The real story behind Al Pacino’s Danny Collins

The Godfather star plays a faded musician inspired by a long-lost letter from John Lennon - but what happened to the real-life singer the story's based on?

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In 1971, John Lennon wrote a letter from Tittenhurst Park, the Ascot mansion he shared with Yoko Ono. It was addressed to a young folk singer called Steve Tilston. Lennon had just read an interview in the now defunct ZigZag music magazine, in which Tilston – already fêted for a debut album of his own compositions – expressed concerns for his artistic integrity if he were to become rich and famous.

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Lennon wrote reassuringly to the young man, also Liverpool-born, telling him how, “Being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think.” He went on to explain that, “emotions – relationships – are the same as anybodies [sic], I know, I’ve been rich and poor, so has Yoko (rich-poor-rich) so whadya think of that.”

At the foot of the letter were the signature doodles of bespectacled John and beatific Yoko, and at the top, tantalisingly, the telephone number, Ascot 23022. When Tilston received the letter, he found himself “yearningly” reaching for his phone, or rather his mobile.

There was a problem. The letter had taken 34 years to reach him, by which time the former Beatle had been dead for a quarter of a century. 

The post could be slow in those days, but this was pushing it. Fast forward to now and new film Danny Collins (in cinemas from Friday 29th May), whose plot is founded on this episode in Tilston’s recent past. It stars Al Pacino as a raddled pop lothario who aims to change his life upon belatedly receiving Lennon’s letter.

The letter John Lennon sent to Steve Tilston

To get a handle on the plight of Danny Collins, imagine Neil Diamond without the talent. In the twilight of his career, he has, in effect, dwindled to the role of his own tribute artist, recycling dire 40-year-old hits to rows of screaming girls who have turned into screaming grannies before his blurry eyes. There was the germ of a braver, more questing talent there, but it was crushed by the pop world’s industrial mechanisms; greedy management, insatiable public demand for same-old and chemical mood-alteration.

Pacino says of the character, who is loosely inspired by Tilston, “John Lennon understood. He said, come see Yoko and me. We will take you in and talk about everything. You can be famous and still be yourself. That really would have meant a lot to him at the time, but at this point, it’s a lifesaver.” Writer/director Dan Fogelman was intrigued by this case of what-if, and tracked down Tilston.

Now 65, he is to be found in the sublime landscape above West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley in the historic town of Hebden Bridge. If you wanted to find a gnarly old malcontent cheated from his rightful fortune, you would be very disappointed. Tilston is, as he has been in these intervening years, a highly regarded musician and songwriter, with some 20 albums to his name and many of his compositions covered by other performers. Rod Stewart is among his fans.

At the time the letter was written, he had already made a name for himself on an English folk circuit energised by the success of US artists such as Bob Dylan. There was, he recalls with a smile, a prevailing scepticism about material success to the extent that commercialism was a dirty word. The irony of Danny Collins is that he falls for the lure of the almighty dollar. In this, their stories are entirely divergent.

It was in 2005 that Tilston got an email “out of the blue” from an American collector, asking whether he was the Steve Tilston, or son of Steve Tilston, to whom Lennon had written. He wanted to authenticate the document, which is now valued at £7,000. But what had happened to it between being sent and finding its way into his hands? 

Richard Howell, the journalist who wrote the interview, and to whom Lennon also addressed the letter, had no more idea than Tilston. They could speculate, says Steve, but prefer not to. Pete Frame, who was editor of ZigZag, has no clue either. He recalls that Lennon was a prolific letter writer but as the magazine had no letters page, this one wasn’t published. Frame adds that he and Tilston spoke about it a few years ago and is delighted he is at last reaping some benefit.

When the letter resurfaced, Tilston told a few friends and remembers that, “They just sort of rolled their eyes and said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

But what if it had reached him back then? He admits the question stands in his mind. Does he ever visualise himself calling that number, John saying “come on over” and rolling up at his Georgian pile?

“I would have taken my guitar,” he muses, “and we might have ended up playing music together. I’m sure we would have had a great time. I suppose what’s painful is that it’s a road not taken. All of us in our lives are faced with choices of ways to go. What I resented, but don’t anymore, is that with this one, I didn’t get the choice.”

As he concedes, you have to let these things go. Besides, his own career has been far more rewarding than that of Danny Collins, in the ways that matter. So, Tilston didn’t meet Lennon. But if he had, there would be no Danny Collins and he would never have met Al Pacino. Swings and roundabouts.

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Danny Collins is in cinemas now