Obituary: Sir Michael Gambon, star of The Singing Detective and Harry Potter

Obituary: Sir Michael Gambon, star of The Singing Detective and Harry Potter

Sir Michael Gambon was one of Britain’s most versatile performers.

While he achieved success on both TV and in the cinema, it was the theatre that was his greatest love.

He played many of the great Shakespearean parts, appeared on TV as Inspector Maigret and once auditioned for the role of James Bond.

And he gained an international following when he took over the part of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.

Michael John Gambon was born in Dublin on 19 Oct 1940, the son of an engineer and a seamstress.

When he was five his father moved to London to work on the reconstruction of the capital after the blitz and Gambon attended St Aloysius’

College in Highgate before the family moved again, this time to Kent.

His father made him a British citizen, something that meant his future knighthood would be a substantive rather than honorary one.

School was something of a trial for him. “I have no happy memories whatsoever,” he said, and he quit at 15 to take up a job as an apprentice toolmaker with Vickers.

Something in him had always been drawn towards acting, and he became an avid cinemagoer. But it was not until his early 20s that he began actively pursuing a stage career.

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‘A bit fat’

He began writing letters to various theatrical companies, enclosing the most outrageous CVs detailing his fictional prowess as a performer. He was eventually offered a junior job at the Gate Theatre in his native Dublin, which had failed to check his

claim that he had taken the lead role in a George Bernard Shaw play in London.

After touring Europe in a production of Othello, Gambon moved on to the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier where he appeared in a number of spear-carrying roles alongside other future stars including Derek Jacobi and Frank Finlay.

It was Olivier who suggested that the young Michael Gambon needed to broaden his experience so, in 1967, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company where he started picking

up meatier parts including the lead in productions of Othello, Macbeth and Coriolanus.

It was while buckling his swash in a BBC TV series, The Borderers, set in 16th century Scotland, that he was spotted by Cubby Broccoli and asked to audition for the new Bond film,

On her Majesty’s Secret Service, following Sean Connery’s decision to quit the franchise.

While it may be amusing to reflect on how Gambon’s

Bond might have looked – more George Smiley than 007 – he was not enthusiastic about taking it on. “I haven’t got nice hair and I’m a bit fat,” he told Broccoli, and the part went to George Lazenby.

His devotion to the stage paid off in 1974 when he was cast as Tom in Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquests. The rave reviews for the production in the West End established his reputation as a comic actor of great merit.

Fantasy world

And there was further acclaim for his role as Jerry in Peter Hall’s

production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which opened on the South Bank in 1978.

Two years later there was a masterly performance in The Life of Galileo,

Berthold Brecht’s take on the life of the 17th Century Italian scientist. One critic described his performance as “unsentimental, dangerous and immensely powerful”

and it was reported that his fellow cast members clapped him back to the dressing room.

The BBC production of Dennis Potter’s drama The Singing Detective,

brought him to a wider audience when it was screened in 1986. A complex and dark tale, it is now seen as a landmark in British TV.

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