Sir Michael John Gambon CBE (19 October 1940 – 27 September 2023) was an Irish-English actor. Gambon started his acting career with Laurence Olivier as one of the original members of the Royal National Theatre. Over his six-decade-long career, he received three Olivier Awards and four BAFTA TV Awards. In 1998, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to drama.
Gambon left school aged 15 and, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not receive any formal training at drama school, instead gaining experience through performing in amateur productions. He was born in Dublin in 1940; his father moved to London and was a reserve policeman during the second world war. Gambon was taken over to England by his mother to join him at the end of the war. They later moved to Kent, where at the age of 16 he began an engineering apprenticeship in the Vickers-Armstrongs factory. He began to work in amateur theatre as a set builder, then ended up on stage instead in bit parts at the Unity theatre and the Tower theatre in London.
He bluffed his way into his first professional roles by fibbing about his experience, making his debut in Dublin in a small role in Othello. Aged 22, he had his West End debut as an understudy in The Bed-Sitting Room. He also took an acting course at the Royal Court run by George Devine and William Gaskill.
Gambon said that he had never seen a Shakespeare production before he acted in one himself. He had minor Shakespeare roles at the National Theatre and auditioned for the company by performing the role of Richard III – recently and iconically played by Laurence Olivier – in front of Olivier himself. He appeared in Othello at the National with Olivier and in Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole. Then, on the advice of Olivier, Gambon left the National to join the Birmingham Repertory theatre in order to be given larger roles, which included the title part in Othello. Aged 30, he played Macbeth in a production in Billingham that he described as being set in outer space. In the early 80s, he was at the Royal Shakespeare Company performing in Adrian Noble’s productions of King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, sometimes both in the same day, the latter staged at a breakneck pace.
In 2005, Sir Nicholas Hytner directed him as Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 at the National Theatre. “Michael Gambon was one of the last links to the great generation of actors that included Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson,” said Hytner on Thursday. “His extraordinary gift was to combine the brute power of Olivier with the delicacy of Richardson. He could howl in pain at one moment and in the next achieve a kind of balletic grace that took the breath away. He was also wickedly funny, witty in himself and, like Falstaff (who he played magnificently), ‘the cause that wit is in other men’. Gambon stories will remain in circulation for generations, as will the memory of his countless great performances.”
Sir Michael Gambon was one of Britain’s most versatile performers.
While he achieved success on both TV and in the cinema, it was the theatre that was his greatest love. He played many of the great Shakespearean parts, appeared on TV as Inspector Maigret and once auditioned for the role of James Bond. And he gained an international following when he took over the part of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.
Michael John Gambon was born in Dublin on 19 Oct 1940, the son of an engineer and a seamstress. When he was five his father moved to London to work on the reconstruction of the capital after the blitz and Gambon attended St Aloysius’ College in Highgate before the family moved again, this time to Kent.
His father made him a British citizen, something that meant his future knighthood would be a substantive rather than honorary one. School was something of a trial for him. “I have no happy memories whatsoever,” he said, and he quit at 15 to take up a job as an apprentice toolmaker with Vickers. Something in him had always been drawn towards acting, and he became an avid cinemagoer. But it was not until his early 20s that he began actively pursuing a stage career.
He began writing letters to various theatrical companies, enclosing the most outrageous CVs detailing his fictional prowess as a performer. He was eventually offered a junior job at the Gate Theatre in his native Dublin, which had failed to check his claim that he had taken the lead role in a George Bernard Shaw play in London.
After touring Europe in a production of Othello, Gambon moved on to the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier where he appeared in a number of spear-carrying roles alongside other future stars including Derek Jacobi and Frank Finlay.
He was knighted in 1998 although, unlike some fellow actors, he never used the title. Fame meant little to him and he never sought the limelight, avoiding interviews whenever possible.
Away from acting, he collected and restored antique guns and clocks and was a classic car enthusiast, making an appearance on Top Gear in 2002. His drive in the famous “reasonably priced car” saw him take the final corner on two wheels. The producers were so impressed they named the corner after him.
When cornered by a journalist, he was likely to spin tall stories about his life, including telling the Times that a new girlfriend was the 6ft tall daughter of a Botswanan chief and once informing one hapless interrogator that his career with the Royal Ballet ended when he fell off the stage.
Many critics have dubbed Michael Gambon as one of the great character actors but it’s an epithet he dismissed. “Every part I play is just a variant of my own personality,.” he once said. “No real character actor, just me.”
Dame Eileen Atkins, a longstanding friend of Sir Michael
, told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One he was “a great actor, but he always pretended he didn’t take it very seriously” and that he had amazing stage presence. “He just had to walk on stage and he commanded the whole audience immediately,” she said. “There was something very sweet about him, this huge man who could look very frightening – but there was something incredibly sweet inside Michael.” The actor, known as “The Great Gambon” in acting circles, had last appeared on stage in 2012 in a London production of Samuel Beckett’s play All That Fall.
Image courtesy Carl Court / AFP via Getty Images, BBC and Peter Kramer / Associated Press