John Merivale, 72; Debonair British Actor

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

John Merivale, who played distinguished English gentlemen in such movies as “A Night to Remember,” “King Rat” and “Arabesque” in the 1950s and ‘60s, died Tuesday, his family said. He was 72.

Merivale, the son of Philip Merivale, a leading man in films, had appeared on stage, film and television. He died in his sleep in London’s Charing Cross Hospital, his family said. Cause of death was pneumonia following a long illness resulting from renal failure, a hereditary illness that killed his father.

Handsome, tall, courteous and charming, he was born into a theatrical family in Toronto. His mother was actress Viva Birkett. His father later married actress Gladys Cooper.


Merivale, who lived with Vivien Leigh until her death in 1967, was educated at Rugby, a prestigious private school, and at Oxford University. His Oxford stay was cut short, partly because of his father’s financial problems after an investment in a disastrous Shakespearean production.

Merivale entered the movies in 1933; his first role was as a newspaper vendor.

In 1938, he appeared on stage in London and met Leigh, soon to become Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” and the future wife of Sir Laurence Olivier. In 1940, Merivale appeared in a short-run New York production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” produced and financed by her and Olivier.

Merivale made much of his early acting career in the United States. He appeared in Cecil Beaton’s New York production of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in 1946 and in Rex Harrison’s New York production of “Anne of a Thousand Days” in 1948.

He married actress Jane Sterling in 1941. After their divorce in 1948, he returned to England, appearing in London stage comedies like “The Reluctant Debutante” while making a name for himself in movies.

One of his best-remembered movie roles was in “A Night to Remember” (1958), about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. He played a husband who sees his family safely into the crowded lifeboats, then goes down with the liner.

During the 1950s, while continuing with his stage and movie work, Merivale made a successful career in television, appearing in “The Third Man” series, “The Gentle Goddess,” “The Verdict is Yours” and other shows.


Merivale and Miss Leigh began a discreet affair after her separation from Olivier. She and Olivier were divorced in 1960, and she and Merivale lived together. The couple announced wedding plans in 1961 but never followed through.

Miss Leigh and Merivale acted together in London and on a world tour in 1958 in the play “Duel of Angels.” They also appeared in John Gielgud’s Broadway staging of “Ivanov” in 1965.

In 1986, Merivale married his second wife, actress Dinah Sheridan, who survives him.