Sir Ralph Richardson

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Ralph David Richardson

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Arthur Richardson and Lydia Russell
Husband of Meriel Forbes
Father of Charles Richardson

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Sir Ralph Richardson

<The Times, October 11, 1983>


<Great actor in the classical tradition>

Sir Ralph Richardson, who died yesterday at the age of 80, was 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. His Macbeth, his Timon and his Shylock were all disappointing, but those who saw his Peer Gynt, his Falstaff and his Cyrano de Bergerac during the 1944-47 season at the Old Vic have not had the memory of them displaced by any subsequent characterization, and his Micawber in an indifferent film of "David Copperfield", made for American television in 1969, was equally definitive.

He was also the ideal incarnation of J.B. Priestley's heroes. After playing the drunken, unsuccessful actor in "Eden End" in 1934, he played the name part in "Cornelius" (1935). He played Johnson in "Johnson over Jordan" in 1939 and Inspector Goole in "An Inspector Calls" in 1945.

His lifelong association with John Gielgud began at the Old Vic in 1930. First he played Prince Hal with Gielgud as Hotspur and then Caliban to Gielgud's Prospero, benefitting from his suggestions about how to play the monster. The first time he was officially directed by Gielgud was three years later when he was chosen to play the middle-aged Sheppey in Somerset Maugham's play, though he was still only 30.

In the later thirties and throughout most of the forties he was more closely associated with Olivier than with Gielgud, but in 1949 he was rehearsing the leading part of Dr Sloper in "The Heiress" when Gielgud was asked to take over as director, and then in 1953 they appeared together in N.C. Hunter's long running play, "A Day by the Sea". In 1959 Gielgud directed him in Graham Greene's "The Complaisant Lover" and the following year they played together again in Enid Bagnold's "The Last Joke."

In 1962 Richardson played Sir Peter Teazle in Gilegud's production of "The School for Scandal" at the Haymarket, with Gilegud taking over the part of Joseph Surface for the last two of the eight months in London and for the ensuing Broadway run. They appeared together in "Oh What a Lovely War" (1968) and "Eagle in a Cage" (1969) and in 1970 their working relationship culminated in the tremendous success they achieved in Lindsay Anderson's production of David Storey's "Home", in which they both made their first appearance at the Royal Court and later to New York, before transferring to the West End where they also played in a television production of the play. "Home" provided a late turning point in Richardson's career.

In 1971 he returned to the Court to play the lead in John Osborne's "West of Suez" (a part written for Gilegud) and Lindsay Anderson used him again in the film "O Lucky Man!" in which he doubled the roles of a philosophical tailor and a ruthless industrialist.

Ralph Richardson was born on December 19, 1902, at Cheltenham, the third son of an art master at the Ladies' College, All through his life he was attracted by ritual, and as a boy he wanted to become a priest. He was sent to a Jesuit seminary but ran away. He got a job as an office-boy in an insurance company in Brighton, and later took advantage of an opportunity to study art. He wanted to become a journalist but at the same time the desire to act was growing in him, encouraged by the experiences of seeing Sir Frank Benson as Hamlet and of watching comedians like George Robey and Little Tich from the gallery of the Brighton Hippodrome.

At the age of 18 he got his first job in the theatre, by paying for it. There was a small company, half amateur, half professional, in a theatre made out of a disused bacon factory near Brighton station. F.H. Growcott, who ran it, agreed to take him on, for a premium, with the idea of paying him later if he turned out to be satisfactory. The first part he played was a red-coated gendarme in "The Emperor's Candlesticks". Later he graduated to bigger parts doubling Banquo and Macduf in "Macbeth" and by the end of the year that he stayed he was playing leads. He got his first press notice as Malvolio in "Twelfth Night".

His next job was in a Shakespearian touring company run by Charles Doran, and after starting as assistant stage manager and going on to play old men without much to say, he was later entrusted with parts like Orlando, Mark Antony and Macduff; Doran played all the leads himself.

