Anthony Quayle

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Anthony Quayle Pencil Portrait
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Sir Anthony Quayle, the versatile actor and director who helped establish Stratford-on-Avon as a major centre of British theatre, died of liver cancer at his home in London in 1989. He was 76 years old. That’s the bare facts of his demise. Unfortunately, when I began researching his life and career, I could have sworn he left us twenty years ago. It must be something to do with constant re-runs of his films on television. Like old friends, they keep turning up, both sustaining his memory in our collective consciousness, but also reinforcing how financially duped we’ve all been with the cost of digital multi-channel subscriptions. If I’m interrupted mid stream, as I am often am, there’s little need to hit the record button, for most movies loop round every week like a scene from “Groundhog Day.” All well and good, except that we pay for this incessant repetition. So if the name Anthony Quayle is to become an ever more distant memory – as it may well already be with the under 50’s – his face is unlikely to suffer a similar fate.

Throughout a long and distinguished career, he would perform on the stage, on television and in more than 30 films, and was an Academy Award nominee in 1970 for his supporting role as Cardinal Wolsey in the historical film “Anne of the Thousand Days.” He was knighted in 1985 and in a career that lasted more than a half century, Sir Anthony may be best remembered for his film roles in “Ice Cold in Alex” (1956), “The Wrong Man,” (1957), “The Guns of Navarone” (1961) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).

On the stage, Sir Anthony was an accomplished Shakespearean actor whose roles ranged widely across the classical repertory. On Broadway he was celebrated for his performances in the title roles of “Tamburlaine the Great,” in 1956, and “Galileo,” in 1967.

In 1970, he kept Broadway theatergoers on the edge of their seats as a bloody-minded author of detective stories in Anthony Shaffer’s play ‘“Sleuth.”

Sir Anthony stepped down in July as director of Compass, a touring company he founded in 1984, and was succeeded by Tim Pigott-Smith. He was to have returned to the London stage this fall in ‘‘Never the Sinner,’‘ a courtroom drama by a Chicago playwright, John Logan, but bowed out prior to rehearsals because of poor health.

Born on Sept. 7, 1913, in Ainsdale, England, his father, a Lancashire lawyer who loved the theatre, made sure that the family went to see all the touring companies as they came through town.

“I was supposed to go into the family drug business,” Sir Anthony once recalled, “but I had absolutely no aptitude for chemistry or physics. In school I knew I would only be good at acting or writing.”

At a young age, Sir Anthony once recalled, his ambition awoke to “that most marvelous thing – how a man could suddenly be someone else.”

After completing his secondary education at the Rugby School in 1930, Sir Anthony studied briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His ‘‘first sort of a job,’‘ as he put it, was as straight man to a vaudeville comic in 1931. ‘‘You had to deliver the goods or get off quick,’‘ he said.

In his early years, one of his mentors was the director Tyrone Guthrie, who had seen him at the academy and given him an introduction that got him a job.

That introduction, in 1931, was the beginning of a career that would test him in Shakespeare and most of the classical repertory. “I’ve often thought that if I’d been an American actor, I’d have gravitated into Western or action films,” he said. “In England, you see, I was suitable for other roles – Tanner in ‘Man and Superman,’ Laertes, Henry V – in fact, an enormously varied lot of parts.”

In September 1932, Sir Anthony joined the Old Vic Company, with which he played a variety of small parts for the next few years. He made his Broadway debut in 1936, as Mr. Harcourt in ‘‘The Country Wife,’‘ starring Ruth Gordon. ‘Wasn’t Asked to Be Handsome’

Sir Anthony’s feature-film career began in 1938, in Pygmalion. “I wasn’t asked to be a handsome young man in films because I wasn’t a handsome young man,” he once said.

Throughout his career, he always had to supplement his stage income with work in television and films. “I was in the Tarzan films and ‘Fall of the Roman Empire,’ and one dreary thing after another,” he said.

His other films included ‘‘Hamlet,’‘ (1948), ‘‘Pursuit of the Graf Spee’‘ (1957), ‘‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk’‘ (1958), ‘‘It Takes a Thief’‘ (1960), ‘‘MacKenna’s Gold’‘ (1969), ‘‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask’‘ (1972), ‘‘Great Expectations’‘ (1975) and ‘‘Murder by Decree’‘ (1979).

A burly 6-footer, Sir Anthony was one of the first actors to enlist in the British Army during World War II, serving in the Royal Artillery from 1939 to 1945 and rising to the rank of major. After directing partisan forces in guerrilla operations against the German Army, he became a member of the headquarters staff on Gibraltar. Sir Anthony wrote two novels based on his wartime experiences: “Eight Hours From England” (1945) and “On Such a Night” (1947).

Sir Anthony’s first marriage, to Hermione Hannen, ended in divorce. He married the former American actress Dorothy Hyson in 1947, and they had three children.

He made his debut as a director in 1946 with a London production of ‘‘Crime and Punishment’‘ starring John Gielgud, Peter Ustinov and Edith Evans.

From 1948 to 1956, Sir Anthony also served a highly praised tenure as director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theater at Stratford-on-Avon, later to be known as the Royal Shakespeare Theater.

He performed in or staged more than a score of Stratford productions. In his first season, he appeared as Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Subsequently he played Falstaff in both parts of “Henry IV” in 1951 and in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in 1955.

During those years, he secured the theater’s reputation by luring Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Margaret Leighton and other stars to Stratford, despite the minimal wages they were given.

Although Sir Anthony said that acting was one of his greatest loves, he also once said that ‘‘if you’re an actor, you walk a tightrope between two extremes, between justifiable pride and humility.’‘

“You have to cultivate a complete carelessness of yourself, in a way,” he said, “or else become an egotistical, introspective monster.”

Recommended viewing

The Wrong Man (1956)

Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Serious Charge (1959)

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

HMS Defiant (1962)

Operation Crossbow (1965)

Strange Report (ITC Series) 1968-70

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

21 Hours at Munich (1976)

Recommended reading

Time to Speak (Anthony Quayle) 1992