Michael Gambon

Michael Gambon Headshot

Actor

Birth Name: Michael John Gambon

Birth Date: October 19, 1940

Death Date: September 28, 2023

Birth Place: Dublin, Ireland

One of the most respected and accomplished actors on stage, film and television since the 1960s, Sir Michael Gambon essayed men of complex passions, flaws and appetites in projects ranging from classical theater and "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" (1989) to the "Harry Potter" franchise, where he replaced Richard Harris as the fatherly wizard Dumbledore. An acolyte of Laurence Olivier, he honed his craft on the British stage in productions of plays by Samuel Beckett and Alan Ayckbourn; major theater awards precipitated celebrated turns on television in "The Singing Detective" (BBC1, 1986), which in turn launched a film career as dastards like his brutal gangster in "Thief" or men hobbled by regret in "Dancing in Lunghnasa" (1998). Hits in Hollywood like "Sleepy Hollow" (1999) boosted his profile, which led to Emmy nominations for "The Path to War" (HBO, 2002) and "Emma" (BBC1, 2009) as well as steady work on stage and in front of the camera.

While most moviegoers recognized him as Dumbledore, his vast and storied career displayed a breadth of talent that made him an actor worthy of his late mentor's mantle of the world's finest working actor.

Michael John Gambon began life in Cabra, Dublin, Ireland on Oct. 19, 1940. His father, Michael, was an engineer, while his mother, Mary, was a seamstress. When Gambon was five, his father relocated the family to Mornington Crescent in North London to take part in the rebuilding of the city after the devastation of World War II. The elder Gambon also registered his son as a British subject, which would allow him, decades later, to accept a real knighthood and CBE (Commander of the British Empire) rather than the honorary one that was awarded to non-subjects born prior to 1949. In interviews, Gambon said that his first experience with performing came as an altar boy at St. Aloysius Boys' School in Somers Town. The experience was apparently a negative one for him, filled with martinet teachers and bullying fellow students, and after a stint at St. Aloysius College in Highgate, he left higher education altogether. At the time, he was only 15, and had no training in any particular discipline. To make ends meet, he became an apprentice toolmaker at the engineering conglomerate Vickers-Armstrong Ltd., and rose to the rank of engineer by the time he was 21. However, another interest had already begun to take hold in Gambon - one that would ultimately become his driving passion.

At 18, Gambon fell in love with acting. He began studying drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, from which he eventually received a degree in classical acting at age 21. He joined the Unity Theatre at age 19 before forging an elaborate résumé in hopes of joining the fabled Gate Theatre in Dublin. The ruse worked, and Gambon made his professional debut as "Second Gentleman" in a 1962 production of "Othello." The following year, he auditioned for the National Theatre, where he captured the attention of its artistic director, Sir Laurence Olivier. The acting legend handpicked Gambon, along with Robert Stephens, Frank Finlay and Derek Jacobi, as up-and-coming talent to watch, and gave each of them small roles in productions for most of the early 1960s. He would also make his film debut during this period with a bit part in Olivier's "Othello" (1965). Despite his limited appearances, Gambon made an impression with the power of his voice and presence; among his admirers was Olivier's peer, Sir Ralph Richardson, who dubbed him "The Great Gambon."

In 1967, Gambon left the National Theatre at the urging of Olivier, who suggested he gain further experience through provincial theater. He soon joined the Birmingham Repertory Company, which advanced him to leads in productions like "Othello" and "Macbeth." Gambon also began appearing with regularity on UK television; most notably as a series lead in "The Borderers" (BBC 2, 1968-1970), a historical action-drama about a 16th century Scottish family struggling to endure the hardships of the period. As one of the clan's eldest sons, Gambon was required to carry out quite a bit of swashbuckling, which led to him being called to audition for producer Cubby Broccoli as a replacement for George Lazenby as James Bond. Features would remain elusive for the next decade or so; Gambon appeared in only two films during the entire 1970s - a Christopher Lee-produced supernatural thriller called "Nothing But the Night" (1973) with Peter Cushing, and the wobbly werewolf movie "The Beast Must Die" (1974), also with Cushing - but made regular excursions to television, including the short-lived series "The Challengers" (YNT, 1972), about rival Parliament members, and the comedy "Chalk and Cheese" (Thames Television, 1979), with Michael Crawford as a middle class Briton moving into a posh neighborhood.

