Michael Gambon, whose extraordinary acting career took him from Laurence Olivier’s nascent National Theatre to screen roles in The Singing Detective and the Harry Potter films, has died at the age of 82.
The Cabra-born star made his first appearance on stage in a production of Othello at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1962, when he returned to Ireland following his move to the UK.
A statement on behalf of his wife, Lady Gambon, and son, Fergus, issued by publicist Clair Dobbs, said: “We are devastated to announce the loss of Sir Michael Gambon. Beloved husband and father, Michael died peacefully in hospital with his wife Anne and son Fergus at his bedside, following a bout of pneumonia. Michael was 82. We ask that you respect our privacy at this painful time and thank you for your messages of support and love.”
Memorably called “The Great Gambon” by Ralph Richardson, and admired by generations of fellow actors, he excelled in plays by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Alan Ayckbourn. “I owe an enormous amount to Michael,” said Ayckbourn on Thursday. “He was a remarkable stage performer. It was a privilege to watch him at work on my stuff. You couldn’t really term it acting – more an act of spontaneous combustion.”
It was Ayckbourn who directed him in 1987 in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which won Gambon an Olivier award for his performance as the conflicted Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone. Gambon also starred in Ayckbourn’s ambitious trilogy The Norman Conquests. Other key roles included the eponymous scientist in Brecht’s The Life of Galileo at the National Theatre in 1980, and as the restaurateur returning to visit a former lover in David Hare’s Skylight, which earned him a Tony award nomination on Broadway in the mid-90s.
After Gambon enjoyed an arthouse film success with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), he proceeded to take roles in major movies such as Sleepy Hollow, The Insider and Gosford Park. Then, with a flowing beard and tassel hat, he portrayed Harry Potter’s professor Albus Dumbledore in several blockbusters, taking over the role from Richard Harris after his death in 2002. He lent his rich voice to many films, including as Uncle Pastuzo in both Paddington movies and as the narrator of the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!
With an imposing frame and rueful features, Gambon described himself as looking like the manager of a department store and a “big, interesting old bugger” while Ayckbourn once called him a “wonderful, limitless machine, like a Lamborghini”. Adored by audiences, with a powerful presence that could add weight to the lightest of material, Gambon shielded his privacy and reluctantly gave interviews. In 2004 he told the Observer: “I just plod on and try to keep my mouth shut.”
Gambon left school aged 15 and, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not receive any formal training at drama school, instead gaining experience through performing in amateur productions. He was born in Dublin in 1940; his father moved to London and was a reserve policeman during the second World War. Gambon was taken over to England by his mother to join him at the end of the war. They later moved to Kent, where at the age of 16 he began an engineering apprenticeship in the Vickers-Armstrongs factory. He began to work in amateur theatre as a set builder, then ended up on stage instead in bit parts at the Unity theatre and the Tower theatre in London.
He bluffed his way into his first professional roles by fibbing about his experience, making his debut in Dublin in a small role in Othello. Aged 22, he had his West End debut as an understudy in The Bed-Sitting Room. He also took an acting course at the Royal Court run by George Devine and William Gaskill.
Gambon said that he had never seen a Shakespeare production before he acted in one himself. He had minor Shakespeare roles at the National Theatre and auditioned for the company by performing the role of Richard III – recently and iconically played by Laurence Olivier – in front of Olivier himself. He appeared in Othello at the National with Olivier and in Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole. Then, on the advice of Olivier, Gambon left the National to join the Birmingham Repertory theatre in order to be given larger roles, which included the title part in Othello. Aged 30, he played Macbeth in a production in Billingham that he described as being set in outer space. In the early 80s, he was at the Royal Shakespeare Company performing in Adrian Noble’s productions of King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, sometimes both in the same day, the latter staged at a breakneck pace. In 2005, Nicholas Hytner directed him as Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 at the National Theatre.
On television, he had massive hits with series about two very different sleuths. The first was Dennis Potter’s musical noir The Singing Detective, which cast him as a mystery novelist hospitalised with psoriatic arthritis. The second was a set of Maigret thrillers, playing Belgian author Georges Simenon’s eponymous Parisian policeman. He also played an angel alongside Simon Callow in a TV version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
After appearing in the Samuel Beckett plays Endgame, Eh Joe, Krapp’s Last Tape and All That Fall, Gambon began to withdraw from stage work. In 2014, he said he was having difficulty remembering his lines: “I feel sad about it. I love the theatre but I can’t see myself playing massive parts again.” In 2009, illness led to his withdrawal from starring in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art at the National Theatre, just weeks before opening night, replaced by Richard Griffiths.
Harold Pinter’s plays had brought Gambon some of his best roles, including Jerry in the love triangle of Betrayal and the elegant Hirst in No Man’s Land. After he had stopped performing on stage, his rich, unmistakeable voice could at least be heard in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Mountain Language in the all-star Pinter at the Pinter season in the West End in 2018. – Guardian