Theatre News

Richard Johnson, film star and artistic associate of the RSC, dies aged 87

The actor, who turned down the starring role in the first James Bond film, died last week

Richard Johnson with Janet Suzman in the RSC's Antony and Cleopatra
Richard Johnson with Janet Suzman in the RSC's Antony and Cleopatra
© Reg Wilson

Richard Johnson, who turned down the role of James Bond when the movie franchise began, died on Friday aged 87. Born in Essex, he was a titan of British stage and screen for over sixty years and a particular colleague of Peter Hall, with whom he helped launch both the RSC in 1960 – he was one of the first associate artists – and the National Theatre’s first South Bank season in 1976.

He was tall, dark and handsome and his second wife (he had four) was Kim Novak, star of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, whom he met while making a Hollywood romp, Moll Flanders, in 1965. But his best-known films were Gordon of Khartoum (with Olivier and Charlton Heston), Aces High with Simon Ward and John Gielgud (scripted by playwright Howard Barker), Deadlier than the Male (a Bond spoof) and, more recently, The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas.

His longevity as a theatre actor was amazing. Twenty years ago he was in Gangster No 1 at the Almeida with Peter Bowles, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Young Vic with Penelope Wilton. Only two years ago he toured the UK with Stefanie Powers in On Golden Pond. He appeared in the 1999 revival of David Hare’s Plenty with Cate Blanchett and with Hall’s daughter Rebecca (making her debut) in Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession in 2002.

At Stratford-upon-Avon he played Orlando in As You Like It, Romeo, Pericles, Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and, most memorably, Antony opposite the Cleopatra of Janet Suzman in Trevor Nunn’s Roman plays season of 1973.

He was active as a producer in both theatre and film, and made his last movie only last year; he described his role of a cantankerous, unhygienic old buffer, married to a luminous, over-tolerant Gemma Jones, in a remote country cottage in Tom Browne’s Radiator, as the best he’d ever had. After doing the festival rounds, Radiator goes on general release later this year.