Eric Porter

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Eric Porter Pencil Portrait
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When television producers were casting demons and po-faced characters in the Sixties and Seventies, the London born actor Eric Porter seemed to be on all their shortlists, becoming an international star as Soames Forsyte in the BBC’s prestigious 26 episode series The Forsyte Saga.” In 1967 and again the following year when the series was repeated, he was undoubtedly the biggest television star in the world as the Corporation earned untold sums from overseas sales. More than fifty years on, memories of this most distinguished of thespians comes ironically from regular television screenings of three minor supporting roles he contributed to “The Heroes of Telemark” (1965), “The Day of the Jackal” (1973) and “The 39 Steps” (1978.)

The role of the brutal lawyer in John Galsworthy’s story of a family of London merchants at the turn of the century catapulted Porter to world- wide fame – and infamy. “They buttonholed me in Detroit, in Malta and on a Spanish beach”, Porter once said. “There was no hiding place. Even in Budapest this large lady with dyed hair came beaming over, placed a plump hand on my chest and said, “Aaaach, Soooames Forsyte”.

He made his first Broadway appearance as the Burgomaster in “The Visit” at the opening of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and, back in Britain, played Rosmer in Rosmersholm at the Royal Court Theatre, which won him the London Evening Standard Drama Award as Best Actor in 1959.

Porter’s television career began with “The Physicist” and he later appeared in “The Wars of the Roses” (1965), before fame came with the part of the brutal Soames Forsyte, in 1967. The Forsyte Saga, adapted from John Galsworthy’s novel, was an instant hit, featuring Porter as a monster who is incredibly cruel to his first wife, Irene (played by Nyree Dawn Porter), but who became loved by female viewers throughout the world. However, the scene where Soames rapes Irene shocked everyone – including the cast and crew. ‘‘I tugged and pulled at her bodice,’‘ Porter recalled, ‘‘and to everyone’s horror, there was blood all over the place. I had gashed my hand on a brooch she was wearing.’‘ The role won him Best Actor awards from Bafta and the Guild of Television Producers and Directors but the likelihood of repeat showings today is hampered by the production being the last important television drama series to be made in black and white.

Having made his name, Porter took the title roles in television productions of Cyrano de Bergerac (1968) and Macbeth, appeared in The Winslow Boy, Man and Superman – opposite Maggie Smith – Julius Caesar and Separate Tables. He and Nyree Dawn Porter played man and wife one more time in an episode of Love Story called “Spilt Champagne”. Ten years after The Forsyte Saga made waves, Porter teamed up again with its producer, Donald Wilson, and reprised his viciousness in a BBC adaptation of Anna Karenina, in which he played the dull government official Karenin, who throws his pregnant wife Anna (Nicola Pagett) across the bedroom into a chair.

His subsequent television roles included Neville Chamberlain in “Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years” (1981), a po-faced deputy governor in “The Crucible,” an ageing playwright in “A Shilling Life,” Moriarty in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and Fagin in “Oliver Twist.” He also played the elderly, silver-haired Russian aristocrat Count Bronowsky in the 1984 blockbuster series “The Jewel in the Crown2 as well as appearing more lightheartedly in “The Morecambe and Wise Show. “ Porter died in 1995 at the age of 67, a victim of cancer of the colon.

For those interested in learning more about this universally admired and likeable actor, there is a highly recommended biography written by Helen Monk and published in 2017 “Eric Porter – The Life of an Acting Giant.”

Recommended reading

Eric Porter - The Life of an Acting Giant (Helen Monk) 2017