Paul Scofield, considered by many to be one of the greatest classical actors of the mid-20th century, died peacefully yesterday (19 March 2008) at a hospital near his home in Sussex. He was 86 and had been suffering from leukaemia.

Though he achieved international fame thanks to a handful of films, Scofield was first and foremost a stage actor, most closely associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was an honorary associate artist and appeared in nearly 30 productions between 1947 (then the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre) and 1972. In a statement, RSC chief associate director Gregory Doran said: “Scofield was simply one of the greats, creating landmark performances of all the great Shakespeare roles at Stratford, from Hamlet to Macbeth to Lear. He joined the company after the war in 1946, playing everything from Henry V, Troilus and Mercutio, to Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

“His versatility was phenomenal, and his craftsmanship as an actor is still remembered by those that worked with him. Janet Suzman and Michael Pennington, both young actors in the 1965 Timon of Athens, remember sitting in rehearsals huddling around cups of coffee – watching Scofield walk in and go to the end of the rehearsal room and, with that unique, rich gravel voice of his, run through the great wall tirade several times while they stood gaping in awe. A sad loss. ‘Goodnight sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’”

One of Scofield’s most legendary Shakespearean successes was in the title role of Peter Brook’s 1962 production of King Lear (pictured), which he played in London, New York, Paris and Moscow after opening in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, Scofield’s Lear was voted the greatest performance in a Shakespeare play by a panel of RSC actors, including Ian McKellen, Antony Sher and the late Ian Richardson.

Beyond the RSC, Scofield is probably best remembered for playing Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. He originated the role in the 1960 London stage production and won a Tony Award for the Broadway transfer the following year. When he recreated the performance on screen in the 1966 film, he was awarded an Oscar. Scofield also famously originated the role of Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at the National Theatre in 1979.

Born David Paul Scofield on 21 January in 1922 in Hurstpierpoint on the south coast of England, the actor trained at the Croydon Repertory Theatre from the age of 17. After being declared unfit for military service on health grounds at the outbreak of World War II, he moved to work with London’s Mask Theatre after Croydon Rep was forced to close. Scofield made his professional stage debut in a 1940 production of Desire Under the Elms and, after the war, toured in various repertory companies.

His additional stage credits included Ring Round the Moon, The Seagull, Family Reunion, The Rules of the Game, Uncle Vanya, The Relapse, Exclusive, The Way of the World, The Madrass House, Volpone and, venturing into musical theatre, Expresso Bongo. In more recent years, he was seen in Heartbreak House and John Gabriel Borkman at the National.

Amongst the actor’s other, much less frequent screen appearances were: That Lady, The Train, Anna Karenina, The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank, A Delicate Balance, Henry V and, in the 1990s, The Crucible, Martin Chuzzlewit (both of which won him Baftas) and Quiz Show.

Scofield received membership of the Order of the Companies of Honour in 2001, awarded to only 65 other living people in addition to the Sovereign (See News, 1 Jan 2001), and a CBE in 1956 near the start of his career. He turned down a knighthood on three separate occasions in the intervening years, commenting: “If you want a title, what's wrong with Mr? If you have always been that, then why lose your title? But it's not political. I have a CBE, which I accepted very gratefully.”

- by Tom Atkins & Terri Paddock

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