Michael Gambon : biography
From the first Ralph Richardson dubbed him The Great Gambon, an accolade which stuck, outshining his 1990 CBE, even the later knighthood, although Gambon dismisses it as a circus slogan. But as Sheridan Morley perceptively remarked in 2000, when reviewing Nicholas Wright’s Cressida: "Gambon’s eccentricity on stage now begins to rival that of his great mentor Richardson". Also like Richardson, interviews are rarely given and raise more questions than they answer. Gambon is a very private person, a "non-starry star" as Ayckbourn has called him. Off-stage he prefers to back out of the limelight, an unpretentious guy sharing laughs with his fellow cast and crew. While he has won screen acclaim, his ravaged King Lear at Stratford, while he was still in his early forties, formed a double act with a red-nosed Antony Sher as the Fool sitting on his master’s knee like a ventriloquist’s doll.
There were also appearances in Pinter’s Old Times at the Haymarket Theatre and Jonson’s Volpone and the brutal sergeant in Pinter’s Mountain Language. David Hare’s Skylight, with Lia Williams, which opened to rave reviews at the National in 1995, transferred first to Wyndham’s Theatre and then on to Broadway for a four-month run which left him in a state of advanced exhaustion. "’Skylight’ was ten times as hard to play as anything I’ve ever done" he told Michael Owen in the Evening Standard. "I had a great time in New York, but wanted to return".
Gambon is almost the only leading actor not to grace Yasmina Reza’s ART at Wyndham’s. But together with Simon Russell Beale and Alan Bates he gave a deliciously droll radio account of the role of Marc. And for the RSC he shared Reza’s two-hander The Unexpected Man with Eileen Atkins, first at The Pit in the Barbican and then at the Duchess Theatre, a production also intended for New York but finally delayed by other commitments.
In 2001 he played what he described as "’a physically repulsive" Davies in Patrick Marber’s revival of Pinter’s The Caretaker, but he found the rehearsal period an unhappy experience, and felt that he had let down the author. A year later, playing opposite Daniel Craig, he portrayed the father of a series of cloned sons in Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Royal Court, notable for a recumbent moment when he smoked a cigarette, the brightly lit spiral of smoke rising against a black backdrop, an effect which he dreamed up during rehearsals.
In 2004, Gambon played the lead role (Hamm) in Samuel Beckett’s post-apocalyptic play Endgame at the Albery Theatre, London. In 2005 he finally achieved a lifelong ambition to play Falstaff, in Nicholas Hytner’s National production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, co-starring with Matthew Macfadyen as Prince Hal.
In 1990 he played Jerry in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal for BBC Radio 3. In 2006 he played Henry in Stephen Rea’s play about Samuel Beckett’s Embers for Radio 3. In 2007 he was Sam in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for Radio 3.
Films and television
He made his film debut in the Laurence Olivier Othello in 1965. He then played romantic leads, notably in the BBC television series, The Borderers (1968–70), in which he was swashbuckling Gavin Ker. As a result, Gambon was asked by James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli to audition for the role in 1970, to replace George Lazenby. His craggy looks soon made him into a character actor, although he won critical acclaim as Galileo in John Dexter’s production of The Life of Galileo by Brecht at the National Theatre in 1980. But it was not until Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986) that he became a household name. After this success, for which he won a BAFTA, his work includes such controversial films as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, which also starred Helen Mirren.
In 1992 he played a psychotic general in the Barry Levinson film Toys and he also starred as Georges Simenon’s detective Inspector Jules Maigret in an ITV adaptation of Simenon’s series of books. He starred as Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the Hungarian director Károly Makk’s movie The Gambler (1997) about the writing of Dostoyevsky’s novella The Gambler. In recent years, films such as Dancing at Lughnasa (1998), Plunkett & Macleane (1998), and Sleepy Hollow (1999), as well as television appearances in series such as Wives and Daughters (1999) (for which he won another BAFTA), a made-for-TV adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (2001) and Perfect Strangers (2001) have revealed a talent for comedy. Gambon played President Lyndon B. Johnson in the television film Path to War. For this performance, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Mini-series or Movie and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture made for Television. In 2003, he appeared with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner, playing the principal villain in the Western film Open Range.