Robert Morley; Actor Epitomized the English


Robert Morley, the handy British actor who was equally at ease as a lighthearted spokesman for a British airline or the tragic genius that was Oscar Wilde, died Wednesday.

One of the actor's sons, Sheridan Morley, a theater critic, journalist and biographer, said his father was 84 and died peacefully at a hospital in Berkshire, west of London.

"He . . . suffered a severe stroke at home on Sunday afternoon," Sheridan Morley said in a statement.

He said the actor's wife, Joan, son Wilton, daughter-in-law Margaret and grandchildren were at his hospital bedside.

With his dozens of films, earlier stage triumphs and more recent TV commercials for British Airways, Morley had become as synonymous with things English as John Bull himself.

What he was less known for were his writings, among them six plays and a literary romp he called "Pardon Me but You're Eating My Doily," his memoirs of faux pas by his famous friends.

Of his plays perhaps "Edward My Son," written with Noel Langley and made into a 1949 film, will endure longest.

Born in Semley in Wiltshire, England, the triple-chinned Morley was educated at Wellington College (which he loathed, he said, because of an innate distrust of the upper class) and in Germany.

His father was a British Army major whose extravagances occasionally threatened his son's expensive education.

Morley's family tried to steer him into a diplomatic career but the boy, who had been dabbling in theater since he was in kindergarten, rebelled and demanded entrance to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

He said he intended to only "loaf about on the stage" but was encouraged by his teachers to pursue a professional career and first went on stage in 1928 in a long-forgotten play about smugglers called "Dr. Syn."

Between engagements he sold vacuum cleaners, saying later that "I learned all about acting in about three months selling vacuum cleaners door to door." He also wrote his first play, a comedy called "Short Story." It was produced in 1935 and established Morley's theatrical, if not his acting, credentials.

Although Morley was to eventually become one of the quintessential comics of his day, his first success was in "Oscar Wilde," in which he played the ill-fated poet, in 1936. But the play, unfortunately, was staged at London's small Gate Theatre and relatively few people saw Morley's sweeping performance.

When he reprised the role in New York in 1938, critic Brooks Atkinson called him "an extraordinary actor of first rank."

In 1937 he played Prof. Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," also in London.

About that same time he caught the eye of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer scout who had seen him as Alexander Dumas in "The Great Romancer." He came to Hollywood as the feebleminded Louis XVI opposite Norma Shearer in "Marie Antoinette." The performance earned him an Academy Award nomination. Although he was to go on to more than 50 other films, it was his first and last nomination.

Among his other noted pictures were "Gilbert and Sullivan" (as Sir William Gilbert), "Major Barbara" (as Andrew Undershaft), "Topkapi," "Around the World in Eighty Days," "Beat the Devil," "The African Queen," "The Loved One " and "Life at the Top."

One of his later, better-known film appearances was in "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" in which he played a corpulent gourmand.

Morley always professed to be a socialist, although he surrounded himself with material comforts and racehorses.

"There's nothing privileged about owning racehorses--anybody can," he told a fellow actor who accused him of being inconsistent.

Despite his prolific acting career and his playwriting, his books of reminiscences and his essays for Punch and Playboy, he claimed not to have really worked.

"Anyone who works is a fool," Morley once said. "I don't work--I merely inflict myself on the public."

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced. In his typical dry, royally daffy manner, Morley would say he did not want a memorial service because he couldn't bear living with the thought that no one would turn up.

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