Sir Ralph Richardson (1902–1983) belonged to a small, select cadre of British actors who dominated the profession in their day, and were honored as living legends before their passing. Along with Sir John Gielgud and Lord Olivier, Richardson appeared in dozens of London stage plays, and like his compatriots made the transition to film during the 1940s and '50s. His Times of London obituary termed him "the most human of all our great actors. With his ripe face and his excitable voice, his amiable combination of eccentricity and down-to-earth common sense, he was ideally equipped to make an ordinary character seem extraordinary or an extraordinary one seem ordinary."
Lived in Railroad Car
Richardson was born December 19, 1902, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, and endured hardship and privation as a child as a result of his parents' marital discord. His father, a Quaker, was an art teacher, but Lydia Richardson, a Roman Catholic, left her husband and took her four-year-old son to live in a series of small towns in the south of England. At one point their address was a modest home built from two converted railroad carriages. Richardson was often left alone. "I did a lot of play-acting for my own amusement," New York Times obituary writer Albin Krebs quoted him as saying, "dressing up as something or other. Put in a lot of falling dead and rolling over. It was useful practice."
Raised a Roman Catholic, Richardson considered becoming a priest, and was even sent to Jesuit seminary for a time in preparation for his vocation. He chafed at its rules, however, and ran away. He found a job as a low-level assistant at an insurance office in Brighton, and then took art courses at nearby Xaverian College. Brighton was also home to a stage company that used a former bacon factory as its headquarters, and the idea of being on stage seemed appealing to Richardson. He auditioned, but it went so terribly that the company agreed to accept the 18-year-old only if he paid a fee. Put in charge of the sound props for his first job, he had a disastrous debut with the company when he mistook a cue and banged two garbage-can lids together off-stage at the wrong part of the performance.
Made Film Debut with Karloff
Within a year, however, Richardson had graduated from walk-ons to small speaking parts to the lead roles, and soon went on to tour England and Ireland with a Shakespearean repertory company. By 1925, he was married to a fellow thespian, Muriel Hewitt, and joined the respected Birmingham Repertory Theater. He made his London stage debut the following year in Yellow Sands at the Haymarket Theatre, a production that also featured his wife. Over the next decade, he gained increasing renown for his acting talents in such plays as Sheppey from W. Somerset Maugham's pen, and the comic melodrama The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, which had a successful 1936 run at the Haymarket. Richardson also appeared in stagings of Shakespeare plays with London's esteemed Old Vic Company in the 1930s, through which he came to know both Gielgud and Olivier. The trio would become lifelong friends and mentors to one another.
As with his Brighton propmaster job, Richardson made an inauspicious debut in film as well. It came in 1933's The Ghoul alongside Boris Karloff. "I played a parson," Richardson recalled with his characteristic dry wit in an interview with New York Times writer Benedict Nightingale, "a very young man with a round innocent face, and the lady of the house liked him, trusted him. But he was getting together firewood all the time to burn the place down! I've never had a more amusing part." By 1936, however, Richardson had landed a multi-film deal with producer Alexander Korda, and went on to make several notable films under him, including the cult-classic Things to Come, an adaptation of the H. G. Wells science-fiction classic in which Richardson played "The Boss," a dictator in a futuristic world.
The Famous, Vanished "Falstaff"
Richardson spent World War II in the Fleet Air Arm with Olivier, and reached the rank of lieutenant commander. Both were released early in 1944 to aid in the restoration efforts for the Old Vic Theater, which was badly damaged by German bombing raids on London during the early years of the war. Widowed in 1942, he remarried Meriel "Mu" Forbes in 1944, another actress, with whom he had a son born on the first day of 1945. By now Richardson was quite established in his career, and the family lived in a Queen-Anne style home in the posh Hampstead Heath area of London. What has been termed Richardson's greatest stage role came during this era at the Old Vic: as Falstaff in a 1945 production of Henry IV. Overwhelmingly assessed by critics as the most compelling performance of his career, it was never filmed and remains lost to posterity. As the rotund, thieving nobleman, Richardson's character "had wit and innate youthfulness, passion and authority, the eyes rolling majestically under a wild, white halo of hair," wrote Nightingale in the New York Times.
Richardson was knighted in 1947 for his contributions to British theater, and with the Old Vic decamped to New York for a time in the late 1940s. This led to Hollywood offers, and his first genuine Tinseltown production—not a joint U.S.-British affair, as some earlier ones had been—was William Wyler's The Heiress in 1949. In it, Richardson played the father of Olivia de Havilland in the adaptation of the Henry James novel Washington Square. His Dr. Austin Sloper railroads his timid daughter into spurning the suitor she loves. A New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther, termed Richardson's a "rich and sleek performance" and called the movie "one of the handsome, intense, and adult dramas of the year." The actor also won strong praise that same year for his role as the butler in a Graham Greene adaptation, The Fallen Idol.
