Brian Bedford, Peerless Classical Actor at Stratford and Broadway, Dies at 80

Brian Bedford, the British-born performer who was one of the great stage actors of his generation, with a peculiar affinity for the classics, and a particular association with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, died Jan. 13 in Santa Barbara, CA. He was 80.

Brian Bedford
Brian Bedford

Mr. Bedford, who was born in Yorkshire, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, alongside such classmates as Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates and Albert Finney. He never attained the cinematic stardom of those three, but he arguably exceeding their achievements by leaps and bounds in the theatre, an art to which he devoted the lion’s share of his efforts, becoming a past master at the works of Moliere and Shakespeare.

He began a long association with Stratford in 1975 by playing Angelo in Measure for Measure. Over the next four decades, he appeared at the festival in the great plays of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Moliere, Sheridan, Shaw Coward and Molnar. Beginning in the ‘80s, he also took the director’s chair on several Stratford productions.

"My relationship with Stratford has absolutely made my life," he told in 2001.

It was while at Stratford that he honed his consummate touch with the classical works of the dramatic canon, bringing unparalleled gravity, variety, freshness and wit, as well as something that can only be called natural charm, to nearly every part he played. In his hands, centuries-old texts came alive anew as he suffused his characters with humor, perception and humanity. He was a favorite with audiences who found in him an utterly human and often light-hearted conduit to plays that weren’t always accessible to modern minds and ears.

He was also known to Broadway audiences. Beginning in 1960 with Five Finger Exercise by Peter Shaffer, he worked regularly in New York. He won a Tony Award for his performance in a 1971 revival of Moliere’s The School for Wives. But it was in the 1990s that he really came into his own as a master thespian, reaping critical acclaim for his every Broadway foray.

From 1992 until 2011, he appeared in Richard Nelson’s Two Shakespearean Actors, about the infamous dueling 1849 New York Macbeths of American actor Edwin Forrest and British thespian; Shakespeare's tragedy Timon of Athens; The Moliere Comedies, a twin bill of two Moliere one-acts; Dion Boucicault’s comedy of manners London Assurance; Moliere’s classic tale of hypocrisy, Tartuffe; and, finally, The Importance of Being Earnest, in which he played Lady Bracknell. The critics lauded him in every role and he was nominated for a Tony for each one, as well as for several Drama Desk Awards. By the time he did the Wilde play, a Bedford turn was a Broadway event not to be missed.

In 1997, he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

Mr. Bedford shared some of the grandiosity of his characters. He was a performer full of juice and vivacity, and something of the manner and malleable face of Charles Laughton. He could imperiously take hold of a room as fiercely as Lady Bracknell, be as big a showboat as William Macready, and as vain as Garry Essedine in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. There was never any question that he was the star of his productions and that the revivals, however expertly executed, were in part vehicles for his talent.

But he always stopped short of converting his performances into ham. The portrayal always suited the part and the play. And he could do as much with a small adjustment as he could with a grand gesture. The furrowing of a brow, the cocking of an eyebrow, the pursing of lips or the slight hesitation in the delivering of a line could elicit peals of laughter from an audience.

Mr. Bedford was skilled as injecting comic and dramatic moments into texts that were not there. As the vainglorious William Macready in Two Shakespearean Actors, he stopped the show when Macready, playing Macbeth, finds himself in a dramatic quandary when, addressed by an upstage Macduff, he is unable or unwilling to turn around, because it would mean he would no longer be facing the crowd. In London Assurance, as Sir Harcourt Courtly, an aged suited desperate to appear young, he took untold seconds trying to find the agility simply to force his old body into a graceful bow.

Perhaps because he did not possess O’Toole or Finney’s striking good looks—his magnetism was of a sly sort—his film career did not amount to much. He made his biggest impression on the screen by lending his mellifluous voice to the vulpine prince of thieves in Disney’s 1973 animated feature "Robin Hood." For years afterward, children would recognized the comic lilt of his voice as that belonging to the cartoon fox.

He didn't seem to mind. "Oh, that's what I'm most famous for!" he said. "Little mites in supermarkets come up to me and ask me to do 'Oo-da-lay-lee.'"

He fetched another rare plum role playing Clyde Tolson, the secret romantic companion of J. Edgar Hoover, in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic "Nixon."

Brian Bedford was born Feb. 16, 1935, the son of Arthur Bedford, a postman, and his wife Ellen. He was half English and half Irish in descent.

His early Broadway and Off-Broadway assignments were in plays by his contemporaries, including The Seven Descents of Myrtle by Tennessee Williams, The Astrakhan Coat by Pauline Macaulay, The Unknown Soldier and His Wife by fellow British actor Peter Ustinov and The Knack by Ann Jellicoe, and directed by Mike Nichols. He won a 1965 Obie Award for the last. He was also in the Broadway premiere of Tom Stoppard’s surreal rumination on philosophy and gymnastics, Jumpers, winning a Drama Desk Award for outstanding performance.

At Stratford, he directed himself in The Lunatic, The Lover & The Poet, an adaptation of Shakespearean texts, London Assurance, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Misanthrope. He took The Lunatic to Off-Broadway in 1990.

In 2005, he made his sole appearance in Central Park, playing Jacques in As You Like It.

Explaining his devotion to the classics to in 2001, he said, "Well, where are the new plays? Is there such an animal?... Unfortunately, once you get used to these really magnificent texts, you are kind of spoiled. [Everything else] is a bit small and a bit thin. I suppose it's like a musician getting used to Beethoven and Mozart and the greats. It's kind of fun to do other things, but the reward is incomparable in, for instance, Moliere and Shakespeare."