07 February, 2009
Sir Michael John Gambon
Sir Michael John Gambon is an Irish-born British actor who has worked in theatre, television and film.
Gambon was born in Dublin during World War II. His father, Edward Gambon, was an engineer and his mother, Mary Hoare was a seamstress. His father decided to seek work in the rebuilding of London, and so the family moved to Mornington Crescent in north London, when Gambon was five. His father had him made a British citizen — a decision that would later allow Michael to receive an actual, rather than honorary, knighthood and CBE. (although, under the British Nationality Act 1981 anyone born in Ireland before 1949 can still register as a British subject and, after five years' UK residence, as a British citizen).
Raised a strict Catholic, he attended St Aloysius Boys' School in Somers Town and served at the altar. He then moved to St Aloysius' College in Hornsey Lane, Highgate, London, whose former pupils included Peter Sellers. He later attended a school in Kent, before leaving with no qualifications at fifteen. He then gained an apprenticeship with Vickers Armstrong as a toolmaker. By the time he was 21 he was a fully qualified engineer. He kept the job for a further year – acquiring a fascination and passion for collecting antique guns, clocks and watches, as well as classic cars.
Aged 19 he joined the Unity Theatre in Kings Cross. Five years later he wrote a letter to Michael MacLiammoir, the Irish theatre impresario who ran Dublin's Gate Theatre. It was accompanied by a CV describing a rich and wholly imaginary theatre career – and he was taken on.
Gambon made his professional stage début in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin's 1962 production of Othello, playing "Second Gentleman", followed by a European tour. A year later, cheekily auditioning with the opening soliloquy from Richard III, he caught the eye of star-maker Laurence Olivier who was recruiting promising spear-carriers for his new National Theatre Company. Gambon, along with Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi and Frank Finlay, was hired as one of the ‘to be renowned’ and played any number of small roles. The company initially performed at the Old Vic, their first production being Hamlet, directed by Olivier and starring Peter O'Toole. He played for four years in many NT productions, including named roles in The Recruiting Officer and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, working with directors William Gaskill and John Dexter.
After three years at the Old Vic, Olivier advised Gambon to gain experience in provincial rep. In 1967, he left the NT for the Birmingham Repertory Company which was to give him his first crack at the title roles in Othello (his favorite), Macbeth and Coriolanus.
His rise to stardom began in 1974 when Eric Thompson cast him as the melancholy vet in Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests at Greenwich. A speedy transfer to the West End established him as a brilliant comic actor, squatting at a crowded dining table on a tiny chair and sublimely agonising over a choice between black or white coffee.
Back at the National, now on the South Bank, his next turning point was Peter Hall's premiere staging of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, an unexpectedly subtle performance — a production photograph shows him embracing Penelope Wilton with sensitive hands and long slim fingers (the touch of a master clock-maker). He is also one of the few actors to have mastered the harsh demands of the vast Olivier Theatre. As Simon Callow once said: “Gambon's ‘iron lungs and overwhelming charisma are able to command a sort of operatic full-throatedness which triumphs over hard walls and long distances.”
Michael Gambon as Hamm and Lee Evans as Clov in EndgameThis was to serve him in good stead in John Dexter's masterly staging of The Life of Galileo in 1980, the first Brecht to become a popular success. Hall called him ‘unsentimental, dangerous and immensely powerful’, even the Sunday Times’ curmudgeonly critic of the day called his performance ‘a decisive step in the direction of great tragedy...great acting’, while fellow actors paid him the rare compliment of applauding him in the dressing room on the first night.
From the first Ralph Richardson dubbed him The Great Gambon, an accolade which stuck, outshining his 1990 CBE, even the later knighthood, although Gambon dismisses it as a circus slogan. But as Sheridan Morley perceptively remarked in 2000, when reviewing Cressida: ‘Gambon's eccentricity on stage now begins to rival that of his great mentor Richardson’. Also like Richardson, interviews are rarely given and raise more questions than they answer. Gambon is a very private person, a ‘non-starry star’ as Ayckbourn called him. Off-stage he prefers to back out of the limelight, an unpretentious guy sharing laughs with his fellow cast and crew.
While he has won screen acclaim, no-one who saw his ravaged King Lear at Stratford, while still in his early forties, will forget his superb double act with a red-nosed Antony Sher as the Fool sitting on his master's knee like a ventriloquist's doll. There were also notable appearances in Old Times at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and as Volpone and the brutal sergeant in Pinter's Mountain Language.
David Hare's Skylight, with Lia Williams, which opened to rave reviews at the National in 1995, transferred first to Wyndhams Theatre and then on to Broadway for a four-month run which left him in a state of advanced exhaustion. “Skylight was ten times as hard to play as anything I’ve ever done” he told Michael Owen in the Evening Standard. “I had a great time in New York but couldn’t wait to get back”.
Gambon is almost the only leading actor not to grace Yasmina Reza's ART at Wyndham's. But together with Simon Russell Beale and Alan Bates he gave a deliciously droll radio account of the role of Marc. And for the RSC he shared Reza's two-hander The Unexpected Man with Eileen Atkins, first at The Pit in the Barbican and then at the Duchess Theatre, a production also intended for New York but finally delayed by other commitments.
In 2001 he played what he described as “a physically repulsive’’ Davies in Patrick Marber's revival of Pinter's The Caretaker, but he found the rehearsal period an unhappy experience, and felt that he had let down the author. A year later, playing opposite Daniel Craig, he portrayed the father of a series of cloned sons in Caryl Churchill's A Number at the Royal Court, notable for a recumbent moment when he smoked a cigarette, the brightly lit spiral of smoke rising against a black backdrop, an effect which he dreamed up during rehearsals.
In 2004 he finally achieved a life-long ambition to play Sir John Falstaff, in Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre production of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, co-starring with Matthew Macfadyen as Prince Hal.
He made his film debut in the Laurence Olivier Othello in 1965. He then played romantic leads, notably in the early 1970s BBC television series, The Borderers, in which he was swashbuckling Gavin Ker. As a result, Gambon was asked by James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli to audition for the role in 1970, to replace George Lazenby. His craggy looks soon made him into a character actor, although he won critical acclaim as Galileo in John Dexter's production of The Life of Galileo by Brecht at the National Theatre in 1980. But it was not until Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986) that he became a household name. After this success, for which he won a BAFTA, his work includes films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover which also starred Helen Mirren.
In 1992 he played a psychotic general in the Barry Levinson film Toys and he also starred as Georges Simenon's detective Inspector Jules Maigret in an ITV adaptation of Simenon's series of books. He starred as Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the Hungarian director Károly Makk's movie The Gambler (1997) about the writing of Dostoyevsky's novella The Gambler.