Wednesday 17 January 2018

Obituary: Richard Johnson

Dashing actor who turned down James Bond and became stalwart of RSC, film and TV

Richard Johnson with Kim Novak and Lilli Palmer in The Amorous Adventures Of Moll Flanders (Allstar Picture Library)
Richard Johnson with Kim Novak and Lilli Palmer in The Amorous Adventures Of Moll Flanders (Allstar Picture Library)

Richard Johnson, the stage and screen actor and producer, who died last Saturday aged 87, conferred his dark, handsome, saturnine features, assertive jaw, emphatic eyebrows and air of intelligence on scores of classic parts in the theatre, and on a wide range of film and television roles.

His career began with a walk-on part in John Gielgud's 1944 production of Hamlet in Manchester. In 1999 he was part of a strong supporting cast alongside Cate Blanchett in a production of Plenty in the West End, and he was still working up to his death.

In the early 1960s, the director Terence Young had wanted Johnson to play James Bond in preference to Sean Connery. Johnson declined because he was under contract to MGM and did not relish the seven-year commitment. He later said that he thought Connery the wrong man for Bond, while praising him for making the part funny and thus leading to the enduring success of the films. Johnson certainly displayed Bond-like qualities in some of his film roles, notably when he played a modern-day Bulldog Drummond in Deadlier Than the Male (1963) and its less satisfactory sequel, Some Girls Do (1969).

Having started out on the stage, he made the happy transition into films. He never forgot the director Robert Wise's advice as to how to face a camera: "Don't blink too much" and "Don't move your eyes if talking to another actor off screen." Wise also gave him the directorial instruction: "Just do what you would do."

Following his film debut in Never So Few (1959), Johnson made his biggest films with MGM including Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963); Khartoum (1966), starring Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston. If the stardom for which his career seemed to be heading in the cinema of the early 1960s eluded him, he cut a dashingly romantic figure opposite Kim Novak, whom he married in real life at this time (albeit briefly - they divorced a year later), in the all-star romp, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965).

He went on to appear in such films as Zombi 2 (1979) (which was banned for some years), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008). During the 1960s, Johnson became involved with Sir Peter Hall's production of Cymbeline, leading to Hall inviting him to join him in the Royal Shakespeare Company. He made something of a comeback at Stratford-on-Avon in 1992 as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, having two years earlier re-established himself on the television screen in two plays, The Camomile Lawn and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.

In later years, he was a charismatic presence in television productions such as Midsomer Murders, Waking the Dead, Silent Witness and Doc Martin. Looking back on his career, he mused: "It was great being young, being rich and having fun and being a movie star. I thought I'd rather be a rich young man than be a rich old man and I was probably right."

Richard Keith Johnson was born at Upminster, Essex, on July 30, 1927 and educated at Parkfield School and Felsted School before training for the stage at Rada. He claimed to have started acting as a child and then became a professional actor because it made him feel alive, and less aware of his "insufficiencies".

After Gielgud's Hamlet, he moved to the West End as part of a classical repertoire. Before and after his National Service in the Navy from 1945 to 1948 he was in repertory at Perth. After a season of old melodrama in Camden Town, he was in two West End productions, The Madwoman of Chaillot and After My Fashion.

In 1955 he got his first real break in Jean Anouilh's version of the Joan of Arc story, The Lark, playing Warwick, one of his favourite parts, to Dorothy Tutin's Joan.

In 1983 Johnson became founder, chairman, and joint chief executive of a production company, United Artists, with Diana Rigg as director, and the actors Albert Finney and Glenda Jackson. They promoted such films as The Champion, Turtle Diary, Castaway (with Oliver Reed) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

His TV work included Haywire (1981) and Lady Jane (1986). His movies included Danger Route (1967), Oedipus the King (1968), Lady Hamilton (1968), Julius Caesar (1970), Hennessy (1975) for which he wrote the original story, The Four Feathers (1978) and Secrets of the Phantom Caverns (1984).

Richard Johnson was married four times; first, in 1957 to the actress Sheila Sweet, by whom he had a son and daughter (the photographer, Sukey Parnell). After their divorce he married, in 1965, Kim Novak, a marriage which lasted a few months. In 1982 he married Mary-Louise Norlund, by whom he had a daughter. He also had a son with the French actress, Francoise Pascal. His fourth wife was Lynne Gurney, whom he married on a beach in Goa in 2004; she survives him with his four children and his stepson, the actor Paris Arrowsmith.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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