Eton-Educated British Actor Damian Lewis Overcame a Near-Fatal Motorcycle Crash and a Family Tragedy on His Way to the Spotlight
by Russell Scott Smith | US Weekly | October 15, 2001
IT WAS A COLD WINTERS NIGHT IN London when Damian Lewis crashed, face-first through a car’s windshield and almost died. That evening, in 1998, the actor had been buzzing along the chilly, dark streets on his Honda VFR750 motorcycle, heading home from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barbican Theatre, where he was playing Don John the Bastard in Much Ado About Nothing. Suddenly, a car veered into Lewis’s path. His bike rammed the car’s front bumper, and he flew over the handlebars; Lewis broke the car’s windshield with his chin. “Thank God I had a full-face helmet on,” the 30-year old actor says. “If I hadn’t, I’m not sure I’d be here now. Or at least my acting career would be very different.”
Lewis survived, but he lay unconscious for five minutes and woke up with a serious concussion in his brain’s frontal lobe, the region that controls emotions. For the next three months, the normally cheerful Lewis became “irascible and irrational,” he recalls. “I would get into arguments with people at the video store for no reason. Or I’d suddenly feel like crying.” At first, he wasn’t able to do much more than sit at home and do jigsaw puzzles. But he began to get restless, and just three weeks after the crash, he rejoined the cast of Much Ado. On his first night back Lewis abruptly sat down onstage in the middle of a soliloquy. “I gave the rest of my speech from there,” he says. “If I hadn’t sat down, I would have keeled over. I probably wasn’t ready to go back.”
Lewis has a way of pushing himself to the limit, even in good times. In November, when he was still best known for playing Laertes to Ralph Fiennes Hamlet on Broadway in 1995, Lewis was invited to Los Angeles to meet with Band of Brothers producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. They were considering him for the miniseries’ starring role, as U.S. Army Major Dick Winters, the real-life war hero who led the elite Easy Company paratroop unit from D-day until the end of World War II. Lewis auditioned for Hanks first, and it went so well that the actor thought he had won the part. He went out with a friend to celebrate, he recalls, and “at five in the morning, I was trashed, staggering back to my hotel room.” Three hours later, his phone rang with the news that Spielberg wanted to meet him at noon. “I took three showers,” Lewis says. “But I was still drunk when I got there. I was shaking and sweating.” That didn’t seem to matter, however. Spielberg and Hanks were so impressed with Lewis’s earnest-yet-cool appeal that they offered him the role on the spot.” They were looking for someone who has a moral uprightness without being uptight,” says Brothers costar Ron Livingston. “Damian has that. There’s something anachronistic about him. Like Henry Fonda.”
Lewis developed that quality while growing up in London’s upper-class St. John’s Wood neighborhood, where his family – father Watcyn Lewis, an insurance broker; mother Charlotte Lewis, an avid volunteer and three siblings – had a house on Abbey Road, just blocks from the crosswalk pictured on the Beatles album of the same name. “I used to take my shoes off to cross the street so I’d look like Paul [McCartney] on the record,” he says. When he was 8, Lewis left Abbey Road for boarding school near Sussex’s Ashdown Forest which was the model for Hundred Acre Wood in AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. At Ashdown House School, where pupils wore uniforms of gray shorts, blue blazers and blue caps, Lewis studied Latin and ancient Greek and starred in the annual Gilbert and Sullivan production. He also played sports and, after graduating from Ashdown, went on to play varsity soccer, cricket, golf and tennis at Eton, England’s most prestigious preparatory high school. “I was bordering on what you Americans would call a jock ” Lewis recalls – but he also loved theater. He put on plays with his classmates, and after Eton he went to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
Now that Band of Brothers has become a hit (seen by 10 million viewers during its September 9 premiere and 7.3 million on September 16), Lewis may be on the verge of stardom. But misfortune has also marred his American television debut. Last winter, as the production wrapped, his mother was killed in a car accident while on vacation in India. Lewis doesn’t like to talk about the incident, but his Brothers costar Matthew Settle says that Lewis “handled the tragedy amazingly well.” Since then, he has been trying to get back to life as usual. For the past several months, he has spent much of his time in Manchester, England, where he’s shooting The Forsyte Saga, a remake of a 1967 miniseries that will appear on British TV and PBS in the States in 2002.
Lewis finds comfort in his budding relationship with his girlfriend, Katie Razzall, a 30-year-old reporter-producer for the British network Channel Four, whom he met six months ago at a party in London. The couple like to tool around the countryside in Lewis’s sports car, a convertible in “basic British racing green,” he says, made by the British automaker TVR. In early September, they spent a weekend speeding along country lanes in the Peak District between Manchester and Sheffield. One evening, they stopped for dinner in the village of Eyam, where many of the cottages date back to the 1600’s. As the sun set, they settled into the Red Lion, a cozy pub with low ceilings and heavy wooden tables. It was getting cold outside, but there was a fire in the hearth that warmed the couple as they dined on rack of lamb and drank the local beer, Black Sheep Bitter. “That, says Lewis, “is what a weekend is about.”