Though Gambon's film and television careers both remained in their infancy in the 1970s and 1980s, his stage work during the period established him as one of the finest actors on the London theater scene. He became known as one of the primary interpreters of playwright Alan Ayckbourn's work, beginning in 1974 with "The Norman Conquests" and carrying through a triumphant production of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge," directed by Ayckbourn, which, in 1988, won Gambon his first of three eventual Olivier Theatre Awards. His star truly rose with the 1980 production of Bertold Brecht's "The Life of Galileo," which brought him to the forefront of British acting circles; from that point on, he was a top box office draw in the West End in both the classics - as Marc Antony opposite Helen Mirren's Cleopatra in "Antony and Cleopatra" (1982); as "King Lear" (1983) while still only in his forties - and modern drama like Harold Pinter's grueling "Mountain Language" (1988) and "Veterans Day" (1989) with Jack Lemmon.

The attention showered upon Gambon's stage work naturally led film producers to his door, though as before, his fame in that medium was slow to build. His first feature film since the early 1970s was the Pinter-penned "Turtle Diary"(1985) with Gambon as a zoo keeper who aids two lonely people (Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley) in their plan to free captive turtles into the wild. Minor roles followed in David Hare's "Paris By Night" (1988), with Gambon as MP Charlotte Rampling's conniving husband, and showy cameos in "The Rachel Papers" (1989) and "A Dry White Season" (1989) as a cruel university professor and a tough magistrate, respectively. Television would instead be the vehicle by which audiences would discover Gambon's skill on screen. First was the 1985 BBC production of "Oscar," with Gambon as writer Oscar Wilde as he faces his trials for indecency; the real star-making project, however, was "The Singing Detective" (BBC1, 1986), an acclaimed serial penned by Dennis Potter about a mystery writer (Gambon) who escapes from the horror of his everyday existence - wracked with chronic, crippling psoriasis - into a fantasy world where he alternates between the world of his fiction, where he is a singing gumshoe, and his past, where he revisits a troubling childhood. Gambon captured nearly every major British television award for his astounding performance, and its worldwide broadcast on public television helped to introduce him to international audiences. From that point on, Gambon was a star.

Gambon finally scored a film success in 1989 with Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover," a graphic fantasy about a monstrous gangster (Gambon) whose brutal treatment of his spouse (Helen Mirren) spurs her to take up with a bookseller (Alan Howard). Rife with eye-popping moments of sex and violence that garnered an X rating in the United States, the film's final scene - in which Gambon is forced to eat Howard's cooked corpse by Mirren - proved to many viewers that he was an actor willing to take on any challenge. Unfortunately, few of his subsequent projects lived up to his talents. His American debuts in "Mobsters" (1991) and Barry Levinson's "Toys" (1992) were largely wasted efforts, while "Clean Slate" (1994) and "Mary Reilly" (1995) were misbegotten vehicles for leads Dana Carvey and Julia Roberts, respectively. More worthy work was available in a pair of small art house dramas with Albert Finney - "A Man of No Importance" (1994), as an overripe actor, and "The Browning Version" (1994), as a callous headmaster emphasizing modern literature over the classics - as well as back-to-back appearances opposite Michael Caine as the deadpan spy Harry Palmer in "Bullet to Beijing" (1995) and "Midnight in Saint Petersburg" (1996). Television again remained his most faithful medium, offering terrific roles like the dangerous spy Robert Kelway in a Pinter-scripted adaptation of "The Heat of the Day (Granada TV, 1989) and the title role in the second season of "The Storyteller," which adapted myths and stories from around the world as part of "The Jim Henson Hour" (NBC, 1989). Gambon also returned briefly to series work as Georges Simenon's detective "Inspector Maigret" (ITV, 1992-93).

Gambon stayed away from Hollywood for several years, preferring to work on stage and in homegrown film productions. The roles in this period were more fitting to an actor of his stature - "The Wings of the Dove" (1997) cast him as Helena Bonham Carter's dissolute father, who has reduced her family to poverty, while his senile Father Jack Mundy "Dancing at Lughnasa" (1998) brings chaos into the lives of his ebullient sisters, led by Meryl Streep. However, he was lured back to America by director Michael Mann, who cast him as Thomas Sandefur, CEO of tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, who attempts to prevent whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) from spilling the truth about cigarette toxicity. He then shifted gears to play the villainous Baltus Van Tassel, whose wife (Miranda Richardson) controls Christopher Walken's Headless Horseman in Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" (1999). A major summer hit, "Hollow" provided Gambon with his first box office smash; the decade also closed with the actor receiving two honors from Queen Elizabeth II: a Commander of the British Empire appointment in 1992 and a knighthood in 1998. In typical fashion, Gambon played down the titles, half-jokingly threatening anyone on the set of "Angels in America" (HBO, 2003) who referred to him as "Sir" with physical violence. As his film career took flight, Gambon also stayed true to his theatrical roots. He earned an Olivier nomination and a special Theatre World Award for David Hare's "Skylight," which provided him with his Broadway debut in 1997. Other stage highlights during this period included Pinter's "The Caretaker," which earned a Critics' Circle Theatre Award in 2001, and Olivier nominations for "Endgame" in 2004 and "No Man's Land" in 2009.

