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Remembering Michael Gambon

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released

One of Britain's greatest actors left the stage this week. Cinema Paradiso pays tribute to Michael Gambon, who has died at the age of 82.

Michael Gambon didn't like doing interviews and would occasionally amuse himself by slipping in fibs, such as the claim that he had been a promising dancer with the Royal Ballet before he had fallen off the stage and landed in the timpani. He was also a notorious practical joker, who once slipped a fart machine into Daniel Radcliffe's sleeping bag while shooting a scene for the Harry Potter franchise.

Gambon was incredibly modest about his talent, telling one interviewer, 'I admire technical facility in others, but I'm a hit-and-miss merchant. I'm afraid I do my own sort of thing.' Another was informed, 'every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. I'm not really a character actor at all.' To Gambon's mind, 'You just do it. That's what acting is.'

He wasn't bothered what parts he played: 'I never turn down a role. I always take it.' But Gambon took his art very seriously and confirmed the centrality of acting to his existence in 2010, when he revealed, 'When I'm not working, which is rare, I don't exist.'

A Tale of Two Cities

A still from The Beast Must Die (1974)
A still from The Beast Must Die (1974)

Born in the Cabra suburb of Dublin on 19 October 1940, Michael John Gambon was the son of engineering operative Edward Gambon and his seamstress wife, Mary Hoare. When Michael was six, his father decided to move to London, as there was plentiful work rebuilding the blitzed capital. They settled in Mornington Crescent in Camden and Edward applied for his son to become a British citizen to ensure he didn't suffer the disadvantages of being an immigrant. He also insisted on him receiving a Catholic education and he left St Aloysius School in Somers Town for St Aloysius' College in Highgate, whose old boys included Peter Sellers. When the family moved to North End in Kent, Gambon endured a miserable time at Crayford Secondary School. 'I have no happy memories of school whatsoever, just of being hit,' he complained in an interview. 'I had one master who used to spend his time just digging me in the chest with his fingers.'

Leaving school at 15, with no qualifications, Gambon elected to take a five-year tool-making apprenticeship at Vickers-Armstrong, staying on for another year to develop the technical skills that would facilitate his later hobbies of collecting antique guns and timepieces. He was also obsessed with cars and one of his proudest achievements was having a corner named after him after he took it on two wheels during the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car challenge on Top Gear (2002-).

Gambon also learnt precision from his engineering days and this fed into his acting after he drifted into theatre as a set builder. Although he didn't see a play until he was 19, he was an avid moviegoer. As he recalled: 'I went to see James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and when we came out I was walking down the street with my friend and we passed a theatre where there were display cases of photographs of the actors. My friend said to me, "They're doing what he's just been doing," and I hadn't put that together, the theatre and the film. I thought, "Well, I can do that." You wouldn't think you could do that watching James Dean, but you'd think you could do that looking at a theatre box with two blokes sitting on a sofa. So I think that's it. Does that make sense? It doesn't to me.'

Hanging around backstage, Gambon was talked into taking bit parts and he soon began appearing regularly at the Unity and Tower theatres. Realising he enjoyed being someone else, he wrote letters seeking employment. In typically mischievous fashion, he informed Micheál Mac Liammóir, the esteemed director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin that he had just played Marchbanks in George Bernard Shaw's Candida in the West End and would be happy to pop in en route to Broadway. The ruse worked and the 24 year-old was hired to play Second Gentleman in a production of William Shakespeare's Othello that toured Europe during 1962.

Suitably emboldened, Gambon made his West End debut as an understudy in The Bed-Sitting Room and took a class in improvisational acting with William Gaskill at the Royal Court. In 1963, he auditioned for the new National Theatre Company at the Old Vic and impressed Sir Laurence Olivier by doing a speech with which he was closely associated from Richard III. Such was his focus that Gambon failed to notice he had gashed his hand on a nail in the scenery and he joined Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi, and Frank Finlay among the spear-carriers Olivier predicted would come 'to be renowned'.