Cowed Audiences into Silence
Known for his self-effacing quips, Richardson was alternately serious and cavalier about his profession. He admitted he was far from the handsome hero, once saying of his face, "I've seen better-looking hot cross buns," according to his New York Times obituary. On stage, however, he was intensely dedicated to his craft, and was known to begin a line over and over until he obtained absolute silence from the audience. A Time assessment of his career from Richard Corliss noted that in the first half of Richardson's career, "he was the middle-class Everyman, shuffling toward archetype with good will and capacious common sense. But as he aged, his characters turned imperious and, in spite of their power, ineffectual." Corliss believed that Richardson's Dr. Sloper and other parts exemplified "his ideal role: as the haughty burgher whose tragic flaw lies in realizing too late that he is not quite a tragic figure."
Richardson suffered some lean career years during the 1950s, as his peers Gielgud and Olivier were gaining increasing stature as Shakespeare interpreters and stage and screen directors, but made an impressive return to the stage in 1957 with The Flowering Cherry, a critical hit of the London season that year. Gielgud cast him in several works for the stage that he directed, and filmmaker Otto Preminger gave him the part of a British military officer in the epic Exodus, about the founding of the state of modern Israel. American director Sidney Lumet chose him to play the miserable, alcoholic father in his 1962 adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill classic, Long Day's Journey into Night, and Richardson also appeared in the Oscar-winning Russian-revolution drama from director David Lean, Dr. Zhivago, in 1965. In 1969, another esteemed British filmmaker, Richard Attenborough, cast Richardson and Gielgud in the Oh! What a Lovely War, a re-make of the hit stage musical.
Active Well Into His 80s
It was the hit of the 1970 theater season, however, that established Richardson as the eminence gris of British drama. Home, a work from playwright David Storey, co-starred him with Gielgud and went on to a successful run on Broadway as well; it was even made into a teleplay. The New York Times writer Nightingale termed it another hallmark of a long career for Richardson, particularly the scene "when the mentally damaged old man he was playing stopped his aimless, empty jabber and, his face dark and bunched, began silently to weep." Another outstanding stage work from this era was 1975's No Man's Land, a Harold Pinter play that he and Gielgud again reprised for Broadway.
Along the way, Richardson also accepted roles in some less-than-esteemed films that may have provided him with the same sort of scenery-chewing amusement as his 1933 horror-flick debut. These include Tales from the Crypt in 1972 and the original Rollerball in 1975. Monty Python comedian-turned-director Terry Gilliam cast him as a diffident deity in the 1981 classic Time Bandits, which was one of his last roles. Interviewed on the occasion of his 80th birthday by Nightingale in the New York Times in 1982, Richardson claimed he could not "afford to retire. I don't know enough. The older you get, the more you realize how little you know. No, I can't afford it, not for my inner self." His last film role was in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, the much anticipated modernization of the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale. It was released in theaters in March of 1984, some five months after Richardson's death in London on October 10, 1983. He had been appearing in the tour of a National Theater play, Inner Voices, but was forced to withdraw due to a digestive ailment. His wife Meriel died in 2000, two years after their son Charles passed away.
Richardson was a famously recalcitrant interview subject, known for encouraging journalists to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol with him, which seemed not to affect him or ever loosen his tongue. Eccentric well into his senior years, he could sometimes be seen riding around London on his motorcycle, often with Jose, his pet parrot, tucked inside his leather jacket. He also kept a ferret named Eddie for a number of years, an animal he bathed weekly in Lux soap flakes. There remained three trenchant comments that he made about his profession: he told London Times writer Ronald Hayman in 1972 that his Roman Catholic upbringing seemed to have influenced his method. "I think basically I must be attracted by ritual, because I believe that there's a kind of religious sense in what I do," he reflected. "I think actors, rather like priests, have a sense of what can be done by ritual." In the New York Times interview with Nightingale, when asked how he prepared for a part, he replied "Dig, dig, dig, dig. Find out more and more about the character. What does he eat? What trousers does he wear? What does he do? What does he drink? What is he afraid of?" A much briefer comment about his profession, made to the New York Herald Tribune in 1946, revealed Richardson's mordant wit: "Acting," he asserted, "is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing."
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press, 1996.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 28, 2001.
Guardian (London, England), April 17, 2000; March 3, 2001; June 23, 2003.
Independent Sunday (London, England), October 20, 1996.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 4, 1999; April 22, 2001.
