Sir Ralph Richardson was one of the most esteemed British actors of the 20th century and one of his country's most celebrated eccentrics. Well into old age, he continued to enthrall audiences with his extraordinary acting skills -- and to irritate neighbors with his noisy motorbike outings, sometimes with a parrot on his shoulder. He collected paintings, antiquities, and white mice; acted Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Sophocles; and instructed theatergoers on the finer points of role-playing: "Acting," he said in a Time article, "is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing." Like the Dickens characters he sometimes portrayed, Richardson had a distinctly memorable attribute: a bulbous nose that sabotaged his otherwise noble countenance and made him entirely right for performances in tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies. In testament to his knowledge of poetry and rhyme, he married a woman named Meriel after his first wife, Muriel, died. Fittingly, Ralph David Richardson was born in Shakespeare country -- the county of Gloucestershire -- in the borough of Cheltenham on December 19, 1902. There, his father taught art at Cheltenham Ladies' College. When he was a teenager, Ralph enrolled at Brighton School to take up the easel and follow in his father's brushstrokes. However, after receiving an inheritance of 500 pounds, he abandoned art school to pursue his real love: creating verbal portraits as an actor. After joining a roving troupe of thespians, the St. Nicholas Players, he learned Shakespeare and debuted as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice in 1921. By 1926, he had graduated to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and, four years later, appeared on the stage of England's grandest of playhouses, London's Old Vic. Ralph had arrived -- on the stage, at least. But another four years passed before he made his first film, The Ghoul, about a dead professor (Boris Karloff) who returns to life to find an Egyptian jewel stolen from his grave. Richardson, portraying cleric Nigel Hartley, is there on the night Karloff returns to unleash mayhem and mischief. From that less-than-auspicious beginning, Richardson went on to roles in more than 70 other films, many of them classics. One of them was director Carol Reed's 1948 film, The Fallen Idol, in which Richardson won the Best Actor Award from the U.S. National Board of Review for his portrayal of a butler suspected of murder. Three years later, he won a British Academy Award for his role in director David Lean's Breaking the Sound Barrier, about the early days of jet flight. In 1962, Richardson won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actor Award for his depiction of James Tyrone Sr., the head of a dysfunctional family in playwright Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Because of Richardson's versatility, major studios often recruited him for demanding supporting roles in lavish productions, such as director Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1954), Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960), David Lean's Dr. Zhivago (1965), and Basil Dearden's Khartoum (1966). While making these films, Richardson continued to perform on the stage -- often varooming to and from the theater on one of his motorbikes -- in such plays as Shakespeare's Henry IV (Part I and II), Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and Sheridan's School for Scandal. He also undertook a smorgasbord of movie and TV roles that demonstrated his wide-ranging versatility. For example, he played God in Time Bandits (1981), the Chief Rabbit in Watership Down (1978), the crypt keeper in Tales From the Crypt (1972), the caterpillar in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972), Wilkins Micawber in TV's David Copperfield (1970), Simeon in TV's Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and Tarzan's grandfather in Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). In his spare time, he portrayed Dr. Watson on the radio. Sir Ralph Richardson died in 1983 of a stroke in Marylbone, London, England, leaving behind a rich film legacy and a theater presence that will continue to linger in the memories of his audiences.
Biography by Mike Cummings
- Began studying acting after receiving an inheritance, which he used to pay a Brighton theater company to keep him onboard for a year.
- Made his professional stage debut playing Lorenzo in a 1921 production of The Merchant of Venice.
- Joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Volunteer Reserve during World War II, earning the rank of lieutenant commander.
- Was knighted by King George IV in 1947.
- Turned down the role of Estragon in the English debut of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and later said that he regretted the decision.