Scion and Sire of Theatrical Dynasty : Veteran Actor Sir Michael Redgrave Dies at 77

Sir Michael Redgrave, scion and sire of Britain's best-known and longest-running theatrical dynasty, died Thursday in a nursing home, one day after his 77th birthday. The gentlemanly, slightly bemused veteran of 35 films and dozens of memorable stage performances had been suffering with Parkinson's Disease for many years.

Redgrave said that for several years "nobody understood the Parkinson's condition. Directors thought I was just forgetful or drunk." He was admitted Jan. 22 to St. Bartholomew's Hospital and then transferred to the nursing home at Denham, west of London.

His son, Corin, was at his side.

Best known to contemporary American audiences as the father of actresses Vanessa and Lynn and actor-turned-politician Corin, Sir Michael was a respected stage and screen actor in his own right, with a half century of credits ranging from theatrical leads and supporting performances as a member of the Old Vic company to such motion picture triumphs as the smoothly sinister turncoat-villain in the 1955 film version of George Orwell's "1984."

Although considered a specialist in "cerebral" roles, he was one of Britain's most versatile players, reaching the peak of his film career in the late 1940s, when he received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Orin Mannon in the otherwise less-than-satisfactory "Mourning Becomes Electra."

Other honors included the (Danish) Order of Dannebrog, three years as governor of the British Film Institute, longtime presidency of the English Speaking Board, awards from the Cannes and other film festivals, the order of Commander of the British Empire in 1952--and knighthood, conferred in 1959.

His latter years were devoted to supporting roles (in which he frequently outshone the leads), to directing and producing opera and legitimate theater and to writing plays and books, including a 1983 autobiography, "In My Mind's I."

"Not too bad," he told a 1973 interviewer, "for a chap who really never intended to be anything but a country schoolmaster. . . ."

Michael Scudamore Redgrave was born March 20, 1908, in Bristol, England, to an acting tradition that was already well established.

"It began," he told an interviewer in 1969, "with an elegant old party who called himself by the unlikely stage name of Fortunatus Augustus and played the hero in literally hundreds of Victorian melodramas. He was my grandfather--so I suppose you could blame him for all the rest. . . ."

Michael's father, George Ellsworthy Redgrave, was a romantic leading man known as Roy Redgrave, and his mother was also a successful performer, known on stage by her maiden name of Margaret Scudamore.

"One might imagine," Sir Michael said later, "that the youngest member of such a household would simply enter the acting profession as a matter of course. But one would jolly well be wrong. My mother considered acting a precarious livelihood at best and carefully aimed me at a literary career; I was to be a poet or editor, or, failing that, a teacher.

"I can't say exactly why I went along with her plan, except that I'd no real objection--I've always liked to write--and besides, children did pretty much what their parents wanted them to in those days.

"The world was rather simpler then, you know. . . ."

Accordingly, he pursued literary studies, first at Clifton College and then at Magdalene College (Cambridge) and in Germany and France, receiving a Cambridge master of arts degree in 1930 with honors in French, German and English.

He was promptly employed as a modern language master at Cranleigh, a private school.

"But blood will tell," he said with a laugh. "Within the first month at Cranleigh, I found myself involved in producing and directing the school's plays--and I was lost.

"The clincher came during holiday; I got a 'walk-on' part in one production at the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Festival . . . and promptly went larking off to London for a tryout at the Old Vic."

After reading a few lines in his now-celebrated perfect diction, he was found eminently acceptable. But because of an oversight (no one told him he had been chosen for the Old Vic), he went on to audition for William Armstrong of the Liverpool Repertory Theater, who accepted him on the spot.

As a result, Redgrave's professional debut, on Aug. 30, 1934, was as Roy Darwin in the Liverpool Rep production of "Counselor-at-Law."

His performance and the play were both well received, and Redgrave spent the next two years with Anderson's troupe, appearing in such vehicles as "Libel," "The Flowers of the Forest," "Youth at the Helm," "Boyd's Shop," "Storm in a Teacup" and "Twelfth Night."