On his 21st birthday Richardson came to London to look for a new job, and his first experience of a modern play was gained on a tour of "Outward Bound", which had been successfully revived at the Garrick, where it was still running. After a couple of years of touring he married the actress Muriel Hewitt and they got jobs together at the Birmingham Rep under Barry Jackson. After a tour of Eden Philpott's comedy "The Farmer's Wife", they were again employed by Barry Jackson in "Yellow Sands" (1926) which had 610 performances at the Haymarket.

During his first Old Vic season Richardson played Bluntschli in "Arms and the Man". Shaw came to rehearsals and told him off dor acting at being out of breath: the flow of the lines was being held up. In his second season at the Vic, after Gielgud had left, his parts included Petruchio, Bottom, Henry V, Brutus and Iago. Between the two seasons he played at Barry Jackson's Malvern Festival, where he returned in the summer of 1932.

He was now becoming very popular with audiences, and he scored a success as the sergent in Shaw's "Too True to be Good" both at Malvern and when it transferred to the New in the autumn of 1932. But it had only a short run, as did the other West End productions in which he was next to appear: Maugham's "For Services Rendered" and "Sheppey", and Priestley's "Eden End" and "Cornelius". But in August, 1936, he enjoyed an enormous success in the main part of the comedy melodrama "The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse" by Barre Lyndon, which ran for 492 performances at the Haymarket.

The association with Olivier began in 1938 at the Old Vic. They both joined the company in 1937, after Tyrone Guthrie had taken over as director in the autumn of 1936, but they did not appear together until the 1938 "Othello", with Olivier rather stealing the show as Iago. When the war started they both served in the Fleet Air Arm and in 1941 Richardson was promoted Lieutenant-Commander. But in 1944 they were both released to codirect the Old Vic.

The season at the New, which followed, were the greatest in the Old Vic's history. Richardson created his Peer Gynt, repeated his Bluntschli, played Richmond to Olivier's "Richard III" and played Uncle Vanya. Falstaff followed during the 1945-46 season, and Richardson's contribution to the 1946-7 season included Cyrano and Inspector Goole.

His 1952 appearances at Stratford-on-Avon, as Prospero, Volpone and Macbeth, were incomparably less successful. After "A Day by the Sea" he toured Australia with his second wife, Meriel Forbes, in Rattigan's double bill "Separate Tables", making a hugely successful come-back to the West End in Bolt's "Flowering Cherry" (1957).

After another success in Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" (1963) he celebrated Shakespeare's Quatercentenary (1964) by leading a company tour of South America and Europe, himself playing Bottom and Shylock. Later in the year he returned to the Haymarket in Graham Greene's "Carving a Statue". Then in 1966 he settled down in this theatre for three successive productions with virtually the same company; "You Never Can Tell", in which he made an endearing waiter; "The Rivals" in which he was not quite irascible enough; and "The Merchant of Venice", in which he repeated his eccentric Shylock.

He worked relatively little on television, but made about 40 films. Characterizations like the butler in "The Fallen Idol", Buckingham in Olivier's "Richard III" and the father in "Long Day's Journey into Night" will preserve his unique combination of talents for posterity, while those who have seen him on stage will never forget him.

His later film appearances indluced Ibsen's "A Doll's House" "Oh Lucky Man!" and "Rollerball". Peggy Ashcroft and he starred in William Douglas Home's "Lloyd George Knew My Father" at the Savoy, London in 1973 and he toured Australia in the same play.

He was an impressive John Gabriel Borkman in Ibsen's play of that name at the National Theatre in 1975 with Peggy Ashcroft as a powerful Ella. In 1976 he was reunited with Sir John Gielgud in Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land", also at the National, showing how brilliantly their two contrasted styles - first seen in David Storey's "Home" in 1970 - beautifully brought out both the comic and the sinister.

Richardson, now well into his 70s, continued to please those who rellished his individual talent in three very different plays, "The Cherry Orchard", "Alice's Boys" and "The Double Dealer", all put out in 1978.

Richardson's first wife, Muriel Hewitt, whom he met while they were both with Charles Doran's Company, and whom he marrired in 1924, died in 1942. He married secondly in 1944 Meriel Forbes, daughter of Frank Forbes Robertson and granddaughter of Norman Forbes. She first appeared with him in "The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse". They had one son.


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Sir Ralph Richardson's Timeline

Age 43
Age 81