Roberts, Rachel (1927–1980)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Roberts, Rachel (1927–1980)

Welsh actress who won the British Film Academy's Best Actress award for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Born on September 20, 1927, in Llanelly, Wales; died on November 26, 1980, in Los Angeles, California; youngest of two daughters of Richard Roberts (a minister) and Rachel Ann (Jones) Roberts; attended Swansea High School; graduated from the University of Wales; attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; married Alan Dobie (an actor), in 1955 (divorced 1961); married Rex Harrison (an actor), in March 21, 1962 (divorced 1971); no children.

Selected filmography in UK, unless otherwise indicated:

Valley of Song (Men Are Children Twice, 1953); The Weak and the Wicked (1954); The Good Companions (1957); Our Man in Havana (1959); Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960); This Sporting Life (1963); La Puce à l'Oreille (A Flea in Her Ear, Fr.-US, 1968); The Reckoning (1969); Doctors' Wives (US, 1971); The Wild Rovers (US, 1971); The Belstone Fox (Free Spirit, 1973); O Lucky Man! (1973); Alpha Beta (1973); Murder on the Orient Express (1974); Picnic at Hanging Rock (Austral., 1976); Foul Play (US, 1978); Yanks (1979); When a Stranger Calls (US, 1979); Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (US, 1981).

Rachel Roberts died by her own hand on November 26, 1980, at age 53. At the time of her death, the talented but troubled actress had all but destroyed her acting career with alcohol and drugs and a desperate obsession with her second husband, Rex Harrison, to whom she was married from 1962 to 1971. "I've never ever got over my halcyon days with him and however much I try, I can't," Roberts wrote shortly before her death. Those close to her were initially stunned at her suicide, unaware of the depths of her despair until the discovery of her journal not long after her death. The diary, which she kept during the last 18 months of her life, chronicles the suicidal depression that ultimately engulfed her.

Rachel Roberts (dubbed Ray at an early age) was born in 1927 in the small Welsh town of Llanelly, although the family moved to the more sophisticated city of Swansea when she was seven. Her father, a Baptist minister, was gentle and loving, but it was her strict and overprotective mother who dominated her upbringing. A shy child with an inferiority complex, she began to change gradually in her teens, when she discovered her talent for recitation and play acting. In high school, she became the star of the school plays and something of a trend-setter, although she still suffered dark periods of self-doubt.

Roberts blossomed during her years at the University of Wales, a rural college on the sea coast, where she took advantage of every acting opportunity available to her. "I knew then she had great things in her," said a friend, referring to her performance in Juno and the Paycock. "She had a wonderful face for portraying suffering. There are very few actresses who can show suffering in all three dimensions—with body, expression and feeling." Roberts' next stop was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she wilted a bit under the strict program of study. Wanting more opportunities to act rather than study, she left before completing the course and joined a repertory company in Swansea. After a year, she moved on to Stratford-upon-Avon, but left after a season without having distinguished herself. She worked for a time at the Irving Theatre Club in London, then went to West Germany to entertain the British troops in a revue called Intimacy at 8:30. Returning home, she spent another season at Stratford, where she met actor Alan Dobie, whom she married in 1955.

Following her marriage, Roberts continued to pursue her acting career which consisted mostly of minor stage and film roles. Her breakthrough part was that of the blowsy, unfaithful wife in the "New Wave" British film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), for which she won the British Film Academy's Best Actress award. She went on to play a similar type in This Sporting Life (1963), with Richard Harris, earning a nomination for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. In the interim between the films, Roberts divorced Alan Dobie to become the fourth wife of Rex Harrison, whom she had met in 1960, when she played opposite him in the Chekhov play Platonov at the Royal Court. (Harrison had been married previously to Marjorie Thomas , Lilli Palmer and Kay Kendall .)

Marriage to Harrison seriously stalled Roberts' career. "I'm not ambitious any more," she admitted following the nuptials. "I don't want to be a great success, to be a star, to have an acting career and be a public figure for fifty-two weeks of the year." When Harrison was selected to play Professor Higgins in the film version of My Fair Lady (1964), the couple relocated to Hollywood, where Roberts felt like an outsider. Pretty much confined to the house because she did not drive, Roberts started drinking, and the marriage began to suffer the first signs of stress.

The couple returned to Europe in 1964, and Roberts found work in Maggie May, Lionel Bart's updated lay version of the story of Christ and Mary Magdalene , but her drinking forced her to leave the production mid-run. She resumed her role as a dutiful housewife to Harrison, but with an undercurrent of resentment that fractured the relationship. She had film roles in A Flea in Her Ear (1968), opposite her husband, and in The Reckoning (1969), at which time she admitted to a reporter that allowing her career to lapse had been a mistake. "I did really make a superhuman effort to give up the desire to act. To just completely forget about it. But I could not. It's in your blood and that's that."

Following her divorce from Harrison, who had left her for actress Elizabeth Harris , Roberts returned to Los Angeles, but her obsession with her failed marriage hindered her ability to move forward. "I got drunk. I got lower and lower, though still coasting along on the strength of old memories…. I wasn't facing life realistically. I was running from it in a mad, 'exciting' disguise." Work seemed to be the one thing that could bring Roberts back into focus. She landed a role in the American production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, staged at the Huntington Hartford Theater, and then in 1972 returned to London's Royal Court in Alpha Beta, the chronicle of a destructive middle-class family, with Albert Finney, who had been her costar in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Her role as the mistreated and mistreating wife won her the Evening Standard Best Actress award, but the character, whose emotional troubles were close to her own, proved a burden to her. While awaiting the play's transfer to the West End after its initial run, Roberts appeared on a talk-show drunk and out of control. She was subsequently hospitalized to dry out.