With the turn of the millennium, Gambon hit his stride as a film and television actor. Robert Altman's Oscar-nominated "Gosford Park" (2000) offered him the plum role of an unpleasant English royal whose laundry list of sins against family and staff result in his murder, while Gillian Armstrong's "Charlotte Grey" (2001) provided a more sympathetic part as a retired painter concealing his Jewish heritage from the Nazis during World War II. Gambon then earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his sympathetic interpretation of President Lyndon Johnson in John Frankenheimer's "The Path to War" (HBO, 2002), then turned back to the dark side as a corrupt Irish landowner in Kevin Costner's critically praised Western, "Open Range" (2003). By the early 2000s, Gambon's film career was in full swing, with no less than five films to his credit in 2003, and six the following year. Some were impressive art house titles, like "Sylvia" (2004), with Gwyneth Paltrow as poetess Sylvia Plath and Gambon as the neighbor who lends her a comforting shoulder during her tumultuous relationship to p t Ted Hughes. Others were ambitious misfires, like the sci-fi adventure "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" (2004), which reunited him with Paltrow as the editor of a fictitious New York newspaper, and Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004), with Gambon as the crass producer of faded oceanographer Bill Murray's documentaries.

Despite the quality and prominence of his previous screen work, the film role that would largely come to define Gambon's movie career was that of the wizard Albus Dumbledore, which he took over for the late Richard Harris in the third film of the "Harry Potter" franchise, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004). This was not the first time Gambon had replaced Harris in a role; the Irish actor had played Inspector Maigret on UK television for a season before Gambon took over the role, and the transition for the fantasy series was an equally smooth one, with Gambon adding a layer of rueful regret to the role, as well as a slight Welsh accent. Audiences took to Gambon as Dumbledore immediately, and he repeated the character for the remainder of the series, which stretched from the fourth film, the Oscar-nominated "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (2005), to its two-part finale, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (2010-11). Off camera, Gambon gleefully cultivated a reputation as a prankster, especially in interviews with the press, where he frequently led reporters on flights of wild fancy about his career and personal life. He was also a popular guest on the BBC's "Top Gear" series (1977-2001; 2002- ), especially after an appearance in which he took the final corner on the Dunsfold Park racetrack on two wheels. The corner was later dubbed "Gambon" in his honor.

With the "Potter" series providing steady financial income, Gambon was comfortable enough to lighten his film load to only a few features per year so as to return to his first love - the theater. In 2005, he satisfying a long-standing career goal to play Falstaff in both parts of "Henry IV," then returned to the works of Beckett for "Eh, Joe," directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan in 2006. The production required Gambon to remain still onstage while a camera projected his reactions to a female voice narrating a litany of the ways in which he hurt her. Filmwork during this period was hit-and-miss. Gambon chewed the scenery mercilessly as the archaeologist who warns Liev Schreiber that his son is the Anti-Christ in the 2006 remake of "The Omen," then gave a quieter turn as Matt Damon's p try professor who warns him against a career in espionage in Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" (2006). The 2008 film version of "Brideshead Revisited" received mixed reviews, but Gambon's performance as Lord Marchmain - played previously by his mentor, Laurence Olivier, in the 1981 Granada Television adaptation - was widely praised.

Gambon later returned to television and the works of Pinter for "Celebration" (More4, 2007), then re-teamed with Stephen Poliakoff - with whom he had worked in 2001 on "Perfect Strangers" (BBC2) - for "Joe's Palace" (2007), a companion piece to "Capturing Mary" (BBC, 2007), with Danny Lee Wynter's J now caring for the home of a billionaire (Gambon) whose family may have profited from the Holocaust. That same year, he enjoyed a small but significant role in "Cranford" (BBC1, 2007), a comedy-drama about village life in the 19th century with an all-star cast led by Dame Judi Dench, with Gambon as the farmer who carries a torch for her. He then reunited with Wes Anderson to voice the famer Franklin Bean in the animated "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009) before playing a post-apocalyptic survivor who refuses to abandon simple civilities in "The Book of Eli" (2010). That same year, Gambon received his second Emmy nomination for the BBC1 adaptation of "Emma" (2009), for which he played the sickly but devoted father of Jane Austen's titular heroine (Romola Garai). After reprising Dumbledore for the final installments to the "Harry Potter" series in 2010-11, Gambon portrayed King George V opposite Colin Firth in the Oscar-winning historical drama "The King's Speech" (2010). On the small screen, he played the Director General of MI5 opposite a longtime intelligence officer and best friend (Bill Nighy) in the British made-for-TV movie "Page Eight" (BBC2, 2011).

Michael Gambon died on September 28, 2023 in Witham, England at the age of 82.

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