Billed as 'Mike Gambon', he started with a minor role in Hamlet, which saw Olivier direct Peter O'Toole in the title role. Over the next four years, he rose steadily up the cast list, working with several acclaimed directors in a range of classical and modern dramas, as well as comedies. When he asked Olivier to consider him for a lead, however, he took his mentor's advice and joined the Birmingham Repertory Company, where he drew enthusiastic notices for his performances in Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus. At the age of 27, Gambon had arrived.

All the World's a Stage

Cinema Paradiso is all about film and television, although there are a fair number of filmed plays and operas among the 100,000+ titles on offer. Given the popularity of beaming plays from the West End and Stratford into UK cinemas, it's perhaps surprising that more recordings of landmark theatrical productions have not been made available on disc for posterity, study, and entertainment.

None of Gambon's keynote performances can currently be obtained on disc, although several screen adaptations can be rented with other actors in the roles. Use the Cinema Paradiso searchline to make your selections. As his stage work proved so pivotal to his evolution as an artist, however, we shall linger a little longer than we usually would over Gambon's career on the boards.

In 1974, following a stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Gambon was cast as Tom the vet in Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, which confirmed his gift for comedy. Four years later, he excelled alongside Penelope Wilton in Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which revealed an vulnerability that was blended with power in Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo (1980). Such was the impact that Gambon made in this tragedy that he was applauded in his dressing room by his castmates on opening night.

Ralph Richardson was so impressed that he dubbed him 'Gambon the Great' and he would later state, 'It was the hardest part I've ever played…the most important thing in my life really.' Adaptations of King Lear (1982) and Antony and Cleopatra (1983), with Helen Mirren, were equally lauded before Gambon won the first of his three Olivier Awards (from 10 nominations) for Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval (1985), which was filmed by Michael Winner in 1988 with Anthony Hopkins in the role of director Dafydd ap Llewellyn.

A second Olivier followed as longshoreman Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge (1987), with a feted lead in Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1988) coming before a third win as Douglas Beechey, the everyman who thwarts a bank robbery in Ayckbourn's Man of the Moment (1990). Lauded displays in Othello (1991) and Ben Jonson's Volpone (1995) presaged Gambon's sole appearance on Broadway, in David Hare's Starlight (1996), which earned him a Tony nomination.

Yasmina Reza's The Unexpected Man (1998) brought more accolades, as did a remarkable run of Pinter's The Caretaker (2000), Caryl Churchill's A Number (2002), Samuel Beckett's Endgame (2004), and both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV (2005), in which he got to play Sir John Falstaff. Critics also purred over his work in Pinter's Celebration (2005) and No Man's Land (2008) and Beckett's Eh Joe (2006) and Krapp's Last Tape (2010). But ill health forced him to withdraw from playing poet W.H. Auden in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art (2009), while increased difficulty in learning lines convinced Gambon to give up the theatre in 2015. He considered it the hardest decision he had ever had to take.

Tentative Steps on Screen

A still from The Beast Must Die (1974)
A still from The Beast Must Die (1974)

Despite making his film debut in Peter Burge's version of Olivier's Othello (1965), Gambon had to wait until 1973 before he got his second outing, as Inspector Grant in Peter Sasdy's Nothing But the Night. Another horror role followed, as werewolf Jan Jarmokowski in Paul Annett's The Beast Must Die (1974). But Gambon's only screen appearances over the next 11 years would be on television.

Episodes of Public Eye (1965-75) and Fraud Squad enabled Gambon to learn the technique of playing to camera. But he was rather thrown in to the deep end as the dashing 16th-century Scottish warrior Gavin Ker in The Borderers (1968-70), although this 26-part costume adventure attracted a cult following that included Cubby Broccoli.

