Nationality: British. Born: Ralph David Richardson in Cheltenham, 19 December 1902. Education: Attended Xaverian College, Brighton. Family: Married 1) Muriel Hewitt, 1924 (died 1942); 2) Meriel Forbes, 1944, son: Charles David. Career: 1921—stage debut in Les Misérables , Brighton; then toured England and Ireland with a Shakespearean repertory company; 1925—London stage debut in Oedipus at Colonus ; 1933—film debut in The Ghoul ; 1936—directed the play Bees on the Boat Deck ; 1939–44—served with Fleet Air Arm: Lt. Commander; 1944–49—associated with resuscitating the Old Vic theater, London as actor and director: in New York with the Old Vic company; on stage in plays by Shakespeare, Sheridan, Pirandello; 1952—directed the film Home at Seven ; 1977—in TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth . Awards: Best Actor, New York Film Critics, and Best British Actor, British Academy, for The Sound Barrier , 1952; Best Acting (collectively awarded), Cannes Festival, for Long Day's Journey into Night , 1962; Best Supporting Actor, New York Film Critics, for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan , 1982. Knighted, 1947. Died: In London, 10 October 1983.
The Ghoul (Hunter) (as Nigel Hartley); Friday the Thirteenth (Saville) (as schoolmaster); Java Head (Ruben) (as William Ammidon)
The Return of Bulldog Drummond (Summers) (as Hugh Drummond); The King of Paris (Raymond) (as Paul)
Bulldog Jack (Forde) (as Morell)
Things to Come (Menzies) (as the Boss)
The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Mendes) (as Col. Winstanley); Thunder in the City (Gering) (as Manningdale); South Riding (Saville) (as Robert Carne)
The Divorce of Lady X (Whelan) (as Lord Mere); The Citadel (King Vidor) (as Denny)
Q Planes ( Clouds over Europe ) (Whelan) (as Maj. Hammond); Smith (Browne); The Four Feathers (Korda) (as Capt. John Durrance); The Lion Has Wings (Powell, Hurst, and Brunel) (as Wing Commander)
Health for the Nation (doc) (as narrator); On the Night of the Fire (Hurst) (as Will Kobling)
The Day Will Dawn ( The Avengers ) (French) (as Lockwood)
The Silver Fleet (Wellesley and Sewell) (as Jaap Van Leyden)
The Volunteer (Powell and Pressburger—doc) (as himself)
School for Secrets (Ustinov) (as Prof. Heatherville)
Anna Karenina (Duvivier) (as Alexei Karenin); The Fallen Idol (Reed) (as Baines)
The Heiress (Wyler) (as Dr. Austin Sloper)
Outcast of the Islands (Reed) (as Capt. Lingard)
The Sound Barrier ( Breaking the Sound Barrier ) (Lean) (as John Richfield); The Holly and the Ivy (O'Ferrall) (as the Rev. Martin Gregory)
Richard III (Olivier) (as Duke of Buckingham)
Smiley (Kimmins) (as Rev. Lambeth); The Passionate Stranger (Box) (as Roger Wynter/Sir Clement)
Our Man in Havana (Lean) (as "C"); Oscar Wilde (Ratoff) (as Sir Edward Carson); Exodus (Preminger) (as Gen. Sutherland)
The 300 Spartans (Maté) (as Themistocles)
Long Day's Journey into Night (Lumet) (as James Tyrone)
Woman of Straw (Dearden) (as Charles Richmond)
Dr. Zhivago (Lean) (as Alexander Gromeko)
Khartoum (Dearden) (as Gladstone); The Wrong Box (Forbes) (as Joseph Finsbury)
Chimes at Midnight ( Campanadas a medianoche ; Falstaff ) (Welles) (as narrator)
Midas Run ( A Run on Gold ) (Kjellin) (as Henshaw); The Bed Sitting Room (Lester) (as Lord Fortnum of Alamein); Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as Sir Edward Grey); The Battle of Britain (Hamilton) (as Minister); The Looking Glass War (Pierson) (as Leclerc)
Eagle in a Cage (Cook) (as Sir Hudson Lowe); David Copperfield (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Mr. Micawber)
Who Slew Auntie Roo? (Harrington) (as Mr. Benton)
Tales from the Crypt (Francis) (as Crypt Keeper); Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Miller—for TV) (as Caterpillar); Lady Caroline Lamb (Bolt) (as George III)
Frankenstein—The True Story (Smight—for TV) (as Lacey); O Lucky Man! (Anderson) (as Sir James Burgess/Monty); A Doll's House (Losey) (as Dr. Rank)
Rollerball (Jewison) (as Senator)
The Man in the Iron Mask (Newell—for TV) (as Cardinal Richelieu)
Watership Down (Rosen—animation) (as voice); No Man's Land (Hall—for TV) (as Hirst)
Time Bandits (Gilliam) (as The Supreme Being); Early Days (Page—for TV) (as Kitchen); Dragonslayer (Robbins) (as Ulrich); Witness for the Prosecution (Gibson—for TV)
Wagner (Palmer—for TV) (as Pfi)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (Hudson); Give My Regards to Broad Street (Webb)
Invitation to the Wedding (Brooks) (as Uncle Willie)
Home at Seven (+ ro as David Preston)
Hobson, Harold, Ralph Richardson , London, 1958.
