Michael Gambon obituary: The Singing Detective, Maigret and Harry Potter star

Starting out on the stage, Gambon brought gravitas and wit to his prolific work in film and TV, but remained a private, self-deprecating talent.

29 September 2023

By David Parkinson

Michael Gambon as Philip Marlow in The Singing Detective (1986) © Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Despite his numerous stage triumphs, the career of Michael Gambon, who has died at the age of 82, will, for many, always be a tale of two Potters. He was dubbed “Gambon the Great” by Ralph Richardson, but preferred to think of himself as “a big, interesting old bugger”, who reckoned, “every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. I’m not really a character actor at all.” However, Gambon was an instinctive performer and a risk taker, who could switch between gravitas and glee, vulnerability and violence while revealing the complexity in often simple men. 

Born in Dublin on 19 October 1940, Gambon became a British citizen after his engineer father relocated to postwar London. Leaving school without qualifications, he completed a toolmaking apprenticeship and retained a fascination with all things mechanical. Indeed, it was his set-building skill that drew him into amateur dramatics before he started taking bit parts at the Unity Theatre.

In 1962, Gambon wrote to Micheál Mac Liammóir, the Irish theatre impresario who ran Dublin’s Gate Theatre, offering to drop in on his way to Broadway having just taken the lead in a West End revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. The ruse worked, and he played the Second Gentleman in a production of Othello that toured Europe. Gambon demonstrated similar chutzpah in auditioning for Laurence Olivier’s newly formed National Theatre company and found himself as “one of his spear-carrying boys”

Olivier gave Gambon his film debut in Othello (1965) and advised him to join the Birmingham Rep in order to land leading roles. After a year, he was cast as Gavin Ker in The Borderers (1968 to 1970), a swashbuckling BBC series set in 16th-century Scotland that prompted Cubby Broccoli to interview Gambon about becoming the new James Bond.

The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Although he played a police inspector in Nothing but the Night (1973) and a werewolf in The Beast Must Die (1974), Gambon dedicated himself to the stage in the 1970s. Of his theatre work, he has been acclaimed for performances of power and percipience in Shakespeare, Brecht, Beckett, Pinter and Ayckbourn. He did work in television, however, and excelled in Dennis Potter’s six-part BBC series The Singing Detective (1986), as mystery writer Philip Marlow, who drifts into childhood memories and noirish reveries while being treated in hospital for psoriatic arthropathy. 

The pustulating makeup took two hours to apply and melted under the lights, so Gambon more than deserved his BAFTA for best actor. But he refused to get carried away and continued to insist after three Olivier Awards that he was “a hit-and-miss merchant” who just did his own thing. 

Further small-screen acclaim followed for Maigret (1992 to 1993), as Gambon added gentle wit to the cerebral rigour of Georges Simenon’s police commissaire. Moreover, three more BAFTAs were bestowed for his displays as the prejudiced but empathetic Squire Hamly in Wives and Daughters (1999), self-taught clockmaker John Harrison in Longitude (2000), and ruminative stroke victim Raymond Symon in Perfect Strangers (2001). Gambon also received Emmy nominations for portraying President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the Vietnam drama Path to War (2002), and the heroine’s fond father, Mr Woodhouse, in the four-part BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma (2009).

Gosford Park (2001)

Notwithstanding all this recognition for his stage and television work, Gambon was serially overlooked for his film roles. This is baffling considering the brilliance of some of his screen villainy. He was viciously psychotic as Cockney gangster Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), corporately mendacious as ruthless tobacco boss Thomas Sandefur in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), crassly nouveau riche as callous industrialist Sir William McCordle in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), sneeringly hostile as avaricious Irish rancher Denton Baxter in Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003), and pitilessly diabolical as underworld boss Eddie Temple in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake (2004). 

He proved just as reprehensible as spendthrift Lionel Croy in The Wings of the Dove (1997), the stiffly regal Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited (2008) and gruff martinet George V in The King’s Speech (2010). Yet a softer side emerged as put-upon producer Oseary Drakoulias in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), anti-slavery champion Charles James Fox in Amazing Grace (2006), the affable Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army and a stroke-stricken Winston Churchill in Churchill’s Secret (both 2016).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

A private man in a very public profession, Gambon used his inaccessibility to creep up on audiences who thought they knew what to expect. Finding fame relatively late, he had insight rather than illusions, which meant his performances were tinged with authenticity rather than vanity. Consequently, he could succeed Richard Harris as the avuncular Albus Dumbledore in the last six Harry Potter pictures without feeling the need to make his mark on the role. 

As memory issues meant he spent more time “whispering in the daytime” than “shouting at night”, Gambon did more voice work, notably as Uncle Pastuzo in the Paddington films (2014/2017) and as the narrator of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hollywood satire Hail, Caesar! (2016).

“I can’t remember any of the films I’ve done,” he once confided. “You go from one to the other and they all blend into a big mass.” One suspects that after 172 screen credits, however, his favourite was the 2002 appearance on Top Gear that resulted in part of the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car course being named ‘Gambon Corner’ after he took it on two wheels.

  • Michael Gambon, 19 October 1940 to 27 September 2023
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