Michael Gambon: a master craftsman of stage and screen

The Harry Potter star was a famous raconteur and prankster off-screen

Michael Gambon
Critics marvelled at his versatility: his ability to be hefty and yet delicate
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Some people will remember him for his performance in Dennis Potter's BBC drama "The Singing Detective", as the psoriasis-afflicted crime writer who, from his hospital bed, falls into an altered reality in which he is a 1930s gumshoe. For a younger generation, he will always be Professor Albus Dumbledore, the wise headmaster of Hogwarts, in six of the Harry Potter films. 

But for all his success on screen, Michael Gambon, who has died aged 82, was primarily a stage actor, said Michael Billington in The Guardian. With "weight, presence, authority, vocal power and a chameleon-like ability to reinvent himself from one part to another", he was one of the greats – and a natural for "heavyweight classic roles" such as Lear. 

What "was truly remarkable", however, was his "interpretative skill in the work of the best contemporary dramatists", including Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn and Caryl Churchill. As Peter Hall once put it: "Fate gave him genius but he uses it as a craftsman."

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Cheeky beginnings

He was born into a working-class family in Dublin in 1940, the son of an engineer and a seamstress. After the War, they moved to London, where his father worked on rebuilding the bombed-out city, said The Daily Telegraph. Michael left his Catholic school at 15, and then embarked on an apprenticeship as a toolmaker. His move into acting came, he said, when he heard that a community theatre near his home in Camden Town was looking for volunteer set builders. "So I went round and they immediately said: 'Will you be in the play tonight? All you've got to do is walk on with a cup and a saucer and ask can you have more tea.'"

After that, he blagged his way into a paid acting job at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, by claiming to have West End experience. Soon after, he auditioned for the National Theatre, in front of Laurence Olivier. In his account, which may not be entirely reliable, he used as his audition piece a speech from "Richard III" for which Olivier was particularly well known. "You've got a f**king cheek," Olivier hissed, but he took him on, and later helped Gambon, aged just 27, to win the title role in "Othello" at the Birmingham Rep.

'The Great Gambon'

In 1974 he made his West End debut as the vet in Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy, "his hulking physique offsetting the defenceless, defeated spirit of his character". In 1978, Hall directed him in Pinter's "Betrayal"; then in 1980, Hall took something of a gamble by casting him as the lead in Brecht's "Life of Galileo". It was a triumph: Gambon, wrote one critic, charged a "supposedly cold play with the force of a long-pent-up volcano". Ralph Richardson dubbed him "the Great Gambon".

In 1986, "The Singing Detective" made him a household name, and after that he worked continuously, while the awards mounted up. "I just plod on. It all flies by. You don't really know how it happens," he said. Critics marvelled at his versatility: his ability to be hefty and yet delicate; to convey power, cruelty and menace, but also pain, vulnerability and mischievousness. Gambon, however, tended to downplay his work. Discussing the role of Dumbledore, which he took on after the death of Richard Harris, and which made his lugubrious features and unmistakable voice famous all over the world, he said he was scarcely acting at all: "I just stick on a beard and play me, so it's no great feat."

A prankster and raconteur

Always the toolmaker, he collected antique firearms and created realistic replicas of them. He flew planes and loved fast cars. He was a reluctant interviewee, believing that an actor should remain a blank canvas, and gave little away of his private life, which was unconventional. From 1962, he was married to Anne Miller, with whom he had a son. He had two more sons with set decorator Philippa Hart, whom he'd met on the set of 2000's "Longitude". Off stage and on, he was known as a prankster.

He was also a great raconteur, of stories that were sometimes tall, said David Jays in The Guardian. Did he really, during a sparsely attended matinee performance of Uncle Vanya, spot a man in the front row working on an oil painting of co-star Greta Scacchi? And did he actually then grab a brimming samovar and hurl its contents over the stage lights, drenching the man and his canvas? Who knows. But these tales are "Gambonesque", so let us "print the legend".

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