Dissatisfied with George Lazenby's display in Peter R. Hunt's On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), the 007 producer auditioned a number of actors to be his possible successor. Surprised to be asked, Gambon protested, 'I've got no hair. I've got a double chin, a fat gut and I don't look like him at all.' But in confiding that Sean Connery wore a toupee to play James Bond, Broccoli seemed to remind himself of the Scotsman who had originated the role on the big screen and enticed him to return for Guy Hamilton's Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Following this brush with cinematic immortality, Gambon cropped up in Softly Softly: Task Force (1969-75), Special Branch (1969-74), Six Days of Justice (1972-76), and Zodiac (1974), as well as A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, Catholics (both 1973), and Orson Welles: Great Mysteries (1973-74), in which Gambon essayed Major Rolfe in the episode, 'An Affair of Honour'.

A still from Bergerac: Series 5 (1987)
A still from Bergerac: Series 5 (1987)

Making a change from regular call ups to such drama showcases as Play For Today, Play of the Month, and ITV Playhouse, the BBC sitcom The Other One (1977-79) paired Gambon with Richard Briers in an odd couple scenario that should be better known. Showing his versatility, he also guested in 'The Umbrella Man' in Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88), 'Winner Takes All' in Bergerac (1981-91), and 'Guess Who's Coming to Pinner?' in Minder (1979-94), while also doing some sterling thesping in 'A Play For Love' (1978) and 'Mountain Language' (1988) , which can respectively be found on Alan Plater At ITV (2011) and Pinter At the BBC (2019).

With a little luck, Gambon might have made his breakthrough in the Ayckbourn adaptation, Absurd Person Singular, or the three-part Oscar Wilde bio-drama, Oscar (both 1985). But he won a BAFTA and became a household name at the age of 46 as Philip Marlow in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986). Whether suffering in bed from the pustulating effects of psoriatic arthropathy, imagining himself as a 1940s private eye, or crooning in a nightclub, Gambon was compelling and confirmed Ayckbourn's contention that he had the unerring knack of latching on to the complexities of seemingly simple men.

Forced to spend two hours for the application of make up that melted under the lights, Gambon remained in good humour, once giving Joanna Whalley's nurse a shock when she pulled back the bedclothes to discover that he had painted gold stockings and suspenders on to his legs.

Small-Screen Stalwart

It has always been more difficult to find television programmes on disc than motion pictures. Thus, while the release of Judi Dench At the BBC (2007) has made it possible to see Dench, Gambon, and Kenneth Branagh in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts' (1987), fine productions like Harold Pinter's adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day (1989) have been denied a release. This is particularly frustrating, as Gambon excels as the postwar mystery man who informs Patricia Hodge that lover Michael York is a spy.

Nevertheless, Cinema Paradiso users can catch up with Gambon's inspired interpretation of Jules Maigret, the Parisian police commissaire who featured in 78 novels by the prolific Belgian writer, Georges Simenon. Filmed in Budapest, Maigret (1992-93) presented 12 cases, in which Gambon added sly wit to the rigour and intensity that had characterised the small-screen portrayals of Rupert Davies (1960-63) and Bruno Cremer (1992-2005) .

Moving into children's television, Gambon voiced Badger alongside Michael Palin's Rat, Alan Bennett's Mole, and Rik Mayall's Toad in Dave Unwin's charmingly animated take on Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1995). A year later, he was seen as King Hanun in Nicolas Roeg's mini-series, The Bible: Samson and Delilah (1996). However, he was even better suited to the role of Squire Hamley in the BBC serial based on Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (1999), which earned him the BAFTA for Best Actor.

A still from Path to War (2002)
A still from Path to War (2002)

A third success in the category followed a year later for Charles Sturridge's Longitude (2000), in which Gambon played John Harrison, the self-taught 18th-century clockmaker who seeks to win a prestigious prize by perfecting the marine chronometer. Further acclaim came for Samuel Beckett's Endgame (2000) and Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers (2001), which resulted in another BAFTA for playing Raymond, the patriarch who suffers a stroke while reluctantly attending a family function. Equally lauded was Gambon's performance as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in John Frankenheimer's Vietnam mini-series, Path to War (2002), which brought Gambon Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.

