16 July, 2008

Sir Ralph Richardson

Sir Ralph David Richardson was an English actor, one of a group of theatrical knights of the mid-20th century who, though more closely associated with the stage, also appeared in several classic films.

Richardson made his West End début in 1926. Thereafter he became one of the Old Vic Theatre's major stars, one of his early big roles being Caliban to the Prospero of John Gielgud, a professional association that lasted for four decades. Richardson scored additional Old Vic triumphs as Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. At Malvern in 1932, he played Face in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. In 1933 he played the title role in W. Somerset Maugham's final play Sheppey at Wyndham's Theatre, and became an undisputed West End star in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1936).

After active service in World War II serving as a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Richardson joined Laurence Olivier and the director John Burrell as co-director of the Old Vic Theatre, where his notable roles included Falstaff, Bluntschli in Arms and the Man, Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, and Peer Gynt, in which Olivier took the cameo role of the Button Moulder. Richardson also directed Alec Guinness in Richard II, taking on the role of John of Gaunt in the production when the Old Vic governors insisted that either Richardson or Olivier were contractually obligated to act in all the productions.

After he was dismissed at the Old Vic, Richardson appeared with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon but had mixed results, with his 1952 performance as Macbeth being the greatest failure of his career. He fared better at the Bristol Old Vic in his appearance as Volpone to Anthony Quayle's Mosca in Ben Jonson's Volpone, in the title role of Timon of Athens in his 1952 return to the Old Vic, and on Broadway in his Tony-nominated role in The Waltz of the Toreadors (1957). He made a misstep in turning down the English language premiere of Waiting for Godot, a decision that he regretted for the remainder of his life.

With his friends Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, he appeared in Olivier's film of Richard III (1955) and in several scenes of the mini-series Wagner (1983), which was released shortly after Richardson's death. Sadly he is the least remembered of the trio, as people often quote 'Olivier and Gielgud', but forget Richardson. In 1960 he appeared successfully as Sir Peter Teazle in John Gielgud's production of School for Scandal, as the Father in Six Characters in Search of an Author in London (1963), a return to Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1964) and the original production of Joe Orton's controversial farce What The Butler Saw in the West End at the Queen's Theatre in 1969 with Stanley Baxter, Coral Browne, and Hayward Morse.

In the 1970s he appeared in the West End, and with the National Theatre under Peter Hall's direction, where among the classics he played Firs in The Cherry Orchard and the title role in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman along with Wendy Hiller and Peggy Ashcroft. He continued his long stage association with John Gielgud, appearing together in two new works, David Storey's Home and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land.

From 1954 – 1955 he played the character of Dr. John Watson in an American/BBC radio co-production of canonical Sherlock Holmes stories, which starred Sir John Gielgud as the famous consulting detective and featured Orson Welles as the villainous Professor Moriarty. In the 1960s he played Lord Emsworth on BBC television in dramatisations of P.G.Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories, with his real-life wife Meriel Forbes playing his domineering sister Connie, and Stanley Holloway as his butler Beach.

Richardson made several spoken word recordings for the Caedmon Audio label in the 1960s. He re-created his role as Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Anna Massey as Roxane, and played the title role in a complete recording of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (play), with a cast that included Anthony Quayle as Brutus, John Mills as Cassius, and Alan Bates as Marc Antony. He also recorded some English Romantic poetry, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for the label.

His film appearances included The Citadel, The Heiress (his first nomination for an Academy Award), Richard III, Our Man in Havana (with Alec Guinness and Noel Coward), O Lucky Man!, Oh! What a Lovely War, Dragonslayer, Tales from the Crypt and Time Bandits. He played the sixth Earl of Greystoke in the 1983 movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, for which he was again nominated for an Academy Award. His last film appearance was in Give My Regards to Broad Street starring Paul McCartney.

Richardson recorded the narration for Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and the superscriptions for Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica - both with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Prokofiev conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Vaughan Williams by André Previn.

Richardson was knighted by King George VI in 1947. In 1963, he won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for Long Day's Journey Into Night. He won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actor for The Sound Barrier (1952), and was nominated on another three occasions. He was also nominated for three Tony Awards for his work on the New York stage, for his performances in The Waltz of the Toreadors, Home, and No Man's Land.

Richardson died of a stroke, aged 80, and was interred at Highgate Cemetery.

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