For children he will be remembered for the Harry Potter films and for adults it will be The Singing Detective but Sir Michael Gambon would always be good in whatever the role whether it be for screen or stage.
Born on 19th October 1940 in Dublin he moved with his mother to England after the war to join his father who was working as a reserve policeman. Leaving school at 16 with no qualifications he took up an apprenticeship as a toolmaker for an engineering company in Kent where the family had now moved. An avid cinema goer he would become a set builder for an amateur theatre company. Having had no formal training he bluffed his way into a few bit part roles in several London theatres and it was this elasticity with the truth that eventually got him a small role back in a Dublin in a production of Othello. Having never even seen a Shakespeare play he regarded it as quite something to land a role in one of the Bard’s plays. It would be one of many.
But by the age of 22 he landed himself an understudy’s role in London production of The Bed Sitting Room. It was at this point that he knew he had to up his game and he took an acting course at the Royal Court and he would soon land roles at the National Theatre and even audition in the role of Richard III ironically and quite boldly in front of Laurence Olivier who had played the role so memorably himself and Gambon would appear alongside him in Othello. But it was Olivier who advised him to join a repertory company in the Midlands in order to land bigger roles. It worked and by the time he was 30 he was playing Macbeth and by the early 1980’s he would find himself working at the RSC.
Having declined to audition for the role of Bond after Connery quit telling Cubby Broccoli that he felt he was a bit too fat and didn’t have nice hair and it would be 1974 when he really started to make a mark with Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests and his breakthrough theatre role would be in Brecht’s Life of Galileo in 1980 that saw Ralph Richardson rave about his performance
He was by now an actor of some repute and he was the first to admit that he loved theatre work but what really bought him to the attention of audiences, especially in the US, was his starring role in Dennis Potters The Singing Detective playing a novelist hospitalized with a terrible skin condition. Part film noir, part musical it was all brilliantly done if not controversial for a Sunday night drama and is still regarded as a landmark in British television drama. TV served him well and having earned Olivier nominations for his theatre work he would win back to back BAFTA’s from 1999 – 2001 for “Wives and Daughters,” “Longitude” and “Perfect Strangers and Emmy nominations in 2002 and 2009 for Path to War and Jane Austen’s Emma.
He was often dismissive of is acting process telling journalist who asked that ‘I just do it’ but he was meticulous about his preparation. He was also extremely private about his own life and avoided interviews disliking the idea of celebrity and refusing to answer such questions and often making up ludicrous but extremely entertaining nonsensical tales about himself. Although what was known was that at 22 years of age he married his wife Anne Miller and had a son. Although an affair with a set designer led to him fathering two more sons. He was a revered story teller and something of a joker too taking an actor with a fear of flying up in a small plane before feigning a heart attack as the plane nosedived towards the ground.
But he himself despite loving theatre would often succumb to panic attacks before making an entrance on stage and in 2009 was rushed to hospital forcing him to withdraw from an Alan Bennet production but by 2013 he was finding it difficult to remember lines and from thereon he would no longer do stage plays something that upset him deeply.
And yet despite the stage awards Michael Gambon was never Oscar nominated and he was the first to admit that he didn’t take film roles as seriously as he did his stage roles. The roles and films and that he did take were certainly diverse with films that included Ali G InDaHouse, a remake of The Omen (2006) and Dads Army (2016) to Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) ,Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd ( 2006) and his last film role would be a minor supporting role in 2019’s Cordelia (reviewed HERE)
In 1992 he was appointed CBE and in 1998 he had been knighted although he never used the title
Michael Gambon died in hospital from pneumonia at the age of 82.
related feature : Michael Gambon in an all star King of Thieves