Today is the birthday of British actor Donald Wolfit (1902-1968). I first became aware of him when I saw his memorably creepy and strange performance as Dr. Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958), a terrific mad scientist villain. So I investigated…and learned that he was a legendary character of the modern British stage, for reasons both good and bad.
Albert Finney’s bad tempered ham actor character in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser was based on Wolfit, who was renowned for heading his owning touring Shakespeare company for three decades, from 1937 until his death. Wolfit had begun his career as a professional actor in 1920 and had won some critical acclaim for his Hamlet, Lear and Richard III. But his success in the West End was limited, hence Hermione Gingold’s quip “Laurence Olivier is a tour-de-force; Donald Wolfit is forced to tour.” John Gielgud, who’d acted with Wolfit early in his career, said “…we always regarded him as something of a joke.” Bombastic and insecure, Wolfit was said to staff his companies with mediocrities far inferior to him in skill, so that his own talent could be seen to shine all the brighter, although some who served under him, such as Peter O’Toole and Harold Pinter went on to do great things.
Wolfit was primarily a man of the live theatre. Although he did work in film and television, he did not achieve the kind of screen stardom that belonged to many stage actors of his generation. One of his few starring film roles was as the title character in a British remake of Svengali (1954). Other notable films included the aforementioned Blood of the Vampire, a remake of The Hands of Orlac (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Becket (1964). His last screen appearance was the small role of an actor playing MacBeth in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, released posthumously).