Reuniting with Poliakoff, Gambon delighted as Edward VII racing butter pats down his trouser legs in The Lost Prince before joining Simon Callow in playing a spectral ancestor of Justin Kirk in Mike Nichols's Angels in America (both 2002), which required an all-star cast to do justice to Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning AIDS drama.

Gambon and Poliakoff joined forces again in Joe's Palace, a follow-up to Capturing Mary (2007) that cast Danny Lee Wynter as the caretaker of the London mansion owned by agoraphobic billionaire Elliot Graham (Gambon). The same year saw Gambon return to Gaskell country, as farmer Thomas Holbrook, who takes a shine to Judi Dench's Matty Jenkins in the five-part BBC adaptation of Cranford. He would reprise the role in Return to Cranford and remained in period dress to make a splendid Mr Woodhouse opposite Romola Garai as his meddling daughter in a witty four-part BBC version of Jane Austen's Emma (both 2009).

Having garnered another Primetime Emmy nomination, this time for Outstanding Supporting Actor, Gambon turned narrator for the comic sword-and-sorcery series, Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire (2009). He also relished the role of Kazran Sardick, the miserly controller of a cloud layer who thwarts the attempts of Matt Smith's Time Lord to rescue the passengers of a stricken space liner in 'A Christmas Carol', a special 2010 festive episode of Doctor Who (1963-).

In 2011, Gambon played MI5 boss Benedict Baron in Page Eight, the first part of David Hare's Worricker Trilogy, which starred Bill Nighy as worldy wise agent Johnny Worricker and continued on into Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield (both 2014). A teaming with Dustin Hoffman in the horse-racing drama, Luck, proved short-lived when three animals died on set. But Gambon quickly moved on to play Baron Mansfield of Hampton Cleave, the older version of Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell), who had known Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) when she was wartime agent Eva Delectorskaya (Hayley Atwill) in Edward Hall's two part tele-adaptation of William Boyd's Restless (2012).

A still from Lucan (2013)
A still from Lucan (2013)

Gambon and Rufus Wright shared the role of John Burke over time in Jeff Pope and Adrian Shergold's Lucan (2013), a two-part investigation into the life and disappearance of John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (Rory Kinnear). He also spent three episodes as Judge Garret Griffin alongside Gabriel Byrne's 1950s Irish pathologist in Quirke, Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson's BBC adaptation of the crime novels that John Banville wrote under the pen name, Benjamin Black. Jimmy McGovern's teleplay for David Blair's Common (both 2014) also required Gambon to sit in judgement in a case of murder involving common purpose.

Forging a formidable double act with Julia McKenzie, as Pagford bigwigs Howard and Shirley Mollison, Gambon cast an air of malevolence over The Casual Vacancy (2014). This three-part take on the J.K. Rowling bestseller is available from Cinema Paradiso, as is Churchill's Secret, which sees Gambon on fine form in an ITV account of the crisis that was averted after Winston Churchill suffered a stroke while Prime Minister in early 1953. Also worth catching is The Nightmare Worlds of H.G. Wells (both 2016), which featured Ray Winstone in the title role and Gambon as the wealthy Egbert Elvesham swapping bodies with the younger Edward Eden (Luke Treadaway) in 'The Late Mr Elvesham'.

Returning to Shakespeare on the small screen for the first time since he debuted as a watchman in a 1967 production of Much Ado About Nothing, Gambon played Mortimer in The Hollow Crown (2016), which was based on Henry VI, Part One. He also trod the corridors of power as former Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet Sir Alastair McKinnon in Fearless (2017), a six-part dramatic reconstruction of the bid by human rights lawyer Emma Banville (Helen McCrory) to overturn a 14 year-old murder conviction.

