Full Name:  Sir Ralph David Richardson

Description: English actor

Known For: Long Day’s Journey into Night and Doctor Zhivago in the 1960s.

Date Born: 19 December 1902
Location Born: Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, UK

Died: 10 October 1983, at the age of eighty
London. England.

Web Site:   Ralph Richardson at the Internet Broadway Database

Other Links: See below:



Sir Ralph David Richardson (19 December 1902 – 10 October 1983) was an English actor who, along with his contemporaries John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, dominated the British stage of the mid-20th century. He worked in films throughout most of his career, and played more than sixty cinema roles. From an artistic but not theatrical background, Richardson had no thought of a stage career until a production of Hamlet in Brighton inspired him to become an actor. He learned his craft in the 1920s with a touring company and later the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. In 1931 he joined the Old Vic, playing mostly Shakespearean roles. He led the company the following season, succeeding Gielgud, who had taught him much about stage technique. After he left the company, a series of leading roles took him to stardom in the West End and on Broadway.

In the 1940s, together with Olivier and John Burrell, Richardson was the co-director of the Old Vic company. There, his most celebrated roles included Peer Gynt and Falstaff. He and Olivier led the company to Europe and Broadway in 1945 and 1946, before their success provoked resentment among the governing board of the Old Vic, leading to their dismissal from the company in 1947. In the 1950s, in the West End and occasionally on tour, Richardson played in modern and classic works including The Heiress, Home at Seven and Three Sisters. He continued on stage and in films until shortly before his sudden death, at the age of eighty. He was celebrated in later years for his work with Peter Hall’s National Theatre and his frequent stage partnership with Gielgud. He was not known for his portrayal of the great tragic roles in the classics, preferring character parts in old and new plays.

Richardson’s film career began as an extra in 1931. He was soon cast in leading roles in British and American films including Things to Come in the 1930s, The Fallen Idol and The Heiress in the 1940s, and Long Day’s Journey into Night and Doctor Zhivago in the 1960s. He received nominations and awards in the UK, Europe and the US for his stage and screen work from 1948 until his death, and beyond, with a posthumous Academy Award nomination for his final film, Greystoke.

Throughout his career, and increasingly in later years, Richardson was known for his eccentric behaviour on and off stage. He was often seen as detached from conventional ways of looking at the world, and his acting was regularly described as poetic or magical.

Richardson was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the third son and youngest child of Arthur Richardson and his wife Lydia (née Russell). The couple had met while both were in Paris, studying with the painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Arthur Richardson had been senior art master at Cheltenham Ladies’ College from 1893.

In 1907 the family split up; there was no divorce or formal separation, but the two elder boys, Christopher and Ambrose, remained with their father and Lydia left them, taking Ralph with her. The ostensible cause of the couple’s separation was a row over Lydia’s choice of wallpaper for her husband’s study. According to John Miller’s biography, whatever underlying causes there may have been are unknown. An earlier biographer, Garry O’Connor, speculates that Arthur Richardson might have been having an extramarital affair. There does not seem to have been a religious element, although Arthur was a dedicated Quaker, whose first two sons were brought up in that faith, whereas Lydia was a devout convert to Roman Catholicism, in which she raised Ralph. Mother and son had a variety of homes, the first of which was a bungalow converted from two railway carriages in Shoreham-by-Sea on the south coast of England.

Lydia wanted Richardson to become a priest. In Brighton he served as an altar boy, which he enjoyed, but when sent at about fifteen to the nearby Xaverian College, a seminary for trainee priests, he ran away. As a pupil at a series of schools he was uninterested in most subjects and was an indifferent scholar. His Latin was poor, and during church services he would improvise parts of the Latin responses, developing a talent for invention when memory failed that proved useful in his later career.

In 1919, aged sixteen, Richardson took a post as office boy with the Brighton branch of the Liverpool and Victoria insurance company. The pay, ten shillings a week, was attractive, but office life was not; he lacked concentration, frequently posting documents to the wrong people as well as engaging in pranks that alarmed his superiors. His paternal grandmother died and left him £500, which, he later said, transformed his life. He resigned from the office post, just in time to avoid being dismissed, and enrolled at the Brighton School of Art. His studies there convinced him that he lacked creativity, and that his draughtsmanship was not good enough.

Richardson left the art school in 1920, and considered how else he might make a career. He briefly thought of pharmacy and then of journalism, abandoning each when he learned how much study the former required and how difficult mastering shorthand for the latter would be.[14] He was still unsure what to do, when he saw Sir Frank Benson as Hamlet in a touring production. He was thrilled, and felt at once that he must become an actor.

Buttressed by what was left of the legacy from his grandmother, Richardson determined to learn to act. He paid a local theatrical manager, Frank R Growcott, ten shillings a week to be a member of his company and be taught the craft of an actor. He made his stage debut in December 1920 with Growcott’s St Nicholas Players at the St Nicholas Hall, Brighton, a converted bacon factory. He played a gendarme in an adaptation of Les Misérables, and was soon entrusted with larger parts including Banquo in Macbeth and Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Richardson made his London debut in July 1926 as the stranger in Oedipus at Colonus in a Sunday-night performance at the Scala Theatre, with a cast including Percy Walsh, John Laurie and D A Clarke-Smith. He then toured for three months in Eden Phillpotts’s comedy Devonshire Cream with Jackson’s company led by Cedric Hardwicke.