National Review, February 4, 1983.
New Republic, April 23, 1984.
New York Herald Tribune, May 19, 1946.
New York Times, November 4, 1938; October 7, 1949; December 19, 1982; October 1883.
Observer (London, England), May 28, 2000.
People, April 9, 1984.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), November 18, 2001.
Time, October 24, 1983; April 2, 1984.
Times (London, England), January 24, 1938; July 20, 1939; March 4, 1952; June 9, 1952; June 11, 1956; July 1, 1972; October 11, 1983.
Richardson, (Sir) Ralph
RICHARDSON, (Sir) Ralph
Nationality: British. Born: Ralph David Richardson in Cheltenham, 19 December 1902. Education: Attended Xaverian College, Brighton. Family: Married 1) Muriel Hewitt, 1924 (died 1942); 2) Meriel Forbes, 1944, son: Charles David. Career: 1921—stage debut in Les Misérables, Brighton; then toured England and Ireland with a Shakespearean repertory company; 1925—London stage debut in Oedipus at Colonus; 1933—film debut in The Ghoul; 1936—directed the play Bees on the Boat Deck; 1939–44—served with Fleet Air Arm: Lt. Commander; 1944–49—associated with resuscitating the Old Vic theater, London as actor and director: in New York with the Old Vic company; on stage in plays by Shakespeare, Sheridan, Pirandello; 1952—directed the film Home at Seven; 1977—in TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Awards: Best Actor, New York Film Critics, and Best British Actor, British Academy, for The Sound Barrier, 1952; Best Acting (collectively awarded), Cannes Festival, for Long Day's Journey into Night, 1962; Best Supporting Actor, New York Film Critics, for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, 1982. Knighted, 1947. Died: In London, 10 October 1983.
Films as Actor:
The Ghoul (Hunter) (as Nigel Hartley); Friday the Thirteenth (Saville) (as schoolmaster); Java Head (Ruben) (as William Ammidon)
The Return of Bulldog Drummond (Summers) (as Hugh Drummond); The King of Paris (Raymond) (as Paul)
Bulldog Jack (Forde) (as Morell)
Things to Come (Menzies) (as the Boss)
The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Mendes) (as Col. Winstanley); Thunder in the City (Gering) (as Manningdale); South Riding (Saville) (as Robert Carne)
The Divorce of Lady X (Whelan) (as Lord Mere); The Citadel (King Vidor) (as Denny)
Q Planes (Clouds over Europe) (Whelan) (as Maj. Hammond); Smith (Browne); The Four Feathers (Korda) (as Capt. John Durrance); The Lion Has Wings (Powell, Hurst, and Brunel) (as Wing Commander)
Health for the Nation (doc) (as narrator); On the Night of the Fire (Hurst) (as Will Kobling)
The Day Will Dawn (The Avengers) (French) (as Lockwood)
The Silver Fleet (Wellesley and Sewell) (as Jaap Van Leyden)
The Volunteer (Powell and Pressburger—doc) (as himself)
School for Secrets (Ustinov) (as Prof. Heatherville)
Anna Karenina (Duvivier) (as Alexei Karenin); The Fallen Idol (Reed) (as Baines)
The Heiress (Wyler) (as Dr. Austin Sloper)
Outcast of the Islands (Reed) (as Capt. Lingard)
The Sound Barrier (Breaking the Sound Barrier) (Lean) (as John Richfield); The Holly and the Ivy (O'Ferrall) (as the Rev. Martin Gregory)
Richard III (Olivier) (as Duke of Buckingham)
Smiley (Kimmins) (as Rev. Lambeth); The Passionate Stranger (Box) (as Roger Wynter/Sir Clement)
Our Man in Havana (Lean) (as "C"); Oscar Wilde (Ratoff) (as Sir Edward Carson); Exodus (Preminger) (as Gen. Sutherland)
The 300 Spartans (Maté) (as Themistocles)
Long Day's Journey into Night (Lumet) (as James Tyrone)
Woman of Straw (Dearden) (as Charles Richmond)
Dr. Zhivago (Lean) (as Alexander Gromeko)
Khartoum (Dearden) (as Gladstone); The Wrong Box (Forbes) (as Joseph Finsbury)
Chimes at Midnight (Campanadas a medianoche; Falstaff) (Welles) (as narrator)
Midas Run (A Run on Gold) (Kjellin) (as Henshaw); The Bed Sitting Room (Lester) (as Lord Fortnum of Alamein); Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as Sir Edward Grey); The Battle of Britain (Hamilton) (as Minister); The Looking Glass War (Pierson) (as Leclerc)
Eagle in a Cage (Cook) (as Sir Hudson Lowe); David Copperfield (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Mr. Micawber)
Who Slew Auntie Roo? (Harrington) (as Mr. Benton)
Tales from the Crypt (Francis) (as Crypt Keeper); Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Miller—for TV) (as Caterpillar); Lady Caroline Lamb (Bolt) (as George III)
Frankenstein—The True Story (Smight—for TV) (as Lacey); O Lucky Man! (Anderson) (as Sir James Burgess/Monty); A Doll's House (Losey) (as Dr. Rank)
Rollerball (Jewison) (as Senator)
The Man in the Iron Mask (Newell—for TV) (as Cardinal Richelieu)
Watership Down (Rosen—animation) (as voice); No Man's Land (Hall—for TV) (as Hirst)
Time Bandits (Gilliam) (as The Supreme Being); Early Days (Page—for TV) (as Kitchen); Dragonslayer (Robbins) (as Ulrich); Witness for the Prosecution (Gibson—for TV)
Wagner (Palmer—for TV) (as Pfi)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (Hudson); Give My Regards to Broad Street (Webb)
Invitation to the Wedding (Brooks) (as Uncle Willie)
Film as Director:
Home at Seven (+ ro as David Preston)
On RICHARDSON: books—
Hobson, Harold, Ralph Richardson, London, 1958.
