Sir Ralph David Richardson, Kt (19 December 1902 – 10 October 1983) was an English actor, one of a group of theatrical knights of the mid-20th century who, though more closely associated with the stage, also appeared in several classic films.
Richardson first became known for his work on stage in the 1930s. In the 1940s, together with Laurence Olivier, he ran the Old VicCompany. He continued on stage and in films into the early 1980s and was especially praised for his comedic roles. In his later years he was celebrated for his theatre work with his old friend John Gielgud. Among his most famous roles were Peer Gynt, Falstaff, John Gabriel Borkman and Hirst in Pinter's No Man's Land.
Richardson was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, the third son and youngest child of Arthur Richardson, a master at the Ladies' College, and his wife Lydia (née Russell). When he was a baby, his mother left his father and took him with her to Gloucester, where he was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith of his mother (his father and brothers were Quakers). His father supported them with a small allowance. Lydia Richardson wished Ralph to become a priest. He was an altar boy in Brighton, and was sent to the Xavierian College, but he ran away from it.
After working as an office boy for an insurance company, and later studying art, Richardson opted for a theatrical career. Aided by a small legacy from his grandmother, he paid a local theatrical manager ten shillings (50p) a week to be taught about acting. He toured with Charles Doran's company for five seasons, gradually being promoted to larger parts including Macduff in Macbeth and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. In 1925 he joined Sir Barry Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company, where many eminent British actors, fromEdith Evans and Cedric Hardwicke to Derek Jacobi, learned their craft, and Richardson under the veteran taskmaster H.K. Ayliff "absorbed the influence of older contemporaries likeGerald du Maurier, Charles Hawtrey and Mrs. Patrick Campbell."
Richardson made his London début in July 1926 as the stranger in Oedipus at Colonus at a small theatre, followed by his West End début as Arthur Varwell in Yellow Sands which ran for 610 performances and from then to 1929 played in supporting roles in London productions.
After touring in South Africa in 1929, he played two seasons at the Old Vic and two seasons at the Malvern summer theatre. His Old Vic roles included Caliban to the Prospero ofJohn Gielgud, and Prince Hal to Gielgud's Hotspur, beginning a professional association and friendship that lasted for five decades. Richardson's other parts in the Old Vic seasons included Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, Brutus in Julius Caesar, and Iago in Othello.
At Malvern in 1932, he played Face in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. In 1933 he played the title role in W. Somerset Maugham's final play Sheppey at Wyndham's Theatre. He became an undisputed West End star as Clitterhouse in Barré Lyndon's comedy melodrama, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse which ran for 492 performances from August 1936, and most of all as Johnson in J.B. Priestley's Johnson Over Jordan directed by Basil Dean, with music by Benjamin Britten.
Richardson was engaged to play the role of Mercutio, replacing Orson Welles, in the 1934 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. This production was produced and directed by the husband and wife team of Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic.
The Old Vic
During World War II he served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander despite being nicknamed "Pranger" Richardson "on account of the large number of planes which seemed to fall to pieces under his control". Richardson and Laurence Olivier were released from the armed forces in 1944 to run the Old Vic Company as a triumvirate with the stage director John Burrell. The Old Vic theatre was out of use because of bomb damage, and the company moved to the New Theatre in St. Martin's Lane. During this period, Richardson gave some of his most noted performances, including not only "the definitive Falstaff and Peer Gynt of the century" but also Bluntschli in Arms and the Man, the title roles in Cyrano de Bergerac and Uncle Vanya and Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls. He also directed Alec Guinness as Richard II,taking on the role of John of Gaunt in the production when the Old Vic governors insisted that either Richardson or Olivier must act in every production. In 1945 Richardson and Olivier led the company in a tour of Germany, where they were seen by many thousands of servicemen; they also appeared at the Comédie Française in Paris.
The triumphs of Richardson and Olivier (the latter famously as Richard III and Oedipus), described by The Times as the greatest in the Old Vic's history and by Kenneth Tynan as "matchless", led the governors of the Old Vic to fear that the two stars overshadowed the company. As The Guardian put it, the governors "summarily sacked the pair in the interests of a more... mediocre company spirit."
After leaving the Old Vic, Richardson appeared in the West End as Dr Sloper in a Henry James adaptation, The Heiress, in 1949; David Preston in Home at Seven, in 1950; and Vershinin in Three Sisters in 1951. In 1952 he appeared at the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company) but had mixed reviews: his Prospero in 'The Tempest was judged too prosaic, and his Macbeth, directed by Gielgud, was thought unconvincingly villainous ("Richardson's playing of Macbeth suggests a fatal disparity between his temperament and the part"). Tynan professed himself "unmoved to the point of paralysis," though blaming Gielgud more than Richardson. Richardson's third Stratford role in the season, Volpone in Ben Jonson's play, received much better, but not ecstatic, notices.
Back in the West End, Richardson starred in The White Carnation by R.C. Sherriff in 1953, and in November of the same year he and Gielgud starred together in N.C. Hunter's A Day by the Sea. In 1954 he toured Australia in a company which included his wife, Meriel Forbes, together with Sybil Thorndike and her husband, Lewis Casson, playing Terence Rattigan's plays The Sleeping Prince and Separate Tables.
Richardson turned down the role of Estragon in Peter Hall's premiere of the English language version of Waiting for Godot and later reproached himself for missing the chance to be in "the greatest play of my generation". Richardson's Timon of Athens in his 1956 return to the Old Vic was well received, as was his Broadway appearance in The Waltz of the Toreadors for which he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1957.
In the 1960s, Richardson appeared successfully as Sir Peter Teazle in Gielgud's production of The School for Scandal, as the Father in Six Characters in Search of an Author(1963), a return to Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1964) and the original production of Joe Orton's controversial farce What the Butler Saw in the West End at the Queen's Theatre in 1969 with Stanley Baxter, Coral Browne and Hayward Morse.
In the 1970s, he appeared in the West End (for example in William Douglas-Home's play Lloyd George Knew My Father, with Peggy Ashcroft), and with the National Theatre underPeter Hall's direction, where among the classics he played Firs in The Cherry Orchard and the title role in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, with Wendy Hiller and Peggy Ashcroft. He continued his long stage association with John Gielgud, appearing together in two new works, David Storey's Home and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. His last appearance was at the National in the lead role in Eduardo De Filippo's Inner Voices in June 1983, in which both Punch and the New York Times found his performance "mesmerising". After his brief illness and subsequent death his part was taken over by Robert Stephens.
Radio, television and film
In 1954 and 1955 Richardson played Dr. Watson in an American/BBC radio co-production of Sherlock Holmes stories, with Gielgud as Holmes and Orson Welles as the villainous Professor Moriarty. In the 1960s Richardson played Lord Emsworth on BBC television in dramatisations of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories, with his real-life wife Meriel Forbes playing his domineering sister Connie, and his friend Stanley Holloway as his butler Beach. He was the voice of the famous general Haig in The Great War in 1964 a BBC Series on the 1st World War. In totally different vein, he appeared in the 1981 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, having been offered the part of Benjamin Disraeli in a play"what Ernie Wise had written".
Richardson's film appearances include Things to Come (1936), The Citadel (1938), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Heiress (1949; his first nomination for an Academy Award), Richard III (1955; playing Buckingham to Olivier's Richard), Our Man in Havana (1959; with Alec Guinness and Noël Coward), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962; with Katharine Hepburn,Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). He portrayed Simeon in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In 1981, he portrayed the Supreme Being in a cameo appearance near the end of the Terry Gilliam film Time Bandits. Also that same year, he appeared as Ulrich of Craggenmoor, the aging sorcerer who takes on an ancient dragon in the fantasy epic Dragonslayer. He played the barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts in the television adaptation of the Agatha Christie play, Witness for the Prosecution, starring alongside a young Beau Bridges. Richardson played the sixth Earl of Greystoke in the 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, for which he was again nominated for an Academy Award. His last film appearance was in Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), starring Paul McCartney.
In 1939 British exhibitors voted him the 9th most popular local star at the box office.
Richardson made several spoken word recordings for the Caedmon Audio label in the 1960s. He re-created his role as Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Anna Massey as Roxane, and played the title role in a complete recording of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, with a cast that included Anthony Quayle as Brutus, John Mills as Cassius and Alan Bates as Antony. Richardson also recorded some English Romantic poetry, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for the label.
Richardson recorded the narration for Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and the superscriptions for Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia antartica - both with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Prokofiev conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Vaughan Williams by André Previn.
In September 1924, Richardson married the 17-year-old student actress Muriel ("Kit") Hewitt (1907–1942); the marriage was childless but devoted. Kit contracted sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica) and died in 1942 after a long illness. In 1944 Richardson married the actress Meriel ("Mu") Forbes, a member of the theatrical Forbes-Robertson family. They had one son, Charles David (1945–1998).
Richardson died of a stroke, aged 80, and was interred at Highgate Cemetery, London.