Michael Gambon, star of Harry Potter and The Singing Detective, dies aged 82

The Olivier award-winning actor, whose major film roles included Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, has died

‘An actor who let his heart and soul crack open’: David Jays on Michael Gambon
A life in pictures – gallery

Sir Michael Gambon, whose extraordinary acting career took him from Laurence Olivier’s nascent National Theatre to screen roles in The Singing Detective and the Harry Potter films, has died at the age of 82.

A statement on behalf of his wife, Lady Gambon, and son, Fergus, issued by publicist Clair Dobbs, said: “We are devastated to announce the loss of Sir Michael Gambon. Beloved husband and father, Michael died peacefully in hospital with his wife Anne and son Fergus at his bedside, following a bout of pneumonia. Michael was 82. We ask that you respect our privacy at this painful time and thank you for your messages of support and love.”

Memorably called “The Great Gambon” by Ralph Richardson, and admired by generations of fellow actors, he excelled in plays by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Alan Ayckbourn. “I owe an enormous amount to Michael,” said Ayckbourn on Thursday. “He was a remarkable stage performer. It was a privilege to watch him at work on my stuff. You couldn’t really term it acting – more an act of spontaneous combustion.”

It was Ayckbourn who directed him in 1987 in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which won Gambon an Olivier award for his performance as the conflicted Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone. Gambon also starred in Ayckbourn’s ambitious trilogy The Norman Conquests. Other key roles included the eponymous scientist in Brecht’s The Life of Galileo at the National Theatre in 1980, and as the restaurateur returning to visit a former lover in David Hare’s Skylight, which earned him a Tony award nomination on Broadway in the mid-90s.

Gambon’s Harry Potter co-star Fiona Shaw told BBC Radio 4 that he was “a brilliant, magnificent trickster” who “varied his career remarkably and never judged what he was doing, he just played”. Dame Eileen Atkins told the BBC that “he just had to walk on stage and he commanded the whole audience immediately”.

In a statement issued to the Guardian, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe called Gambon “one of the most brilliant, effortless actors I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, but despite his immense talent, the thing I will remember most about him is how much fun he had doing his job.

“He was silly, irreverent and hilarious. He loved his job, but never seemed defined by it. He was an incredible story, and joke teller, and his habit of blurring the lines between fact and fiction when talking to journalists meant that he was also one of the most entertaining people with whom you could ever wish to do a press junket. I’m so sad to hear he has passed, but I am so grateful for the fact that I am one of the lucky people who got to work with him.”

Among those paying tribute on social media was Jason Isaacs, who said: “I learned what acting could be from Michael in The Singing Detective – complex, vulnerable and utterly human.” David Baddiel said that the first time he had seen “any Theatre with a capital T” was Life of Galileo at the National and that Gambon’s 1980 performance remains “the best stage acting I’ve ever seen”. The actor Peter Egan described Gambon as “one of the funniest men on the planet and a great actor”.

After Gambon enjoyed an arthouse film success with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), he proceeded to take roles in major movies such as Sleepy Hollow, The Insider and Gosford Park. Then, with a flowing beard and tassel hat, he portrayed Harry Potter’s professor Albus Dumbledore in several blockbusters, taking over the role from Richard Harris after his death in 2002. He lent his rich voice to many films, including as Uncle Pastuzo in both Paddington movies and as the narrator of the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

Michael Gambon in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Michael Gambon in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros/Sportsphoto Ltd

With an imposing frame and rueful features, Gambon described himself as looking like the manager of a department store and a “big, interesting old bugger” while Ayckbourn once called him a “wonderful, limitless machine, like a Lamborghini”. Adored by audiences, with a powerful presence that could add weight to the lightest of material, Gambon shielded his privacy and reluctantly gave interviews. In 2004 he told the Observer: “I just plod on and try to keep my mouth shut.”

Gambon left school aged 15 and, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not receive any formal training at drama school, instead gaining experience through performing in amateur productions. He was born in Dublin in 1940; his father moved to London and was a reserve policeman during the second world war. Gambon was taken over to England by his mother to join him at the end of the war. They later moved to Kent, where at the age of 16 he began an engineering apprenticeship in the Vickers-Armstrongs factory. He began to work in amateur theatre as a set builder, then ended up on stage instead in bit parts at the Unity theatre and the Tower theatre in London.

He bluffed his way into his first professional roles by fibbing about his experience, making his debut in Dublin in a small role in Othello. Aged 22, he had his West End debut as an understudy in The Bed-Sitting Room. He also took an acting course at the Royal Court run by George Devine and William Gaskill.

Michael Gambon as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1.
Michael Gambon as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Gambon said that he had never seen a Shakespeare production before he acted in one himself. He had minor Shakespeare roles at the National Theatre and auditioned for the company by performing the role of Richard III – recently and iconically played by Laurence Olivier – in front of Olivier himself. He appeared in Othello at the National with Olivier and in Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole. Then, on the advice of Olivier, Gambon left the National to join the Birmingham Repertory theatre in order to be given larger roles, which included the title part in Othello. Aged 30, he played Macbeth in a production in Billingham that he described as being set in outer space. In the early 80s, he was at the Royal Shakespeare Company performing in Adrian Noble’s productions of King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, sometimes both in the same day, the latter staged at a breakneck pace.

In 2005, Sir Nicholas Hytner directed him as Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 at the National Theatre. “Michael Gambon was one of the last links to the great generation of actors that included Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson,” said Hytner on Thursday. “His extraordinary gift was to combine the brute power of Olivier with the delicacy of Richardson. He could howl in pain at one moment and in the next achieve a kind of balletic grace that took the breath away. He was also wickedly funny, witty in himself and, like Falstaff (who he played magnificently), ‘the cause that wit is in other men’. Gambon stories will remain in circulation for generations, as will the memory of his countless great performances.”

On television, the star had massive hits with series about two very different sleuths. The first was Dennis Potter’s musical noir The Singing Detective, which cast him as a mystery novelist hospitalised with psoriatic arthritis. The second was a set of Maigret thrillers, playing Belgian author Georges Simenon’s eponymous Parisian policeman. He also played an angel alongside Simon Callow in a TV version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Lee Evans and Michael Gambon in Endgame in 2004.
Lee Evans and Michael Gambon in Endgame in 2004. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

After appearing in the Samuel Beckett plays Endgame, Eh Joe, Krapp’s Last Tape and All That Fall, Gambon began to withdraw from stage work. In 2014, he said he was having difficulty remembering his lines: “I feel sad about it. I love the theatre but I can’t see myself playing massive parts again.” In 2009, illness led to his withdrawal from starring in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art at the National Theatre, just weeks before opening night, replaced by Richard Griffiths.

Harold Pinter’s plays had brought Gambon some of his best roles, including Jerry in the love triangle of Betrayal and the elegant Hirst in No Man’s Land. After he had stopped performing on stage, his rich, unmistakeable voice could at least be heard in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Mountain Language in the all-star Pinter at the Pinter season in the West End in 2018.



Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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