As we wrote here, most pirate movie aficionados acknowledge Robert Newton (1905-1956) to be the greatest pirate actor of all time. His performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island set the pirate character template to this day. He later reprised the role in Long John Silver (1954), and in an Australian TV series by the same name. He also played the title character in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952).
Now…you’d think a seemingly rough, gruff guy like that would have some sort of bootstrappy Dickensian background, some sort of orphaned cabin boy, or London bootblack, who found his way to show business by emptying dustbins in a whorehouse. But, nah. It turns out he had a posh upbringing, and by that I don’t just mean one of financial comfort, but that he came from a CULTIVATED family that has contributed much to English and world culture. I’d add that Newton is the black sheep in all that, but that’s only true if you don’t rate theatre and cinema acting as culture, and I certainly hope that isn’t the case!
Newton’s father, Algernon Newton (1880-1968) was a landscape painter and a member of the Royal Academy, known as the “Canaletto of the Canals”. His great-grandather, Henry Newton (d. 1882) was the founder of the family dynasty in that line and was not only a painter, but the co-founder of the art supply concern Winsor and Newton, which still thrives. Robert’s mother, Marjorie Emilia Balfour Rider was the author of the book Mr Duveen: An Allegory. His sister Pauline Mary Newton married editor, journalist and politician Basil Murray, son of classical scholar Gilbert Murray and Lady Mary Howard, daughter of the 9th Earl of Carlisle. Pauline and Basil’s daughter was Ann Paludan, China scholar and author, and diplomat. Paludan’s son Sir Mark Jones is an art historian and museum director. And Robert’s son Kim Newton is a university professor and photojournalist. (The older son, Nicholas Newton stuck closer to the father’s calling and became a theatre producer. His daughter Sally also became an actress).
So Robert took a different path from most of the family. Educated at good schools, he ceased his formal education at age 15, opting for a life on the boards. He started with Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1920 as an assistant stage manager and scenic painter, and played small roles in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion and Henry IV, Part One. Then he went to Canada for a while to work a cattle ranch. By the end of the decade he was on the West End, acting in such things as the original production of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet, and Cardboard Lover with Talullah Bankhead. From 1932 through 1934 he managed the Shilling Theatre.
While he’d made a handful of films previously, Newton’s screen career began in earnest in 1937. Notable films he appeared included Fire Over England (1937), Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), the original British version of Gaslight (1940), Major Barbara (1941), Olivier’s Henry V (1944), Oliver Twist (1948 — as Bill Sykes, naturally), Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1951), Les Miserables (1952), Androcles and the Lion (1952), The Desert Rats (1953), The Beachcomber (1954), and Around the World in 80 Days (1956). And the pirate movies. He had been hired to star as the title character in a color remake of Svengali, but he went on a bender and lost the role to Donald Wolfit. What a loss to us!
In his last years, Newton was a major star, highly paid, and a top box office draw. But drink was his demon and it killed him at age 51. He was widely admired by stars of the younger generation, like Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, both of whom emulated him — and died young as well as a result of their substance abuse. Nothing to say but “aaarrrrrrrr”.