Sir Ralph Richardson: Droll, Distinguished, Distracted


Today is the birthday of Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983). Like Gielgud (but unlike, say, Olivier), I tend to picture Richardson primarily in old age. This is because he was very much present as a screen star during my own movie watching years, and so that was how I first saw him: older. Actually, the very first movie I ever saw at a cinema (although I was an infant, and the cinema was a drive-in) was Dr. Zhivago, but I saw that (and Richardson’s memorable performance in it) later many times. Likewise I saw the 1966 comedy The Wrong Box many times on television (it gets a couple of mentions in book Chain of Fools because of its visual silent comedy references). But the films of my own times I associate him with are Rollerball (1975), The Man in the Iron Mask (1977), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Time Bandits (1981), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984), and Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984). That is apparently the one that killed him.

Old age suited him well. He was a master of comic befuddlement, distractedness. One easily pictures him alongside Gielgud for example in the original production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land. But he of course enjoyed several highly distinguished decades before this, starting out in the twenties, becoming a star at the Old Vic in the 30s, actually running the Old Vic with Olivier during the 2nd World War, collaborating periodically with Gielgud, playing the great roles of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, etc etc etc, and acting in the occasional film (his first was The Ghoul, with Boris Karloff in 1933).

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