The son of Aberdeen-based art critic and journalist John Forbes-Robertson and the former Frances Cott, Johnston Forbes-Robertson studied to be an artist, but was sidetracked by the theater. His professional career began in 1874, at age 21, as Chastelard in a production of Mary Queen of Scots. Over the next four decades, he became one of the most celebrated stage actors in England, known for a vast range of roles in works dating from Elizabethan to modern times, including the plays of George Bernard Shaw -- as a critic Shaw himself was particularly enamoured of Forbes-Robertson's portrayal of Hamlet. Another very popular part for Forbes-Robertson was that of the Christ-like Stranger in Jerome K. Jerome's play The Passing of the Third Floor Back, which he first did in 1908 and performed many times in subsequent productions. Forbes-Robertson was knighted in 1913, the year of his farewell to the English stage, and he spent the next three years working in America, including a 1915-1916 tour on which he went through virtually his entire repertory. Forbes-Robertson returned to England and only performed intermittently after 1916, coming out of retirement on special occasions. He was part of a generation of actors to whom movies were nothing more than an adjunct to a career, but he did use the film medium to preserve (visually, at least) his Hamlet, in a 1913 version directed by Hay Plumb, the cast of which included actor/director Robert Atkins. His other movies from the silent era were Masks and Faces (1917) and The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1918), which immortalized his dignified, mystical portrayal of the Stranger. Forbes-Robertson was in his late seventies and long retired by the time sound came to films, and missed virtually any opportunity that he might have had to act with his voice onscreen. During his last year, however, at the age of 84, he came out of retirement very briefly in order to portray Pat O'Moore in the Irish-made feature-film musical Kathleen.
by Bruce Eder biography