Manhattanite of many parts

 

Hurd Hatfield, the stage and screen actor who died in his adopted county Cork on Christmas Day, was never an American so much as a Manhattanite, and - like many of that persuasion - his tendency was always to gaze eastwards, towards Europe and the old culture.

Born in New York in 1918, and most famous for his title role in the 1945 film of Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Hatfield settled here in the early 1970s and became a much-loved figure around Cork. He hadn't lost his knack for holding an audience captive and spent many evenings at his Rathcormac home spinning elaborate and generally unprintable yarns about golden-era Hollywood.

Hurd's own tale has lent that era some of its lustre, and his audition for Dorian Gray has long since passed into Tinseltown legend. Never averse to throwing a hissy fit, he read briefly and disdainfully from the script, flung it to the floor, declared "I don't belong here" and stormed from the room. The director Albert Lewin had seen what he wanted to see and Hurd snapped up the part.

It was a happy casting. In those days, a somewhat icy air blew extra cool over Hatfield's haughtily patrician demeanour and he was a perfect and memorable Dorian. But despite the film's success, friends say that the role dogged him; because of it he felt railroaded into a film career, though he had always defined himself as a stage actor. He disliked the cinematic process, found it tedious and fiddly - "I hate the mechanical side of filming, theatre is the true actor's medium".

His stage talent was significant, the breakthrough coming in the 1930s when he landed a contract with Mikhail Chekhov's legendary Darlington Hall company. Chekhov was a close friend and mentor and later, Hatfield performed extensively in the former Soviet Union, where he attracted and nurtured a vast reputation.

"In Russia, I'm loved like an icon," he said in a 1986 interview, "but in Cork, I'm more like part of the furniture."

Hatfield stormed Broadway too, working with directors of the calibre of Elia Kazan, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Simultaneously, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he developed an instantly recognisable screen persona - his characters were cold-eyed and scheming, at a remove. He appeared in Joan Of Arc with Ingrid Bergman, in El Cid with Charlton Heston and in The Left- Handed Gun with Paul Newman. He worked with Hepburn and Fonda, with Paulette Goddard and Sophia Loren.

In 1974, Hurd came to Ireland, visiting his Dorian Gray co-star, Angela Lansbury, at her home in Conna. Travelling around East Cork, he came across the spectacular, 13th-century sprawl of Ballinterry House. One of the oldest homes in the county, it was in danger of being knocked down when Hatfield intervened, picked it up for a song and spent the next 24 years renovating, decorating and refining it with infinite taste.

One of his closest friends here was the writer Sally Phipps, who remembers Hurd as driven and always creative - "he was a very original, a very innovative person. He was an artist really, that was his temperament". He didn't just act; he danced, sculpted, painted and taught, too.

Often seen knocking around Cork City (he was a regular at the Quay Co-op restaurant, where he'd charm the staff silly), Hurd was for many years a good friend and loyal supporter of the Cork Film Festival, to the extent that the organisers renamed their office building "Hatfield House" in his honour.

His later years were not without drama. Ballinterry House caught fire in 1991 and the north end was destroyed. Undaunted, Hatfield embarked on an ambitious and ultimately successful renovation programme. In January 1996, driving around in his battered Vauxhall Cavalier, he took a wrong turn and careered off a cliff, plummeting 30 feet on to Ballycroneen Strand. The car was a write-off, but Hurd was fine and grumbled about being kept in hospital overnight for observation.

He continued working, wowing the Edinburgh Festival with a one-man show on James Whistler, which he also brought to Russia. His devotion to Russia's culture was intense and prompted an interest in its religion - on his deathbed, he was attended by a Russian Orthodox priest.

A story is told that back in 1986, at the funeral of another Dorian Gray co-star, Donna Reed, Hurd was given a portrait of the younger Dorian that had been used in the film. He brought it home to Rathcormac. "Maybe I'll stick it up in the attic," he said, "and wonder if we can somehow change places."