Later that year, Gambon slipped effortlessly between being grumpy and gracious as Mr Laurence, the next-door neighbour of the March family in a three-part BBC reworking of Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women. So, when memory issues caused him to withdraw from the comedy series, Breeders, Gambon got to end his television career as Henry Tyson, the award-winning wildlife photographer dying of cancer in the eponymous Norwegian Arctic settlement in Fortitude (2015-18).

Finding His Film Feet

A still from Little Women (2017)
A still from Little Women (2017)

Cinema played no part in Gambon's journey for 11 years, while he established himself on stage and television. He returned as George Fairbairn, a keeper at London Zoo who assists a children's author (Glenda Jackson) and a bookseller (Ben Kingsley) liberate some captive creatures in John Irvin's Turtle Diary (1985), which was adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Russell Hoban. Sadly, neither this nor David Hare's Paris By Night (1988) or Damian Harris's take on Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers (1989) are currently available to rent. But Cinema Paradiso users can see Gambon taking the minor role of a magistrate in Euzhan Palcy's A Dry White Season (1989), an Apartheid era courtroom drama that earned Marlon Brando an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Moreover, they can watch his blistering display as uncouth gangster Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), which ranks among his finest screen achievements. Yet, it was ignored during awards season and it's a curious fact that Gambon was never nominated at any of the major award ceremonies or film festivals. Indeed, two years passed before he took another film part, as Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore Maranzano in Michael Karbelnikoff's Mobsters (1991).

American director Barry Levinson had clearly been paying attention, however, and cast Gambon as Lieutenant General Leland Zevo, the American soldier who takes over a Russian toy factory instead of his nephew, Leslie (Robin Williams), in Toys (1992). Not that this perspicacity did Levinson much good, however, as he received a Razzie nomination for Worst Director. Moreover, a further two years would elapse before Gambon appeared as shady crook Philip Cornell, seeking to bribe amnesiac shamus Maurice Pogue (Dana Carvey), in Mick Jackson's Clean Slate, and as Sir George, the 17th-century Plymouth bigwig maltreating the eponymous Patuxet tribesman (Adam Beach) in Xavier Koller's Squanto: A Warrior's Tale (both 1994).

The same year witnessed a pair of collaborations with Albert Finney, as Gambon played Ivor J. Garney, the best friend of a 1960s closeted Dublin bus conductor with a penchant for Oscar Wilde in Suri Krishnamma's A Man of No Importance, and as Dr Frobisher, the headmaster of the school in which Andrew Crocker-Harris is embroiled in controversy in Mike Figgis's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, which had previously been filmed by Anthony Asquith, with Michael Redgrave and Wilfrid Hyde-White, in 1951.

A still from Bullet to Beijing (1995)
A still from Bullet to Beijing (1995)

Gambon doubled up again in 1996, in two adventures that followed on from the Len Deighton trilogy of Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965), Guy Hamilton's Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Michael Caine returned as Harry Palmer, while Gambon cropped up as Alex, the shadowy mobster who sends Palmer in search of the Alorex biological weapon in George Mihalka's Bullet to Beijing and some stolen weapons-grade plutonium in Douglas Jackson's Midnight in St Petersburg (both 1995).

Co-starring Jason Connery, these thrillers bookended another busy year that also saw Gambon involved in Nicolas Roeg's Two Deaths and Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal (both 1995), which earned Ian Hart the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, although Gambon also proved highly effective as Leonard Wilson, the Loyalist commander seeking to negotiate with his Republican counterpart in 1970s Belfast.

Turning to horror, Gambon played the father of the Victorian maid (Julia Roberts) working in the London household of Dr Henry Jekyll (John Malkovich) in Stephen Frears's Mary Reilly before he returned to criminal investigation, as Detective Inspector Matheson, the Scotland Yard copper who terrifies the life out of murder witness Rupert Graves in Scott Michell's The Innocent Sleep (both 1996), which was inspired by the London murder of Italian banker, Roberto Calvi. The following year, he was offered a rare feature lead, as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky struggling to complete a novella about compulsion in Hungarian auteur Károly Makk's The Gambler. Yet, while he returned to the supporting ranks in Iain Softley's adaptation of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (both 1997), he left an impression as Lionel Croy, the dissolute father of the penniless Kate, who was played to BAFTA-nominated effect by Helena Bonham Carter.