Findlater, Richard, These Our Actors: Theatre Acting of Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson , North Pomfret, 1984.
O'Connor, Garry, Ralph Richardson: An Actor's Life , London, 1982; rev. ed., 1986.
Tanitch, Robert, editor, Ralph Richardson: A Tribute , London, 1982.
Miller, John, Ralph Richardson: The Authorized Biography , Philadelphia, 1995.
Current Biography 1950 , New York, 1950.
"Ralph Richardson," in Films and Filming (London), May 1961.
Coulson, A. A., "Ralph Richardson," in Films in Review (New York), October 1969.
Obituary in New York Times , 11 October 1983.
The Annual Obituary 1983 , Chicago, 1984.
* * *
Of the triumvirate of great British twentieth-century actors—John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Ralph Richardson—only Richardson has enjoyed a screen career as long and as prolific as any film personality. As actress Barbara Jefford has commented, "He was always a wonderfully flexible film performer—better in many ways than Gielgud or Olivier." Thanks to a long-term contract he became a familiar figure in British films—"my film career had always been in the hands of Korda," Richardson said after the producer's death. "Korda looked after me." Yet the majority of Richardson's films are instantly forgettable. He began his screen career in an atrocious Boris Karloff vehicle, The Ghoul , which did nothing to enhance either actor's reputation, and did not obtain a decent screen role until Things to Come some three years later.
Things to Come features Richardson as the Hitler-Mussolini style Boss of a futuristic world crippled by wars. It was followed by The Man Who Could Work Miracles , in which the actor played an eccentric judge, and The Citadel , in which Richardson again played an eccentric, this time drunken Dr. Denny. He was rapidly becoming a major young British character actor, and at the same time getting a reputation for eccentricity in which he delighted. In later years he would ride around London on a motorbike with a parrot on his shoulder, and keep a pet ferret which he washed each week in Lux soap suds.
With South Riding , Richardson graduated from character actor to leading man, a position enhanced by his performances in The Four Feathers and Anna Karenina . But he was aging fast, and by the time Richardson made his Hollywood debut in The Heiress , he was old enough to play Olivia de Havilland's father, Dr. Austin Sloper, in this adaptation of the Henry James classic. Elegant and refined, Richardson destroys his daughter's one chance at love in a performance that is, unquestionably, the first of his two great American screen roles.
Because Richardson accepted so many film roles, the bulk of his work seems minor and unimpressive. One can only ponder why he took parts in such unimportant features as The 300 Spartans , Woman of Straw , Midas Run , Tales from the Crypt , or Rollerball . Perhaps Korda's death in 1959 robbed the actor of the guidance he needed in his screen work. Only one other Hollywood feature gives Richardson a role equal to his talent, that of James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night , a part to which he brings a strength of character and a sorrow strangely lacking from Laurence Olivier's highly regarded stage performance.
From the late 1950s onwards, Richardson's film roles were small, and yet each production was enhanced by his appearance, described by Kenneth Tynan as a "unique physical presence, at once rakish and stately, as of a pirate turned prelate." Richardson's eccentricity spilled over into his screen work, notably in The Time Bandits , in which, as the Supreme Being, he wears a three-piece suit and looks as if he had just wandered on to the set directly from the street, mumbling his lines and appearing totally confused.