Paul Scofield, Commanding Actor of the British Stage, Is Dead at 86

Obituaries   Paul Scofield, Commanding Actor of the British Stage, Is Dead at 86
Paul Scofield, whose sonorous voice, commanding presence and mournfully dignified mien made him one of the leading players of the London and international stage during the latter half of the 20th century, has died of leukemia, Reuters reported. He was 86.
Paul Scofield as King Lear.
Paul Scofield as King Lear.

Though he essayed hundreds of classical and modern roles, he is perhaps best known for creating the role of Sir Thomas More, the principled chancellor who defied King Henry VIII and died for it, in Robert Bolt's history play A Man for All Seasons. Reviewers said he possessed a "weary magnificence." He played the part first in London in 1960, then in New York, where he won the 1962 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. It was the only time he graced Broadway. He repeated the portrayal in the film version of the drama, winning an Oscar, thus becoming one of just a handle of performers to claim a Tony and an Oscar for the same part.

In between the London and New York productions of A Man for All Seasons, he was directed by Peter Brook in a famous minimalist 1962 staging of King Lear — one of the most discussed and analyzed Shakespeare productions of the past century. The stage was bare, the lights white and props few. The actors entered while the house lights were still up, and Mr. Scofield's unsentimental interpretation of Lear had the king uncertain in speech and movement, a difficult and trying old man. The influence of Brecht was cited by many critics.

Though only 40 at the time, Mr. Scofield always came off a little older than he was, his face stony and lined even at a very young age, and his version of the role was praised. "This production brings me closer to King Lear than I have ever been," wrote critic Kenneth Tynan. "From now on, I not only know him but can place him in his harsh and unforgiving world." He toured Europe and Russia with the production, playing in Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, among other cities. In a 2004 opinion poll of members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, his King Lear was named as the greatest performance in a Shakespearean play. Voting peers included Ian McKellen, Donald Sinden, Janet Suzman, Ian Richardson, Corin Redgrave and Antony Sher.

His films were few but significant. He repeated his Lear with Peter Brook in a 1971 film, was Tobias in a 1973 film version of A Delicate Balance, was the French King in Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" and the Ghost in the Franco Zeffirelli "Hamlet." He portrayed Mark Van Doren in Robert Redford's 1994 "Quiz Show" (Oscar nomination) and Judge Danforth in Nicholas Hytner's film of The Crucible in 1996 (Golden Globe nomination). Arthur Miller, author of the play the film was based on, thought Mr. Scofield was the world's finest English-speaking actor. Edward Albee, author of A Delicate Balance, offered similar praise. Mel Gibson, the star of "Hamlet," said acting with him was like being "thrown in the ring with Mike Tyson."

Because he never chose to fully court the glamour and celebrity a Hollywood career would bring him — he was a private man, noted for a lack of ego, and disliked being interviewed — Mr. Scofield was never as well known to the public as were contemporaries such as Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness. Conversely, his reputation as an artist never seemed to suffer the low ebbs sometimes experienced by those men. His retiring attitude toward fame extended to his Oscar win. He did not attend the ceremony. When notified that he had won and asked how he planned to celebrate, he replied, "Oh, I suppose my wife and I will open a bottle of champagne with another couple."

He was born in West Sussex, England, on Jan. 21, 1922, the son of a schoolmaster. He attended the Varndean School for Boys in Brighton. There, he played Juliet in a school production of Romeo and Juliet.

While still a teenager, he started training as an actor at the Croydon Repertory Theatre School and then at the Mask Theatre School in London. He attended Oxford, where he famously shared rooms with future novelist Kingsley Amis and future poet Philip Larkin. After service in World War II, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. In 1946 he moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. With his long face, heavy brow and large, watery eyes, he soon won mature parts.

Early on, Mr. Scofield was noted for the intelligence he brought to his performances, his brooding countenance and for his rich voice, which was once compared to a Rolls Royce warming up. "No living actor is better equipped for Hamlet," wrote Tynan in 1955. "On his the right sadness sits and also the right spleen; his gait is a prowl over quicksands, and he can freeze a word with an irony at once mournful and deadly."

His qualities of restraint and gravity were not, however, always relished by critics. John Simon, while admiring his skill, chided him for being "an actor suspicious of poetry and a sworn enemy of passion."

His early roles at Stratford included the title role in Henry V; Cloten in Cymbeline; Don Adriano de Armado in Love's Labour's Lost; Lucio in Measure for Measure; Mephistopheles in Marlowe's Faust; Troilus in Troilus and Cressida; and Hamlet. He frequently collaborated with the innovative Brook, not only in King Lear, but in a 1955 Hamlet and a 1977 Volpone at the National Theatre. He was Konstantin in The Seagull in the West End in 1949 and played twins in Ring Round the Moon in 1950. He played an aging gay barber in Charles Dyer's 1966 Staircase, and was the original Salieri in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.

He won the 1956 Evening Standard Drama Award for The Power and the Glory. (He won the same award in 1962 for King Lear.) A late career triumph came with his performance in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman in 1996, for which he was nominated for a 1997 Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for Best Actor in a Play. It was his final stage performance.

Mr. Scofield married actress Joy Parker in 1943. The marriage, unusual in theatrical circles, endured for more than six decades. The couple had two children; Martin (born 1944), a lecturer in 19th-century English literature at the University of Kent, and Sarah (born 1951).

The actor rarely made news outside of the theatre pages. A rare exception was his repeated rejections of a knighthood. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), but would not be knighted. "If you want a title, what's wrong with Mr.?" he asked. "If you have always been that, then why lose your title?"

Paul Scofield with Alec McCowen in <i>King Lear</i>.
Paul Scofield with Alec McCowen in King Lear. Photo by Gordon Goode
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