It was as though producers had suddenly realised that Gambon did movies, as the last two years of the 20th century saw him shoehorned into seven very different features. He doubtless drew on his altar-serving experiences in playing Father Jack Mundy, the malaria-stricken missionary brother of Kate (Meryl Streep), Christina (Catherine McCormack), Maggie (Kathy Burke), Rose (Sophie Thompson), and Agnes (Brid Brennan) in Pat O'Connor's interpretation of Brian Friel's Dancing At Lughnasa. But he was altogether less genial as Lord Gibson, the father of Lady Rebecca (Liv Tyler) who becomes enamoured of a 1740s highwayman (Jonny Lee Miller) in Jake Scott's Plunkett & Macleane (both 1998).

A still from Sleepy Hollow (1999)
A still from Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Having voiced the king's physician, Master Martin, in Jean-François Laguionie's animated simian satire, A Monkey's Tale, and turned up as a landlord in James Larkin's millennial short, Dead on Time, Gambon had a ball teasing Christina Ricci on the set of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, in which he played wealthy businessman Baltus Van Tassel to Johnny Depp's New York policeman, Ichabod Crane.

He also took pleasure in partnering Maggie Smith as 1920s Anglo-Irish landowners Sir Richard and Lady Myra Naylor in Deborah Warner's adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September. This really should be available on disc, but Cinema Paradiso users can see Gambon on peak form as corporate shark Thomas Sandefur, the Brown & Williamson CEO doing his level best to deny that his firm knew about the harmful effects of smoking in Michael Mann's masterly Big Tobacco exposé, The Insider (all 1999).

Mastering His Craft

As the new century dawned, Gambon found himself so in demand for films that he had less time for the theatre. He considered it 'whispering in the daytime' rather than 'shouting at night' and refused to accept any suggestions that he was now a star. In one interview, he compared himself to the manager of a department store, with a face like an 'old wet bag'. 'I like being rough round the edges,' he said. 'A big, interesting old bugger.'

A still from Gosford Park (2001)
A still from Gosford Park (2001)

Despite such mischievous cordiality off screen, Gambon remained capable of playing reprehensible characters, as he demonstrated with Sir William McCordle, the 1930s industrialist who is anything but to the manor born in Robert Altman's satirical whodunit, Gosford Park. He exuded comic menace as the gangster being blackmailed by nurse Minnie Driver and actress Catherine McCormack after a bank robbery in Mel Smith's High Heels and Low Lifes. Yet, the same year, he was all compassion and quiet courage as Levade, the father of a Maquis fighter who shelters two Jewish boys in wartime France in Gillian Armstrong's Charlotte Gray (all 2001).

Having voiced the Ghost of Christmas Present in Jimmy T. Murakami's Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001), Gambon played Uncle Bigbad, the head of Cunning College in Karsten Killerich's droll animated short, Little Wolf's Book of Badness (2003). In between, he had fun as the Prime Minister under threat from scheming deputy Charles Dance in Mark Mylod's Ali G Indahouse (2002), which revealed Gambon's gift for farce in several scenes with Sacha Baron Cohen as the leader of Da West Staines Massiv. He was equally amusing as Barreller, the shady Dublin crook who is conned into believing that second-rate thespians Dylan Moran and Michael Caine have come to collect the £50,000 debt he owes to an unseen businessman in Conor McPherson's The Actors (2003).

