Michael Redgrave

Sir Michael Redgrave

Portrait taken by Allan Warren in 1978
Born Michael Scudamore Redgrave
(1908-03-20)20 March 1908
Bristol, England
Died 21 March 1985(1985-03-21) (aged 77)
Denham, Buckinghamshire, England
Cause of death Parkinson's disease
Nationality British
Alma mater
Years active 1936–75
Rachel Kempson
 (m. 1935–1985; his death)
Parent(s) Roy Redgrave
Margaret Scudamore

Sir Michael Scudamore Redgrave CBE (20 March 1908 – 21 March 1985) was an English stage and film actor, director, manager and author.

Youth and education

Redgrave was born in Bristol, England, the son of the silent film actor Roy Redgrave and actress Margaret Scudamore. He never knew his father, who left when he was only six months old to pursue a career in Australia and died when Redgrave was thirteen. His mother subsequently married Captain James Anderson, a tea planter, but Redgrave greatly disliked his stepfather.[1]

He studied at Clifton College and Magdalene College, Cambridge. Clifton College's theatre, The Redgrave Theatre, is named after him. He was a schoolmaster at Cranleigh School in Surrey before becoming an actor in 1934. There he directed the boys in Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest, but managed to play all the leading roles himself.[2] The "Redgrave Room" at the school was later named after him. In the new Guildford School of Acting building which opened in January 2010, there is the "Sir Michael Redgrave Studio".

Theatre career

Redgrave made his first professional appearance at the Playhouse in Liverpool on 30 August 1934 as Roy Darwin in Counsellor-at-Law (by Elmer Rice), then spent two years with its Liverpool Repertory Company where he met his future wife Rachel Kempson. They married on 18 July 1935.


Offered a job by Tyrone Guthrie, he made his first professional appearance in London at the Old Vic on 14 September 1936, playing Ferdinand in Love's Labours Lost. During 1936–37 he also played Mr Horner in The Country Wife, Orlando in As You Like It, Warbeck in The Witch of Edmonton and Laertes to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. His hit of the season was Orlando. Edith Evans was his Rosalind and the two fell very much in love. As he later explained: "Edith always had a habit of falling in love with her leading men; with us it just went rather further."[2] As You Like It transferred to the New Theatre in February 1937 when he again played Orlando.

At the Embassy Theatre in March 1937 he played Anderson in a mystery play, The Bat, before returning to the Old Vic in April, succeeding Marius Goring as Chorus in Henry V. Other roles that year included Christopher Drew in Daisy Fisher's comedy A Ship Comes Home at the St Martin's Theatre in May and Larry Starr in Philip Leaver's comedy Three Set Out at the Embassy in June, before joining John Gielgud's Company at the Queen's Theatre, September 1937 to April 1938, where he played Bolingbroke in Richard II, Charles Surface in The School for Scandal and Baron Tusenbach in Three Sisters.

Other roles included:

Second World War

Once the London theatres were re-opened, after the outbreak of war, he played:

Redgrave joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman in July 1941, (HMS Illustrious (87) (HMS Illustrious)) but was discharged on medical grounds in November 1942.[3] Having spent most of 1942 in the Reserve he managed to direct Lifeline (Norman Armstrong) starring Frank Pettingell at the Duchess Theatre in July; and The Duke in Darkness (Patrick Hamilton) starring Leslie Banks at the St James's Theatre in October, also taking the role of Gribaud.[4]

Resuming his stage career he played/directed:

Post-war years

Joining the Old Vic Company at the New Theatre for its 1949–50 season, he played:


Redgrave joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company at Stratford-upon-Avon and for the 1951 season appeared as Prospero in The Tempest as well as playing Richard II, Hotspur and Chorus in the Cycle of Histories, for which he also directed Henry IV Part Two. After appearing as Frank Elgin in Winter Journey at the St James's April 1952, he rejoined the Stratford company in 1953 (together with his actress wife Rachel Kempson) appearing as Shylock, King Lear and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, also playing Antony when the company transferred to the Prince's Theatre in November 1953 before touring in the Netherlands, Belgium and Paris.[5]:p.163

At the Apollo in June 1955 he played Hector in Tiger at the Gates, appearing in the same role at the Plymouth Theatre, New York City in October 1955 for which he received the New York Critics' Award. While in New York he directed A Month in the Country at the Phoenix Theatre in April 1956, and directed and played the Prince Regent in The Sleeping Prince at the Coronet Theatre in November 1956.