In 1973, the actress starred in two plays, The Visit and Chemin de Fer, staged "back to back" by the New Phoenix Company and directed respectively by Harold Prince and Stephen Porter. The roles—Clara Zachanassian in the first, and Francine in the second—demanded a transition from drama to farce, which Roberts carried off with aplomb, receiving a Tony nomination for each of the characterizations, the first "double" in the history of the award. But she was still battling her emotional problems with alcohol and pills. Prince recalled her as "tremendously disciplined" on stage and was surprised by what he saw and heard about her offstage behavior. He recalled receiving a phone call from his colleague, director John Dexter, who had been in Sardi's one evening after a performance of The Visit. "Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something moving. He looked round. What he witnessed was Rachel crawling towards him over the tops of the intervening tables, and when she got near enough to him she hissed, 'That Hal Prince is the coldest son of a bitch I've ever seen in my life.'"

Through the remainder of the 1970s, Roberts continued to drink in excess, but somehow managed to pull herself together enough to maintain a low-level career. In 1976, after roles in the films Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976), and a tour in the British play Habeas Corpus, Roberts was contracted to play the feisty but lovable housekeeper, Mrs. McClelland, on the television sit-com "The Tony Randall Show." During the run of the show, Roberts outwardly appeared to be under control, although she was slipping emotionally and still drinking. Randall later said that he never saw her "other" side. "If anyone had told me she was wild and ungovernable and hooked on alcohol, I simply wouldn't have been able to reconcile that with the woman who played in the show with me for two years." In her journal, Roberts had nothing but disdain

for her role on the Randall show, calling it the "most hateful and humiliating job, degrading and upsetting."

After the series was canceled, Roberts appeared in the British TV film "The Old Crowd" and made several features, including Yanks (1979), the John Schlesinger film about wartime England. Around this time, she began going to the Los Angeles Public Library to write her journals, an activity that seemed to calm her inner chaos. In March 1979, however, after returning from a South Seas holiday with her current lover Darren Ramirez, she began what she described as "this spiral of suicidal depression." She still attempted to work, appearing in a summer-stock production of The Sorrows of Gin and a short-lived pre-Broadway tour of Once a Catholic, but now she was having trouble remembering lines and was often out of control. "Her condition was very noticeable," recalled Ramirez, following the close of Once a Catholic. "She would be crying all the time and unable to get herself out of bed. She had begun receiving Lithium treatment to help calm her and keep her spirits up." Roberts also began attending AA meetings and working with a psychiatrist.

While in this precarious state, Roberts decided she wanted to teach and somehow obtained a position as a lecturer in the drama department of Yale University. At the time, playwright Athol Fugard was also at Yale to stage a production of his new play A Lesson from Aloes, and it was the hope of Lloyd Richards, then dean of the Yale Drama School, that Roberts would play the leading female role in the work, opposite James Earl Jones. Roberts reluctantly agreed to the part, although her character Gladys was also in the throes of an emotional breakdown. "In addition to Gladys's history of mental instability the fictional character and the real-life woman had something else in common which Fugard was certainly not privy to at that time," writes Alexander Walker, who edited Roberts' journals. "Gladys has been keeping personal journals which, before the play opened, had been seized in a security raid and used as evidence against her husband's political associates. This, it was suggested, had triggered her mental breakdown."

Fugard gradually became aware of Roberts' drinking, her obsession with Harrison, and her fear of performing in his play. Rehearsals were agony and her teaching also began to suffer. Eventually, she was forced to leave the play and Yale. In her journal, Roberts wrote that she was relieved about the play and did not want to act again: "I want to live. I hate acting and everything connected with it…. I really only want to talk and drink and eat. Perhaps Rex will help me do all these things and then I can feel protected in the bargain."

Ironically, Roberts' last feature film role was the comic Mrs. Dangers in the 1980 detective parody Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. She called it "an agitated, lonely ordeal." Soon afterwards, she began a series of hospital stays in England and the United States, but her depression remained untouched by any of the treatments she received. She ended her life by ingesting an overdose of barbiturates after having telephoned both Harrison and Ramirez to say goodbye. The last entry in her journal served as her farewell message:

I can't control it any more and I've been trying with all my failing strength. I'm paralyzed. I can't do anything and there seems to be no help anywhere. What has happened to me? Is it that my dependence over the years on alcohol has so severely debilitated me that now, without it, I just cannot function at all? Or is it that my nervous system from birth has always been so very frail that life for me is too much to cope with? That I was the hopelessly dependent little girl who found everything too hard to handle, so that my intelligence and talent have been over-come now that I'm in my fifties and I can't understand it? Day after day and night after night, I'm in this shaking fear. What am I so terribly frightened of?
Life itself, I think.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Walker, Alexander, ed. No Bells on Sunday: The Rachel Roberts Journals (with a documentary biography by Alexander Walker). NY: Harper & Row, 1984.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts