Michael Gambon

British actor (1940–2023)

Sir Michael John Gambon CBE (19 October 1940 – 27 September 2023) was an Irish-born British actor with a career that lasted nearly five decades and included a variety of roles in movie, television and theatre.

Michael Gambon

Gambon in 2013
Born(1940-10-19)19 October 1940
Dublin, Ireland
Died27 September 2023(2023-09-27) (aged 82)
Witham, Essex, England
Cause of deathPneumonia
Years active1962–2019
WorksFull list
Anne Miller
(m. 1962; sep. 2002)
PartnerPhilippa Hart
AwardsLaurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy Performance
1986 A Chorus of Disapproval
Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor
1988 A View From the Bridge
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
2001 Gosford Park
BAFTA Award for Best actor
2002 Perfect Strangers
2001 Longitude
2000 Wives and Daughters
1987 The Singing Detective
Royal Television Society Award
1987 The Singing Detective
2000 Wives and Daughters
Broadcasting Press Guild Awards
1987 The Singing Detective
Evening Standard Award for Best Actor
1987 A View from the Bridge
1995 Volpone
Irish Film and Television Awards
2006 Celebration
Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Actor
1990 Man of the Moment
2000 The Caretaker
Film Festival Catalonian International Film Festival Awards for Best Actor
1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Early life


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),[1] 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.[2] (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


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


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,[3] 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


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


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..."[4]

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.[5] 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


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.[6][7] 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.[8]

Gambon died on 27 September 2023, aged 82, after suffering from pneumonia.[9]



Cinema and television

Year Film Role Notes and awards
1965 Othello Company
1968 The Borderers (TV) Gavin Ker
1974 The Beast Must Die Jan Jarmokowski
1985 Oscar (TV) Brian Bryant
Turtle Diary George Fairbairn
1986 The Singing Detective Philip E. Marlow BAFTA TV Award

Royal Television Society Award

Broadcasting Press Guild Awards

1989 The Rachel Papers Doctor Knowd
A Dry White Season Magistrate
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover Albert Spica Catalonian International Film Festival Award
1991 Mobsters Salvatore Maranzano
1992 Toys General Leland Zevo Nominated - Saturn Award
1993 Maigret (TV) Inspector Maigret
1994 A Man of No Importance Ivor J. Garney
The Browning Version Dr. Frobisher
1996 Mary Reilly Mr. Reilly
1998 The Gambler Fyodor Dostoevsky
1998 Dancing at Lughnasa Father Jack Mundy
1999 Wives and Daughters (TV) Squire Hamley BAFTA TV Award

Royal Television Society Award

Plunkett & Macleane Lord Gidson
The Insider Thomas Sandefur
Sleepy Hollow Baltus Van Tassel
2000 Longitude (TV) John Harrison BAFTA TV Award
Endgame (TV) Hamm
2001 Perfect Strangers (TV) Raymond BAFTA TV Award
Charlotte Gray Levade
Gosford Park Sir William McCordle
Christmas Carol: The Movie Ghost of Christmas Present (voice)
2002 Ali G Indahouse Prime Minister
Path to War Lyndon B. Johnson Nominated - Golden Globe Award

Nominated - Emmy Award

2003 The Lost Prince Edward VII
The Actors Barreller
Deep Blue Narrator (voice)
Open Range Denton Baxter
Sylvia Professor Thomas
Angels in America (TV) Prior Walter Ancestor
2004 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Albus Dumbledore
Being Julia Jimmie Langton
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Editor Paley
Layer Cake Eddie Temple
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Oseary Drakoulias
2005 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Albus Dumbledore
2006 The Omen Bugenhagen
The Good Shepherd Dr. Fredericks
Celebration (TV) Lambert Irish movie and Television Awards
Amazing Grace Lord Charles Fox
2007 The Good Night Alan Weigert
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Albus Dumbledore
Joe's Palace (TV) Elliot Graham
Cranford (TV) Mr. Holbrook
The Alps (TV) Narrator (voice)
2008 Brideshead Revisited Lord Marchmain
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Albus Dumbledore post-production




  • 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



Other websites

Preceded by
J.B. Priestley
for When We Are Married
Best Comedy Performance
for A Chorus of Disapproval
Succeeded by
George Abbott
for Three Men On A Horse
Preceded by
David Jason
for Porterhouse Blue
British Academy Television Award for Best Actor
for The Singing Detective
Succeeded by
Bob Peck
for Edge of Darkness
Preceded by
Peter O'Toole
for Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell
Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor
for A View From the Bridge
Succeeded by
Oliver Ford Davies
for Racing Demon
Preceded by
Michael Gambon
for Longitude
British Academy Television Award for Best Actor
for Wives and Daughters
Succeeded by
Tom Courtenay
for A Rather English Marriage
Preceded by
Michael Gambon
for Perfect Strangers
British Academy Television Award for Best Actor
for Longitude
Succeeded by
Michael Gambon
for Wives and Daughters
Preceded by
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
for Gosford Park
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Albert Finney
for The Gathering Storm
British Academy Television Award for Best Actor
for Perfect Strangers
Succeeded by
Michael Gambon
for Longitude