Sir Michael John Gambon CBE (19 October 1940 – 27 September 2023) was an Irish-born British actor with a career that spaned nearly five decades and included a variety of roles in movie, television and theatre.
Early life change
Gambon was born on 19 October 1940 in Dublin during World War II. His father, Edward Gambon, was an engineer and his mother, Mary (née Hoare), was a seamstress. His father decided to seek work in the rebuilding of London, and so the family moved to Mornington Crescent in north London, when Gambon was five. His father had him made a British citizen — a decision that would later allow Michael to receive an actual, rather than honorary, knighthood and CBE. (although, under the British Nationality Act 1981 anyone born in Ireland before 1949 can still register as a British subject and, after five years' UK residence, as a British citizen).
Raised a strict Catholic, he attended St Aloysius Boys' School in Somers Town and served at the altar. He then moved to St Aloysius' College in Hornsey Lane, Highgate, London, whose former pupils included Peter Sellers. He later attended a school in Kent, before leaving with no qualifications at fifteen. He then gained an apprenticeship with Vickers Armstrong as a toolmaker. By the time he was 21 he was a fully qualified engineer. He kept the job for a further year – acquiring a fascination and passion for collecting antique guns, clocks and watches, as well as classic cars.
Early acting career change
Aged 19, he joined the Unity Theatre in Kings Cross. Five years later he wrote a letter to Michael MacLiammoir, the Irish theatre impresario who ran Dublin's Gate Theatre. It was accompanied by a CV describing a rich and wholly imaginary theatre career – and he was taken on.
Gambon made his professional stage début in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin's 1962 production of Othello, playing "Second Gentleman", followed by a European tour. A year later, cheekily auditioning with the opening soliloquy from Richard III, he caught the eye of star-maker Laurence Olivier who was recruiting promising spear-carriers for his new National Theatre Company. Gambon, along with Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi and Frank Finlay, was hired as one of the ‘to be renowned’ and played any number of small roles. The company initially performed at the Old Vic, their first production being Hamlet, directed by Olivier and starring Peter O'Toole. He played for four years in many NT productions, including named roles in The Recruiting Officer and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, working with directors William Gaskill and John Dexter.
Work in the theatre change
After three years at the Old Vic, Olivier advised Gambon to gain experience in provincial rep. In 1967, he left the NT for the Birmingham Repertory Company which was to give him his first crack at the title roles in Othello (his favourite), Macbeth and Coriolanus.
His rise to stardom began in 1974 when Eric Thompson cast him as the melancholy vet in Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests at Greenwich. A speedy transfer to the West End established him as a brilliant comic actor, squatting at a crowded dining table on a tiny chair and sublimely agonising over a choice between black or white coffee.
Back at the National, now on the South Bank, his next turning point was Peter Hall's premiere staging of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, an unexpectedly subtle performance — a production photograph shows him embracing Penelope Wilton with sensitive hands and long slim fingers (the touch of a master clock-maker). He is also one of the few actors to have mastered the harsh demands of the vast Olivier Theatre. As Simon Callow once said: “Gambon's ‘iron lungs and overwhelming charisma are able to command a sort of operatic full-throatedness which triumphs over hard walls and long distances.”
This was to serve him in good stead in John Dexter's masterly staging of The Life of Galileo in 1980, the first Brecht to become a popular success. Hall called him ‘unsentimental, dangerous and immensely powerful’, even the Sunday Times’ curmudgeonly critic of the day called his performance ‘a decisive step in the direction of great tragedy...great acting’, while fellow actors paid him the rare compliment of applauding him in the dressing room on the first night.
From the first Ralph Richardson dubbed him The Great Gambon, an accolade which stuck, outshining his 1990 CBE, even the later knighthood, although Gambon dismisses it as a circus slogan. But as Sheridan Morley perceptively remarked in 2000, when reviewing Cressida: ‘Gambon's eccentricity on stage now begins to rival that of his great mentor Richardson’. Also like Richardson, interviews are rarely given and raise more questions than they answer. Gambon is a very private person, a ‘non-starry star’ as Ayckbourn called him. Off-stage he prefers to back out of the limelight, an unpretentious guy sharing laughs with his fellow cast and crew.
