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Rachel Roberts

Birthdate: (53)
Death: 1980 (53) (suicide)
Immediate Family:

Ex-wife of Alan Russell Dobie and Sir Rex Harrison

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts (20 September 1927 – 26 November 1980) was a Welsh actress noted for her fervour and passion; Roberts is best remembered for her forthright screen performances in two key films of the 1960s, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life, in both of which she played the older mistress of the central male character. In Australia, she is remembered for her performance as Mrs Appleyard in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.


After a Baptist upbringing (against which she rebelled), followed by study at the University of Wales and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she began working with a repertory company in Swansea in 1950. She made her film debut in the Welsh-set comedy Valley of Song (1953), directed by Gilbert Gunn.

Her portrayal of Brenda in Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) won her a British Academy Film Award. Lindsay Anderson cast her as the suffering Mrs Hammond in This Sporting Life (1963), earning another BAFTA and an Oscar nomination. Both films were significant examples of the British New Wave of film-making.

In theatre, she performed at the Royal Court and played the title role as the life-enhancing tart in Lionel Bart's musical Maggie May (1964). In films, she continued to play women with lusty appetites as in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! (1973), although the haunting Australian-made Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), directed by Peter Weir, provided her with a different kind of role, as the authoritarian head teacher of a Victorian girls' school.

After relocating to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, she appeared in supporting roles in several American films such as Foul Play (1978). Her final British film was Yanks (1979), directed by John Schlesinger, for which she received a Supporting Actress BAFTA.

In 1979, Roberts co-starred with Jill Bennett in the London Weekend Television production of Alan Bennett's The Old Crowd, directed by Lindsay Anderson and Stephen Frears.

Personal life and suicide

She married firstly Alan Dobie (1955–1961), then Rex Harrison (1962–1971). Both marriages ended in divorce. Her alcoholism and depression increased after her divorce from Harrison. Devastated over their divorce, she moved to Hollywood in 1975 and tried to forget the relationship. In 1980, a final attempt to win Harrison back proved futile; and, impulsive and insecure, she committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol on 26 November 1980, at her home in Los Angeles.

It was reported that her death was a result of swallowing lye, alkali, or another unidentified caustic substance as well as the barbiturates, as detailed in her posthumously published journals. The acidic effect of the poisonous agent was an immediate cause of death, which propelled her through a decorative glass divide between two rooms. Her body was found by her gardener on her kitchen floor, cut to ribbons and lying amidst shards of glass. The coroner reported the cause of death as "swallowing a caustic substance" and, later, "acute barbiturate intoxication". It was ruled a suicide. She was 53 years old.

She was cremated at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles. Her journals became the basis for No Bells on Sunday: The Memoirs of Rachel Roberts (1984).

In 1992, Roberts' ashes, along with those of her very good friend Jill Bennett, were scattered on the River Thames in London by director Lindsay Anderson during a boat trip, with several of the two actresses' professional colleagues and friends aboard; musician Alan Price sang "Is That All There Is?". The event was included as a segment in Anderson's BBC documentary film, also titled Is That All There Is?.


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Rachel Roberts's Timeline

Age 53

<Daily Telegraph, November 28, 1980>


By Ian Brodie in Los Angeles

RACHEL ROBERTS, the fiery and talented Welsh actress who had a stormy
marriage to Rex Harrison, found dead in the garden of her home in Los
Angeles, was apparently the victim of a heart attack. She was 53.

Police said yesterday that there was no evidence of foul play, nor
anything else suspicious about the death although there will be a
post-mortem examination, Miss Roberts was found by the gardener.

At a party a few weeks ago she told friends she was in Hollywood to
make a film with Peter Ustinov. Before that she had been living in New

Mr. Harrison was also in Los Angeles yesterday for the opening of his
stage revival of "My Fair Lady", but he could not immediately be
reached for comment.


He married Miss Roberts, his fourth wife, in a civil ceremony in
Genoa, Italy, in 1962. That was two years after her divorce from her
five year marriage to the British actor Alan Dobie.

Later Miss Roberts spoke bitterly about Mr. Harrison in an interview:
"I used to be a very good actress. Then I married Rex Harrison and got
lost. I just ceased to exist.

"We led a very aristocratic life in Paris and on yachts and in our
villa at Portofino - walking the dog for two hours, then taking a nap,
then having friends by for drinks. Rex was 20 years older than I. He
was always the star and I was never anything."

Miss Roberts said he did not want her to work, although she did a few
plays. As the marriage deteriorated "there were terrible fights and
sadnesses, but I can't complain. Nobody ever promised me a glass

Born in Llanelly, the daughter of a clergyman, she was a graduate of
the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Old Vic and the Royal
Shakespeare Company.

She won the British film award for the best actress twice for "This
Sporting Life" and "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and was
nominated for an Oscar in 1963 for the former. Both films were raw and
earthy, bringing the element of kitchen-sink drama to the British

Miss Roberts' acting range was wide enough, however, to take her into
other mileux with such films as "Murder on the Orient Express", "Our
Man in Havana", "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "O Lucky Man". Last year
she was back in a British working-class setting as the distraught
mother in "Yanks."

Miss Roberts was often tempestuous but she also cut a vulnerable
figure. Friends said she had been looking ill lately and, in the weeks
before her sudden death, may also have been rather lonely.

Rex Harrison last night created something of a mystery by suggesting
that Miss Roberts committed suicide. Arriving at the Pantages Theatre
in Hollywood for a "My Fair Lady" rehearsal, he said: "Suicide is
always a great tragedy."

The Coroner's office said there would be a post-mortem because it was
a sudden death.