My mother and grandmother were behind it, but my father was not and never really was until I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. He felt I was giving him a bit of status. But at a certain point I realized I was proving to my father I could act rather than doing my work for the reasons I should be doing it."2
His parents sent him to boarding school in Kent when he was eight. They were only allowed to visit him three times a term and boys could only go home on the holidays. "I missed home very much and I loathed every minute of [boarding school]," he recalls. "My next school, Wellington, where I went at thirteen, was a real breath of fresh air and I felt much more at home there."3
To his father's disappointment, he did not excel academically. But he did shine at rugby and tennis. His tennis coach, Joe Storr, who also taught English, introduced him to acting. Suchet joined the National Youth Theatre and went on to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, followed by his years with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But even as he was attaining success as an actor, he was "always looking for something beyond."4 In his late twenties and early thirties he explored Zen Buddhism. Then, at age 40, while in Seattle making a film, he had a life-changing experience.
"I was lying in the bath in my hotel, thinking about my grandfather," he says. "And I remember thinking, Isn't it interesting that I feel my grandfather is with me and yet I don't believe in an afterlife? So I went straight out and bought a Bible and read Paul's letter to the Romans . . . and it slotted right into what I had been searching for, something beyond, something quite mystical, but also a way of being that I could relate to."5
In the same way that he meticulously studies for an upcoming role, he began to investigate the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. "I couldn't just accept it on face value. I have never had blind faith in anything."6 The questioning continued, as Suchet explains, for 21 years!
"God would not let me go and I often feel like my faith was rather like Jacob wrestling. I've ended up with a few bruises and a few dislocated hips, but I'm still there and he has blessed me and loved me and I feel very cherished by him."
Though he struggled with his faith, he says his Jewishness was not a stumbling block: "As soon as I realized Jesus was a Jew, I felt more at home than ever before."
Although it was not until four years ago that Suchet felt comfortable enough with his faith to declare it publicly, it has guided many of his decisions, particularly in regard to his acting.
"Being a Christian has made me think about parts I play," he says, "even though to this very moment, I'm asked to play terrorists. . . . And I've played murderers, and certain Christian groups have written to me saying, ‘How as a Christian can you play these roles?' And I had to search very deeply within myself. And it's very clear biblically that where you are found, most often that is where God wants you to be. Unless there is a clear direction to change, which I never had."
Wrestling with his faith has also solidified it, Suchet notes: "I have been through 21 years of real struggle to come to this place, and now I have a faith that is the most important thing in my life. It governs how I behave, how I think, and makes me who I am. . . . We go to the gym to exercise our bodies, we read and do crosswords to exercise our mind, but we do very little in this cynical, secular age to exercise our souls."7
Suchet and his wife of 35 years, Sheila Ferris, started their spiritual quest together. "As a couple," he says, "we'd long been looking for the right philosophy to sustain us. When I turned to the New Testament, I suddenly found the very belief about life, people and way of living that I'd long been searching for. . . . The thing about faith is that it forces you to look in the mirror and appraise what you see. You're not shown the good bits. It really is mirror, mirror on the wall, and you see the ugliest of them all."8
He and Sheila, a former actress, are a true team. She supervises his career, pores over his scripts, attends every first performance and gives him a critique of each one. They have raised two children, Robert, 30, an officer in the Royal Marines, and Katherine, 28, a physiotherapist.
"Whatever my children have wanted to do in life," says Suchet, "I have encouraged them—which is probably a reaction to the fight I had against my own father to become an actor."9
When he's not acting, Suchet enjoys photography and music. He learned the clarinet later in life, and he joins his wife for a duet with the piano from time to time. He and Sheila also love to go boating on the canals and rivers of England. In between roles, he likes to read theology and philosophy.
"My favorite book is the Bible," he says. "It's got everything: verse, poetry, songs, wonderful stories. I love going back into the Old Testament—the early books are so dramatic, really wonderful."10
Although his favorite after-show haunt is his home, other actors find him very approachable on the set and look to him for advice. Though Poirot has made him an international celebrity, Suchet never wanted to be a star. He doesn't want to be seen; he just wants people to see the character he is playing. And he has succeeded in that.
"People always ask who is the real David Suchet because I've always done character parts," he says. "I started off as a 23-year-old actor playing an octogenarian. I knew I was never going to be six feet three inches and the next Cary Grant. I'm short, stocky, with a deep voice and the biggest makeup bag in the business."11
Even as the incredibly popular Poirot, he takes nothing for granted and is obsessive in his preparation for each episode. He carries around with him a list of 93 things to remember about Poirot. "What I'd like to hear someone say," he reflects, "if I were to pick up any Poirot book, the man that I was reading about is the man I saw on the screen."12
Asked if it upsets him that many people only know him from the character of Poirot, he responds: "How lucky I am that I will be remembered at all. There are thousands of actors out there who have done some wonderful work and have never gained the recognition that they deserve. . . . I am just very thankful that they know of me at all."13
He is very eager to film the six remaining Poirot episodes for television as his legacy. "I am desperate to leave that body of work behind me when I go to my theater in the sky," he says. "The sadness, of course, will be having to bury Poirot. He is part of my life now."14
But the biggest part of Suchet's life now is Jesus, who he describes as, "My best friend. And as an actor, that's a wonderful thing to have. A wonderful person to have by your side, day and night. My very, very best friend. And sometimes in the back of my mind, even when I'm performing, I know he's with me, I know he's holding my hand."15
2 Celia Dodd, "David Suchet: Still on the Case," The London Times, 9 January 2009.
4 Dodd, op. cit.
6 Lester Middlehurst, "Poirot and the Case of the Star Who Found God," Daily Mail, 21 June 2007.
8 Ian Woodward, "David Suchet: How the Definitive Poirot has Found New Faith and Health," Hello!, 22 July 1989.
10 Anonymous, "20 Questions With . . . David Suchet," Whatsonstage.com, December 26, 2005.
11 Fiona Maddocks, "Suchet's Act of Faith," London Evening Standard, 19 June 2007.
12 Anonymous, "David Suchet: The Masterpiece Mystery! Interview".
13 Ken Windsor, "Interview: Actor David Suchet".
14 Dodd, op. cit.
15 All quotes without attribution in this article are, with permission, from "Haven Today: Interview with David Suchet," aired July 19, 2010.