While he has won screen acclaim, no-one who saw his ravaged King Lear at Stratford, while still in his early forties, will forget his superb double act with a red-nosed Antony Sher as the Fool sitting on his master's knee like a ventriloquist's doll. There were also notable appearances in Old Times at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and as Volpone and the brutal sergeant in Pinter's Mountain Language.
David Hare's Skylight, with Lia Williams, which opened to rave reviews at the National in 1995, transferred first to Wyndhams Theatre and then on to Broadway for a four-month run which left him in a state of advanced exhaustion. “Skylight was ten times as hard to play as anything I’ve ever done” he told Michael Owen in the Evening Standard. “I had a great time in New York but couldn’t wait to get back”.
Gambon is almost the only leading actor not to grace Yasmina Reza's ART at Wyndham's. But together with Simon Russell Beale and Alan Bates he gave a deliciously droll radio account of the role of Marc. And for the RSC he shared Reza's two-hander The Unexpected Man with Eileen Atkins, first at The Pit in the Barbican and then at the Duchess Theatre, a production also intended for New York but finally delayed by other commitments.
In 2001, he portrayed what he described as “a physically repulsive’’ Davies in Patrick Marber's revival of Pinter's The Caretaker, but he found the rehearsal period an unhappy experience, and felt that he had let down the author. A year later, playing opposite Daniel Craig, he portrayed the father of a series of cloned sons in Caryl Churchill's A Number at the Royal Court, notable for a recumbent moment when he smoked a cigarette, the brightly lit spiral of smoke rising against a black backdrop, an effect which he dreamed up during rehearsals.
In 2004, he finally achieved a life-long ambition to play Sir John Falstaff, in Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, co-starring with Matthew Macfadyen as Prince Hal.
Screen success and acceptance change
He made his movie debut in the Laurence Olivier Othello in 1965. He then played romantic leads, notably in the early 1970s BBC television series, The Borderers, in which he was swashbuckling Gavin Ker. As a result, Gambon was asked by James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli to audition for the role in 1970, to replace George Lazenby. His craggy looks soon made him into a character actor, although he won critical acclaim as Galileo in John Dexter's production of The Life of Galileo by Brecht at the National Theatre in 1980. But it was not until Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986) that he became a household name. After this success, for which he won a BAFTA, his work includes movies such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover which also starred Helen Mirren.
In 1992, he portrayed a psychotic general in the Barry Levinson movie Toys and he also starred as Georges Simenon's detective Inspector Jules Maigret in an ITV adaptation of Simenon's series of books. He starred as Fyodor Dostoevsky in the Hungarian director Károly Makk's movie The Gambler (1997) about the writing of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella The Gambler.
Recent career change
In recent years, movies such as Dancing at Lughnasa (1998) and Plunkett & Macleane (1998), as well as television appearances in series such as Wives and Daughters (1999) (for which he won another BAFTA), a made-for-TV adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Endgame (2001) and Perfect Strangers (2001) have revealed a talent for comedy. In 2004, he appeared in five movies, including Wes Anderson's quirky comedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; the British gangster flick Layer Cake; theatrical drama Being Julia; and CGI action fantasy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Perhaps his most significant role in 2004, however, was Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts' headmaster in the third installment of J. K. Rowling's franchise, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, taking over from fellow Irish actor Richard Harris, who had died of Hodgkins disease. (Harris had also played Maigret on television four years before Gambon took that role.) Gambon reprised the role of Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was released in November 2005 in the UK and U.S. He returned to the role again in the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was released in 2007. He will once again return to portray Dumbledore in movie the sixth Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Gambon admits not having read the Harry Potter novels and says that this is because he does not want to be upset by an extremely large change or death in the books. Similarly, he has also stated in an interview that, when playing Dumbledore, "I don't have to play anyone really. I just stick on a beard and play me, so it's no great feat. I never ease into a role – every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. I’m not really a character actor at all..."
