head and shoulders image of middle-aged man, slightly balding, with moustache

Richardson in 1949

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.

Life and careerEdit

Early yearsEdit

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.

She eloped with me, then aged four.

Richardson on his mother's breakup of the family

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.

I was too lazy to be a painter ... I hadn't the persistency – but then I hadn't got very much talent.

Richardson on his time at art school

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. 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.

Early careerEdit

The heyday of the touring actor-manager was nearing its end but some companies still flourished. As well as Benson's, there were those of Sir John Martin-Harvey, Ben Greet, and, only slightly less prestigious, Charles Doran. Richardson wrote to all four managers: the first two did not reply; Greet saw him but had no vacancy; Doran engaged him, at a wage of £3 a week. Richardson made his first appearance as a professional actor at the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft, in August 1921, as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. He remained with Doran's company for most of the next two years, gradually gaining more important roles, including Banquo in Macbeth and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.

Two of Richardson's mentors

Doran's company specialised in the classics, principally Shakespeare. After two years of period costumes Richardson felt the urge to act in a modern work. He left Doran in 1923 and toured in a new play, Outward Bound by Sutton Vane. He returned to the classics in August 1924, in Nigel Playfair's touring production of The Way of the World, playing Fainall. While on that tour he married Muriel Hewitt, a young member of Doran's company, known to him as "Kit". To his great happiness, the two were able to work together for most of 1925, both being engaged by Sir Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for a touring production of The Farmer's Wife. From December of that year they were members of the main repertory company in Birmingham. Through Jackson's chief director, the veteran taskmaster H K Ayliff, Richardson "absorbed the influence of older contemporaries like Gerald du Maurier, Charles Hawtrey and Mrs Patrick Campbell." Hewitt was seen as a rising star but Richardson's talents were not yet so apparent; he was allotted supporting roles such as Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest and Albert Prossor in Hobson's Choice.

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.

When Phillpotts's next comedy, Yellow Sands, was to be mounted at the Haymarket Theatre in the West End, Richardson and his wife were both cast in good roles. The play opened in November 1926 and ran until September 1928; with 610 performances it was the longest London run of Richardson's entire career. During the run Muriel Hewitt began to show early symptoms of encephalitis lethargica, a progressive and ultimately fatal illness.

Richardson left the run of Yellow Sands in March 1928 and rejoined Ayliff, playing Pygmalion in Back to Methuselah at the Royal Court Theatre; also in the cast was a former colleague from the Birmingham Repertory, Laurence Olivier. The critics began to notice Richardson and he gained some favourable reviews. As Tranio in Ayliff's modern-dress production of The Taming of the Shrew, Richardson played the character as a breezy cockney, winning praise for turning a usually dreary role into something richly entertaining. For the rest of 1928 he appeared in what Miller describes as several unremarkable modern plays. For much of 1929 he toured South Africa in Gerald Lawrence's company in three period costume plays, including The School for Scandal, in which he played Joseph Surface. The sole venture into musical comedy of his career was in Silver Wings in the West End and on tour. It was not a personal triumph; the director's final injunction to the company was, "For God's sake don't let Richardson sing". In May 1930 Richardson was given the role of Roderigo in Othello in what seemed likely to be a prestigious production, with Paul Robeson in the title role. The biographer Ronald Hayman writes that though a fine singer, "Robeson had no ear for blank verse" and even Peggy Ashcroft's superb performance as Desdemona was not enough to save the production from failure. Ashcroft's notices were laudatory, while Richardson's were mixed; they admired each other and worked together frequently during the next four decades.

Old Vic, 1930–32Edit

external view of front of Victorian theatre

The Old Vic (photographed in 2012)

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.

West End and BroadwayEdit

Richardson returned to the Malvern Festival in August 1932. He was in four plays, the last of which, Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good, transferred to the New Theatre in London the following month.

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