That final production, in 1936, had immediate consequences: "I discovered a taste for Shakespeare," he explained, "and so I went to work under Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic, playing Ferdinand in 'Love's Labour's Lost.' "

Shakespeare, Hitchcock

Subsequent appearances (in "As You Like It" and "The Country Wife,") drew much favorable notice from British critics, and he remained with the Old Vic for more than a year, appearing in "The Witch of Edmonton," "Hamlet," "The Bat," "Henry V," "A Ship Comes Home" and "Three Set Out," by which time the name Michael Redgrave was becoming well known and he considered himself ready to branch out. He switched to John Gielgud's company for roles in "White Guard," "Family Reunion," "Beggar's Opera," "Thunder Rock" and "The Duke in Darkness," (which he also directed)--and into films, making his screen debut in an early Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic, "The Lady Vanishes."

"There were other changes in my life about then, too," he recalled.

And they were major. Redgrave was married in 1935 to actress Rachel Kempson; it was one of the theater's happiest and most enduring unions and by the early 1940s it had produced three children--Vanessa, Corin and Lynn.

The 1940s also produced a detour in the Redgrave career: World War II sent the actor to the Royal Navy, in which he served as a seaman for nearly two years before being discharged on medical grounds.

Returning to the stage, he directed and acted in "A Month in the Country" and "Parisienne" and collaborated with his old friend and mentor William Anderson in directing the British version of a New York play, "Uncle Harry," in which he also acted.

Broadway Debut

Redgrave's 1948 American theatrical debut (on Broadway in "MacBeth,") drew mixed reviews, but by that time he was already an established screen performer both in Britain and in the United States.

Roles in such British films as "Jeannie," "Kipps," "Thunder Rock" and "The Dead of Night" had brought offers from Hollywood--including one that was, in Sir Michael's words, "simply too good to turn down."

"The money was fine," he said. "But the big thing was that it was a six-months-on, six-months-off thing that would give me half of every year to continue stage work. Even if the films were dreadful, it wouldn't be a total loss."

And he was just about right: The first film ("Mourning Becomes Electra,") was, indeed, dreadful--but it was saved from being a total loss by Redgrave's performance.

He followed this with "The Secret Beyond the Door" and, returning to England, "The Browning Version," for which he won the Cannes Film Festival, Finnish Film Journalists and Film Club of Buenos Aires awards.

"And that," he said, "brought me pretty much to where I'd wanted to be. I was not the most famous, sought-after and highly paid actor on Earth--but I was a competent performer who could work as much as he wanted and take an occasional flyer into directing and producing.

"It was the most marvelous fun!"

Off to the Opera

One of the "fliers" he took was into opera. He had successfully staged and appeared in "Pinafore" and "The Beggar's Opera" and, in the late 1960s, he took the next logical step, producing "La Boheme," in Sussex.

He continued his work in legitimate theater with roles in such diverse fare as "Tiger at the Gates," "The Sleeping Prince," "New York," "The Complaisant Lover" and "Voyage Round My Father," while keeping up a parallel screen career with such films as "Oh! Rosalinda," "Town Without Pity," "The Quiet American," "Shake Hands With the Devil," "Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Young Cassidy," "The Heroes of Telemark," "The Battle of Britain," "Oh! What a Lovely War," "Connecting Rooms," "Goodbye Mr. Chips" and "Nicholas and Alexandra."

He also tried radio and television, debuting in the former as Romeo in an abbreviated BBC version of "Romeo and Juliet" in 1937 and in the latter as Tesman in the 1962 CBS and BBC productions of "Hedda Gabler."

In addition, Redgrave headed his own theatrical production company and wrote two plays and three other books in addition to his autobiography.

Children's Careers

The success of his children's careers appeared to bring him nothing but pleasure--even though they tended in late years to eclipse his own accomplishments.

"I suppose I might be a bit put off by being referred to--as I have been, especially in the American press--simply as Lynn or Vanessa or Corin's da," he said. "But the fact is that I find I rather enjoy it.

"I never really wanted the fame or the glitter of the theater. It's nice, but what really attracts is the chance to perform and direct and produce; to try different things. To see how audiences like them. To enjoy.

"And for me, that seems to have gone off rather well. . . ."

Vanessa Redgrave keeps press conference date before flying to London. Page 1, Calendar.

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