In an Ironic twist, Gambon also played a British spy in "The Good Shepherd" (2006). His codename was "The headmaster".
Most recently, he was Joe in Beckett's Eh Joe, giving two performances a night at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. He currently does the voice over to the new Guinness ads with the penguins. In 2007 he played major roles in Stephen Poliakoff's Joe's Palace, and the five-part adaptation of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford novels, both for BBC TV.
Personal life change
Gambon married Anne Miller when he was 22, but has always been secretive about his personal life. The couple live together in a country house in Kent. Gambon was invested by Prince Charles as a Knight Bachelor on 17 July 1998 for services to drama (Queen Elizabeth II's approval for the award was notified in the 1998 New Year Honours List) and his wife thus became Lady Gambon. The couple have a son, Fergus, who appears as an expert on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow.
Gambon is a qualified amateur pilot, and his love of cars led to his appearance on the BBC's Top Gear programme. Gambon raced the Suzuki Liana and was driving so aggressively that it was launched into the air on the last corner of his timed lap. The final corner of the Dunsfold Park track has been named "Gambon" in his honour. He reappeared on the programme on the 4 June 2006, and set a time in the Chevrolet Lacetti of 1:50.3, a significant improvement on his previous time of 1:55. He clipped his namesake corner the second time, and when asked why by Jeremy Clarkson, replied that 'I dunno - I just do not like it'.
In February 2015, Gambon spoke for the first time of the "frightening memory loss" that had forced him to retire from the stage after 50 years. He said he has taken the "heartbreaking" decision to stop after finding he could no longer remember his lines.
Cinema and television change
- Othello (Second Gentleman), Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, professional debut 1962, followed by a European tour
- Hamlet, National Theatre at the Old Vic, 1963
- Saint Joan, National/Old Vic, 1963
- The Recruiting Officer (Coster Permain), National/Old Vic, 1963
- Andorra, National/Old Vic, 1964
- Philoctetes, National/Old Vic, 1964
- Othello, National/Old Vic, 1964
- The Royal Hunt of the Sun (Diego), Chichester Festival and National/Old Vic, 1964
- The Crucible (Herrick), National/Old Vic, 1965
- Mother Courage and Her Children (Eilif), National/Old Vic, 1965
- Love for Love (Snap), National/Old Vic, 1965, also tour to Russia and Germany
- Juno and the Paycock (Jerry Devine), National/Old Vic, 1966
- The Storm, National/Old Vic, 1966
- Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun (Flynn), Birmingham Rep, 1967
- A Severed Head (Palmer Anderson), Birmingham Rep, 1967
- The Doctor's Dilemma (Patric Cullen), Birmingham Rep, 1967
- Saint Joan (Cauchon), Birmingham Rep, 1967
- Peer Gynt (The Button Moulder), Birmingham Rep, 1968
- Othello (title role), Birmingham Rep, 1968
- Macbeth, The Forum Theatre, Billingham, 1968
- In Celebration (Andrew), Liverpool Playhouse, 1969
- Coriolanus (title role), Liverpool Playhouse, 1969
- The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising (Wiebe), RSC Aldwych Theatre, 1970
- Major Barbara (Charles Lomax), RSC Aldwych Theatre, 1970
- Henry VIII (Surrey), RSC Aldwych Theatre, 1971
- When Thou Art King (Hotspur), RSC Roundhouse, 1971
- The Brass Hat (Guy Holden), Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, 1972
- Not Drowning But Waving (Robin), Greenwich Theatre, 1973