But Gambon was markedly more ferocious as Irish rancher Denton Baxter, who refuses to allow Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) to take a herd belonging to Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) over his land in 1880s Montana in Kevin Costner's Open Range. He was far more neighbourly as Professor Thomas in Christine Jeff's Sylvia (both 2003), however, as he lends Sylvia Plath (Gwyenth Paltrow) a sympathetic ear during her unhappy marriage to fellow poet, Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig).

Having joined Pierce Brosnan in narrating David Attenborough's Deep Blue (2003) and guested in the short. Standing Room Only (2004) - which found its way into the following year's anthology, Stories of Lost Souls - Gambon embarked upon one of the busiest periods of his career. In 2004 alone, he appeared as Jimmie Langton, the spectral mentor of 1930s actress Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) in István Szabó's Being Julia; Chronicle editor Morris Paley in Kerry Conran's sci-fi adventure, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; long-suffering documentary producer Oseary Drakoulis in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou; and Eddie Temple, the sulphurically vicious London crime lord competing with XXXX (Daniel Craig) for a consignment of ecstasy tablets in Matthew Vaughn's seething crime drama, Layer Cake.

A still from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
A still from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

On top of all this, Gambon inherited the role of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore from the late Richard Harris. The Irishman's family had hoped that Peter O'Toole would take over, while the producers had sought out Ian McKellen, following his success as Gandalf in Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings trilogy' (2001-02-03). However, McKellen had been offended by Harris's comments about his acting and distanced himself from the part, leaving Gambon to take over with author J.K. Rowling's blessing. Having debuted in Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Gambon returned for Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), as well as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2 (2010-11), which were all directed by David Yates.

When asked about playing the role, Gambon joked with typical self-deprecation, 'There's no character really, it's just me! Me dressed up in a costume! I'm essentially playing myself, that's all I'm doing.' In a similar vein, he claimed that the role didn't really require him to act. 'I just stick on a beard and play me, so it's no great feat. I never ease into a role - every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. I'm not really a character actor at all.'

Another journalist was informed: 'I can't remember any of the films I've done. You go from one to another and they all blend in to a big mass. You remember the costumes because you remember how you felt - that Western I did with Kevin Costner where I wore the big hat and the two guns, I remember that. And I remember this [Harry Potter] because of the costume. Richard [Harris] wore great big heavy robes, really heavy, but I wore just silk, just two layers of silk and carpet slippers, so it was the most comfortable job. The only problem is the wig and the make-up, which is quite time-consuming.'

With millions of new young fans sending him letters from around the world, Gambon threw himself into another round of supporting turns. He was Bugenhagen, the sage advising Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) on how to kill his demonic son, Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), in John Moore's The Omen; Nazi-sympathising poetry professor Dr Fredericks in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd; anti-slavery campaigning politician Charles James Fox in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace (all 2006); Alan Weigert in a 30-second cameo in Jake Paltrow's The Good Night; and hitman Leo trying to keep Milo (Damien Lewis) safe from fellow assassin Bjorn (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in Gareth Lewis's The Baker (both 2007).

There was just time to narrate the documentary series, The Alps (2007), before he was off to Venice to play the withering Lord Marchmain in Julian Jerrold's big screen version of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (2008), which had achieved cult status as a mini-series under the direction of Charles Sturridge in 1981. Reuniting with Wes Anderson, Gambon voiced farmer Franklin Bean in the glorious stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) before joining Frances de la Tour in playing cannibals, George and Martha, in Allen and Albert Hughes's post-apocalyptic Neo-Western, The Book of Eli (2010), which is available from Cinema Paradiso on high-quality DVD and Blu-ray.

A still from The King's Speech (2010)
A still from The King's Speech (2010)

Back in Blighty, Gambon was magnificently brusque as George V sneering at the speech impediment of his second son, the Duke of York (Colin Firth), in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech (2010). With Geoffrey Rush in the offing for his performance as therapist Lionel Logue, Gambon missed out on an Oscar nomination. Indeed, he was never cited individually for a performance at any major festival or awards ceremony. But he always claimed that constantly being in work was the best form of recognition, although he remained puzzled as to why he was so much in demand. 'Maybe there's a shortage of guys of my age,' he mused. 'If you try and think of reasons I can't think of reasons, but maybe that's one. An English actor of my age, a stage actor, I tend to play heavyweight parts. I think they might be a bit thin on the ground. That could be a reason.'