Old Vic, 1930–32

In 1930 Richardson, with some misgivings, accepted an invitation to join The Old Vic company. The theatre, in an unfashionable location south of the Thames, had offered inexpensive tickets for opera and drama under its proprietor Lilian Baylis since 1912. Its profile had been raised considerably by Baylis’s producer, Harcourt Williams, who in 1929 persuaded the young West End star John Gielgud to lead the drama company. For the following season Williams wanted Richardson to join, with a view to succeeding Gielgud from 1931 to 1932. Richardson agreed, though he was not sure of his own suitability for a mainly Shakespearean repertoire, and was not enthusiastic about working with Gielgud: “I found his clothes extravagant, I found his conversation flippant. He was the New Young Man of his time and I didn’t like him.”

The first production of the season was Henry IV, Part 1, with Gielgud as Hotspur and Richardson as Prince Hal; the latter was thought by The Daily Telegraph “vivacious, but a figure of modern comedy rather than Shakespeare.” Richardson’s notices, and the relationship of the two leading men, improved markedly when Gielgud, who was playing Prospero, helped Richardson with his performance as Caliban in The Tempest:

He gave me about two hundred ideas, as he usually does, twenty-five of which I eagerly seized on, and when I went away I thought, “This chap, you know, I don’t like him very much but by God he knows something about this here play.” … And then out of that we formed a friendship.

The friendship and professional association lasted until the end of Richardson’s life. Gielgud wrote in 1983, “Besides cherishing our long years of work together in the theatre, where he was such an inspiring and generous partner, I grew to love him in private life as a great gentleman, a rare spirit, fair and balanced, devotedly loyal and tolerant and, as a companion, bursting with vitality, curiosity and humour.” Among Richardson’s other parts in his first Old Vic season, Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra gained particularly good notices. The Morning Post commented that it placed him in the first rank of Shakespearean actors. At the beginning of 1931 Baylis re-opened Sadler’s Wells Theatre with a production of Twelfth Night starring Gielgud as Malvolio and Richardson as Sir Toby Belch. W. A. Darlington in The Daily Telegraph wrote of Richardson’s “ripe, rich and mellow Sir Toby, which I would go many miles to see again.”

During the summer break between the Old Vic 1930–31 and 1931–32 seasons, Richardson played at the Malvern Festival, under the direction of his old Birmingham director, Ayliff. Salaries at the Old Vic and the Festival were not large, and Richardson was glad of a job as an extra in the 1931 film Dreyfus. As his wife’s condition worsened he needed to pay for more and more nursing; she was looked after in a succession of hospitals and care homes.

Succeeding Gielgud as leading man at the Old Vic, Richardson had a varied season, in which there were conspicuous successes interspersed with critical failures. James Agate was not convinced by him as the domineering Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew; in Julius Caesar the whole cast received tepid reviews. In Othello Richardson divided the critics. He emphasised the plausible charm of the murderous Iago to a degree that Agate thought “very good Richardson, but indifferent Shakespeare”, whereas The Times said, “He never stalked or hissed like a plain villain, and, in fact, we have seldom seen a man smile and smile and be a villain so adequately.” His biggest success of the season was as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both Agate and Darlington commented on how the actor transformed the character from the bumbling workman to the magically changed creature on whom Titania dotes. Agate wrote that most of those who had played the part hitherto “seem to have thought Bottom, with the ass’s head on, was the same Bottom, only funnier. Shakespeare says he was ‘translated’, and Mr Richardson translated him.” With Sybil Thorndike as a guest star and Richardson as Ralph, The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a hit with audiences and critics, as was a revival of Twelfth Night, with Edith Evans as Viola and Richardson again playing Sir Toby, finishing the season to renewed praise.

At the outbreak of war Richardson joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant pilot. He had taken flying lessons during the 1930s and had logged 200 hours of flying time, but, though a notoriously reckless driver, he admitted to being a timid pilot. He counted himself lucky to have been accepted, but the Fleet Air Arm was short of pilots. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-commander. His work was mostly routine administration, probably because of “the large number of planes which seemed to fall to pieces under his control”, through which he acquired the nickname “Pranger” Richardson. He served at several bases in the south of England, and in April 1941, at the Royal Naval Air Station, Lee-on-Solent, he was able to welcome Olivier, newly commissioned as a temporary sub-lieutenant. Olivier rapidly eclipsed Richardson’s record for pranging.

For Richardson, parting company with the Old Vic brought the advantage of being free, for the first time, to earn substantial pay. The company’s highest salary had been £40 a week.[89] After his final Old Vic season he made two films in quick succession for Korda. The first, Anna Karenina, with Vivien Leigh, was an expensive failure, although Richardson’s notices in the role of Karenin were excellent. The second, The Fallen Idol, had notable commercial and critical success, and won awards in Europe and America. It remained one of Richardson’s favourites of his films. In Miller’s words, “Carol Reed’s sensitive direction drew faultless performances not just from Ralph as Baines (the butler and mistakenly suspected murderer), but also from Michèle Morgan as his mistress, Sonia Dresdel as his cold-hearted wife, and especially from Bobby Henrey as the distraught boy, Felipe.”