- The Norman Conquests trilogy (Tom), Greenwich Theatre, 1974
- The Norman Conquests (Tom), Globe Theatre, London 1975
- The Zoo Story (Gerry), Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park lunchtime production, 1975
- Otherwise Engaged (Simon), Queen's Theatre, 1976 (replacing Alan Bates)
- Just Between Ourselves (Neil), Queen's Theatre, 1977
- Alice's Boys (Bertie), Savoy Theatre, London, 1978
- Betrayal (Jerry), National Theatre, 1978
- Close of Play (Henry), National Lyttelton Theatre, 1979
- Richard III (taking over as Buckingham), National, 1980
- Othello (Roderigo), National, 1980
- Sisterly Feelings (Patrick), National, 1980
- The Life of Galileo (title role), National Olivier Theatre, 1980
- King Lear (title role) RSC Stratford,1982; Barbican Theatre, 1983
- Antony and Cleopatra (Antony), RSC Stratford, 1982; Barbican, 1983
- Tales from Hollywood (Ödön von Horváth), National, 1983
- Old Times (Deeley), Theatre Royal Haymarket, 1985
- A Chorus of Disapproval (Dafyd ap Llewellyn), National Olivier, 1985
- Tons of Money (Sprules), National Lyttelton, 1986
- A View from the Bridge (Eddie Carbone), National Cottesloe Theatre, 1987
- A Small Family Business (Jack McCracken), National Olivier, 1987
- Mountain Language (Sergeant), National Lyttelton, 1988
- Uncle Vanya (title role), Vaudeville Theatre, 1988
- Veterans' Day (Walter Kercelik), Theatre Royal Haymarket, 1989
- Man of the Moment (Douglas Beechey), Globe Theatre, London, 1990
- Othello (title role), Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, 1991
- Taking Steps, Stephen Joseph, Scarborough, 1981
- Volpone (title role), National Olivier, 1995
- Skylight (Tom Sergeant), National Cottesloe, 1995
- Skylight (Tom Sergeant), Broadway, 1996
- Tom and Clem (Tom Driberg), Aldwych Theatre, 1997
- The Unexpected Man (The Man), RSC The Pit, Barbican, 1998
- Cressida (John Shank), The Almeida Theatre at the Albery, 2000
- The Caretaker (Davies), Comedy Theatre, 2001
- A Number (The Father), Royal Court Theatre, 2002
- Endgame (Hamm), Albery Theatre, 2004
- Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2 (Sir John Falstaff), National Olivier, 2005
- Celebration (play) Pinter staged reading (Lambert), Gate Theatre, Dublin/Albery, 2005
- Eh Joe (Joe), Duke of York's Theatre, 2006
- Who's Who in the Theatre, Fourteenth edition, Pitman (1967) for National Theatre at the Old Vic playbills
- Who's Who in the Theatre, Seventeenth edition, Gale (1981) ISBN 0810302357 for Michael Gambon's own CV up to 1980
- Giant of the Stage: A Profile of Michael Gambon by John Thaxter, The Stage newspaper, (16 November, 2000)
- Gambon: A Life in Acting by Mel Gussow, Nick Hern Books (2004) ISBN 1557-83644-2
- Theatre Record and Theatre Record annual indexes 1981-2007
- Michael Gambon Biography (1940-)
- "Michael Gambon biography on tiscali". Archived from the original on 2009-03-10. Retrieved 2008-08-09.
- "No. 51981". The London Gazette (invalid
|supp=(help)). 29 December 1989.
- Q&A with Michael Gambon, Professor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter
- YouTube - Guinness Penguins
- "No. 54993". The London Gazette (invalid
|supp=(help)). 30 December 1997.
- London Gazette: no.55229 p? Specific notice only. Archived 2008-12-06 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 2007-12-20.
- "Sir Michael Gambon forced to quit theatre due to 'frightening' memory loss". Telegraph.co.uk. 8 February 2015. Retrieved 8 February 2015.
- "Harry Potter actor Sir Michael Gambon dies aged 82". BBC News. 2023-09-28. Retrieved 2023-09-28.