Findlater, Richard, These Our Actors: Theatre Acting of Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, North Pomfret, 1984.
O'Connor, Garry, Ralph Richardson: An Actor's Life, London, 1982; rev. ed., 1986.
Tanitch, Robert, editor, Ralph Richardson: A Tribute, London, 1982.
Miller, John, Ralph Richardson: The Authorized Biography, Philadelphia, 1995.
On RICHARDSON: articles—
Current Biography 1950, New York, 1950.
"Ralph Richardson," in Films and Filming (London), May 1961.
Coulson, A. A., "Ralph Richardson," in Films in Review (New York), October 1969.
Obituary in New York Times, 11 October 1983.
The Annual Obituary 1983, Chicago, 1984.
* * *
Of the triumvirate of great British twentieth-century actors—John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Ralph Richardson—only Richardson has enjoyed a screen career as long and as prolific as any film personality. As actress Barbara Jefford has commented, "He was always a wonderfully flexible film performer—better in many ways than Gielgud or Olivier." Thanks to a long-term contract he became a familiar figure in British films—"my film career had always been in the hands of Korda," Richardson said after the producer's death. "Korda looked after me." Yet the majority of Richardson's films are instantly forgettable. He began his screen career in an atrocious Boris Karloff vehicle, The Ghoul, which did nothing to enhance either actor's reputation, and did not obtain a decent screen role until Things to Come some three years later.
Things to Come features Richardson as the Hitler-Mussolini style Boss of a futuristic world crippled by wars. It was followed by The Man Who Could Work Miracles, in which the actor played an eccentric judge, and The Citadel, in which Richardson again played an eccentric, this time drunken Dr. Denny. He was rapidly becoming a major young British character actor, and at the same time getting a reputation for eccentricity in which he delighted. In later years he would ride around London on a motorbike with a parrot on his shoulder, and keep a pet ferret which he washed each week in Lux soap suds.
With South Riding, Richardson graduated from character actor to leading man, a position enhanced by his performances in The Four Feathers and Anna Karenina. But he was aging fast, and by the time Richardson made his Hollywood debut in The Heiress, he was old enough to play Olivia de Havilland's father, Dr. Austin Sloper, in this adaptation of the Henry James classic. Elegant and refined, Richardson destroys his daughter's one chance at love in a performance that is, unquestionably, the first of his two great American screen roles.
Because Richardson accepted so many film roles, the bulk of his work seems minor and unimpressive. One can only ponder why he took parts in such unimportant features as The 300 Spartans, Woman of Straw, Midas Run, Tales from the Crypt, or Rollerball. Perhaps Korda's death in 1959 robbed the actor of the guidance he needed in his screen work. Only one other Hollywood feature gives Richardson a role equal to his talent, that of James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night, a part to which he brings a strength of character and a sorrow strangely lacking from Laurence Olivier's highly regarded stage performance.
From the late 1950s onwards, Richardson's film roles were small, and yet each production was enhanced by his appearance, described by Kenneth Tynan as a "unique physical presence, at once rakish and stately, as of a pirate turned prelate." Richardson's eccentricity spilled over into his screen work, notably in The Time Bandits, in which, as the Supreme Being, he wears a three-piece suit and looks as if he had just wandered on to the set directly from the street, mumbling his lines and appearing totally confused.