An inveterate scene-stealer, Gambon gave fellow nursing home residents Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Pauline Collins runs for their money as cantankerous conductor Cedric Livingstone in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet (2012), which was adapted from a play by Ronald Harwood. However, difficulty learning lines was becoming a problem on film sets, as well as on the stage. Thus, while he made a suitably shambling Private Godfrey in Oliver Parker's reworking of the beloved 1968-77 BBC sitcom, Dad's Army (2016), he contented himself with voiceover work. Having been one of several narrators on Shaun Monson's documentary, Unity (2014), Gambon did the solo honours on Joel and Ethan Coen's impish 1950s Hollywood satire, Hail, Caesar! (2015). Moreover, he twice leant his dulcet tones to Uncle Pastuzo in Paul King's Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017).

There was no keeping him away from the cameras, however, even though he was often offered what amounted to little more than glorified cameos. Having locked horns with Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) over the Partition of India as chief of staff General Hastings Ismay in Gurindar Chadha's Viceroy's House, he went further back in time to portray Prime Minister Lord Salisbury despairing over the relationship between the monarch (Judi Dench) and her Indian Muslim servant (Ali Fazal) in Stephen Frears's Victoria & Abdul. Slotted in between was another biopic, Robert Mullan's Mad to Be Normal (all 2017), which cast Gambon as Sydney Kotok, a resident of the Kingsley Hall facility presided over by Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing (David Tennant).

He reunited with Matthew Vaughn on Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), the sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) that saw Gambon take over the role of Arthur, the head of the Kingsmen, from Michael Caine. The following year, in Piotr Szkopiak's The Last Witness, he essayed newspaper editor Frank Hamilton, who is reluctant to allow cub reporter Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer) to expose the wartime massacre (on Joseph Stalin's orders) of 22,000 Poles that had also been the subject of Andrzej Wajda's Katyn (2007). Staying in historical mode, Gambon returned to Dublin to play Arthur Guinness, 1st Baron Ardilaun opposite Tom Vaughan-Lawlor's crusading art collector Hugh Lane in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's docudrama, Citizen Lane (both 2018).

The lure of crime proved irresistible, as Gambon's Billy 'The Fish' Lincoln teamed up with Michael Caine's Billy Reader, Jim Broadbent's Terry Perkins, Tom Courtenay's John Kenny Collins, and Ray Winstone's Danny Jones in carrying out the Hatton Garden heist in James Marsh's King of Thieves. He popped up momentarily as a man in a diner while narrating Québecois director Xavier Dolan's English-language debut, The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, which starred Kit Harintgon as the star of a mid-2000s teen drama series who hides his homosexuality to protect his career.

Gambon ended 2018, with another canny cameo as Agent Five, alongside fellow veterans Agent Seven (Charles Dance) and Agent Nine (Edward Fox), in David Kerr's Johnny English Strikes Again. He took the more substantial role of impressario Bernard Delfont guiding Judy Garland (Renée Zellwegger) through a troubled theatre engagement in 1960s London in Rupert Goold's Judy before he wound down the curtain on a remarkable career as Moses, the eccentric neighbour of a traumatised cellist

(Antonia Campbell-Hughes) who wonders whether having mice in one's flat keeps the rats away in Adrian Shergold's disconcerting psychological drama, Cordelia (both 2019). It was a typically precise performance from an actor who had been knighted in 1998, but never bothered to use the title. He died of pneumonia in Witham, Essex on 28 September 2023. While he leaves a big gap, he also leaves an indelible legacy that is available with a simple click.

A still from Judy (2019)
A still from Judy (2019)
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