Richardson had gained a national reputation as a great actor while at the Old Vic; films gave him the opportunity to reach an international audience. Unlike some of his theatre colleagues, he was never condescending about film work. He admitted that film could be “a cage for an actor, but a cage in which they sometimes put a little gold”, but he did not regard filming as merely a means of subsidising his much less profitable stage work. He said, “I’ve never been one of those chaps who scoff at films. I think they’re a marvellous medium, and are to the stage what engravings are to painting. The theatre may give you big chances, but the cinema teaches you the details of craftsmanship.” The Fallen Idol was followed by Richardson’s first Hollywood part. He played Dr Sloper, the overprotective father of Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square. The film did not prosper at the box-office despite good reviews, an Academy Award for Best Actress for Havilland, and nominations for the director (William Wyler) and Richardson.

Richardson continued his long stage association with Gielgud in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1975) directed by Hall at the National. Gielgud played Spooner, a down-at-heel sponger and opportunist, and Richardson was Hirst, a prosperous but isolated and vulnerable author. There is both comedy and pain in the piece: the critic Michael Coveney called their performance “the funniest double-act in town”, but Peter Hall said of Richardson, “I do not think any other actor could fill Hirst with such a sense of loneliness and creativity as Ralph does. The production was a critical and box-office success, and played at the Old Vic, in the West End, at the Lyttelton Theatre in the new National Theatre complex, on Broadway and on television, over a period of three years.

After No Man’s Land, Richardson once again turned to light comedy by Douglas-Home, from whom he commissioned The Kingfisher. A story of an old love affair rekindled, it opened with Celia Johnson as the female lead. It ran for six months, and would have lasted much longer had Johnson not withdrawn, leaving Richardson unwilling to rehearse the piece with anyone else. He returned to the National, and to Chekhov, in 1978 as the aged retainer Firs in The Cherry Orchard. The notices for the production were mixed; those for Richardson’s next West End play were uniformly dreadful. This was Alice’s Boys, a spy and murder piece generally agreed to be preposterous. A legend, possibly apocryphal, grew that during the short run Richardson walked to the front of the stage one night and asked, “Is there a doctor in the house?” A doctor stood up, and Richardson sadly said to him, “Doctor, isn’t this a terrible play?”

After this débâcle the rest of Richardson’s stage career was at the National, with one late exception. He played Lord Touchwood in The Double Dealer (1978), the Master in The Fruits of Enlightenment (1979), Old Ekdal in The Wild Duck (1979) and Kitchen in Storey’s Early Days, specially written for him. The last toured in North America after the London run. His final West End play was The Understanding (1982), a gentle comedy of late-flowering love. Celia Johnson was cast as his co-star, but died suddenly just before the first night. Joan Greenwood stepped into the breach, but the momentum of the production had gone, and it closed after eight weeks.

Films in which Richardson appeared in the later 1970s and early 1980s include Rollerball (1975), The Man in the Iron Mask (1977) and Time Bandits (1981) in which he played the Supreme Being. In 1983 he was seen as Pfordten in Tony Palmer’s Wagner; this was a film of enormous length, starring Richard Burton as Richard Wagner and was noted at the time, and subsequently, for the cameo roles of three conspiratorial courtiers, played by Gielgud, Olivier and Richardson – the only film in which the three played scenes together. For television, Richardson played Simeon in Jesus of Nazareth (1977), made studio recordings of No Man’s Land (1978) and Early Days (1982), and was a guest in the 1981 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. His last radio broadcast was in 1982 in a documentary programme about Little Tich, whom he had watched at the Brighton Hippodrome before the First World War.

Richardson’s final role was Don Alberto in Inner Voices by Eduardo De Filippo at the National in 1983. The direction was criticised by reviewers, but Richardson’s performance won high praise. He played an old man who denounces the next-door family for murder and then realises he dreamt it but cannot persuade the police that he was wrong. Both Punch and The New York Times found his performance “mesmerising”. After the London run the piece was scheduled to go on tour in October. Just before that, Richardson suffered a series of strokes, from which he died on 10 October, at the age of eighty. All the theatres in London dimmed their lights in tribute; the funeral Mass was at Richardson’s favourite church, the Church of our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, in Soho; he was buried in Highgate Cemetery; and the following month there was a memorial service in Westminster Abbey.

Richardson’s last films – one for television and two for the cinema – were released after his death. These were Witness for the Prosecution, in which he played the barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, co-starring with Deborah Kerr and Diana Rigg;[166] Give My Regards to Broad Street, with Paul McCartney; and Greystoke, a retelling of the Tarzan story. In the last, Richardson played the stern old Lord Greystoke, rejuvenated in his latter days by his lost grandson, reclaimed from the wild; he was posthumously nominated for an Academy Award. The film bears the superscription, “Dedicated to Ralph Richardson 1902–1983 – In Loving Memory”