Returning to London in January 1958 he appeared as Philip Lester in A Touch of the Sun (N. C. Hunter) at the Saville Theatre — Best Actor in the Evening Standard Awards 1958 – before rejoining the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company in June 1958, to play Hamlet and Benedick, also playing Hamlet with the company in Leningrad and Moscow in December 1958 (while his wife Rachel Kempson played Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing and Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet).

At the Queen's Theatre in London in August 1959 he played H.J. in his own adaptation of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. His play was later to be successfully revived on Broadway in 1962, with Dame Wendy Hiller and Maurice Evans, while the 1984 London revival featured his daughter, Vanessa Redgrave, along with Christopher Reeve and Hiller, this time in the role of Miss Bordereau.


Roles included:

Michael Redgrave in costume for lead role in Uncle Vanya, backstage at Chichester Festival Theatre, 1962. Photo: Tony French.

Returning to Britain, in July 1962 he took part in the Chichester Festival Theatre's opening season, playing the title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to the Astrov of Laurence Olivier who also directed.

Alongside John Dexter's Chichester staging of Saint Joan, Olivier's Uncle Vanya was first revived in Chichester in 1963 before transferring to the Old Vic as part of the nascent Royal National Theatre's inaugural season, winning rave reviews and Redgrave's second win as Best Actor in the 1963 Evening Standard Awards. Critic Michael Billington recalled: "In Redgrave's Vanya you saw both a tremulous victim of a lifetime's emotional repression and the wasted potential of a Chekhovian might-have-been: as Redgrave and Olivier took their joint curtain call, linked hands held triumphantly aloft, we were not to know that this was to symbolise the end of their artistic amity."[6]

Redgrave played (and co-presented) Lancelot Dodd MA in Arthur Watkyn's Out of Bounds at Wyndham's Theatre in November 1962, following it at the Old Vic with his portrayal of Claudius opposite the Hamlet of Peter O'Toole on 22 October 1963. This Hamlet was in fact the National Theatre's official opening production, directed by Olivier, but Simon Callow has dubbed it "slow, solemn, long", while Ken Campbell vividly described it as "brochure theatre."[7]

In January 1964 at the National he played the title role in Hobson's Choice, which he admitted was well outside his range: "I couldn't do the Lancashire accent and that shook my nerve terribly – all the other performances suffered." While still at the National in June 1964 he also played Halvard Solness in The Master Builder, which he said 'went wrong'. At this time he had incipient Parkinson's disease, although he did not know it.[2]

In May and June 1965 Redgrave directed the opening festival of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, including directing and playing Rakitin in A Month in the Country (co-starring with Ingrid Bergman as Natalya Petrovna), and Samson in Samson Agonistes (co-starring with Rachel Kempson as Chorus). He again played Rakitin in September 1965, when his production transferred to the Cambridge Theatre in London. For the Glyndebourne Festival Opera he directed Werther in 1966 and La bohème in 1967.[8]


At the Mermaid Theatre in July 1971 he played Mr Jaraby in The Old Boys (William Trevor) and had an unfortunate experience: "My memory went, and on the first night they made me wear a deaf aid to hear some lines from the prompter and it literally fell to pieces – there were little bits of machinery all over the floor, so I then knew I really couldn't go on, at least not learning new plays."[2]

Nevertheless, he successfully took over the part of Father in John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, also touring Canada and Australia in the role in 1972–73. International touring continued in 1974–75 with a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Hollow Crown, visiting major venues in the USA, New Zealand and Australia, while in 1976–77 he toured South America, Canada and the UK in the anthology, Shakespeare's People.

Redgrave's final theatre appearance came in May 1979 when he portrayed Jasper in Simon Gray's Close of Play, directed on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre by Harold Pinter. It was a silent, seated role, based on Gray's own father, who had died a year before he wrote the play. As Gray has said: "Jasper is in fact dead but is forced to endure, as if alive, a traditional English Sunday, helpless in his favourite armchair as his three sons and their wives fall to pieces in the usual English middle class style, sometimes blaming him, sometimes appealing to him for help and sobbing at his feet for forgiveness, but basically ignoring him. In other words I had stuck him in Hell, which turns out to be 'life, old life itself'."[9]

His final work, in 1975, a narrative of the epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poem that Redgrave taught as a young schoolmaster and visualised by producer-director Raul da Silva, received six international film festival prizes of which five were first place in category. This work was to be his last before the onslaught of Parkinson's disease.[10]

Film and television work

Redgrave first appeared on BBC television at the Alexandra Palace in 1937, in scenes from Romeo and Juliet. His first major film role was in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). Redgrave also starred in The Stars Look Down (1940), with James Mason in the film of Robert Ardrey's play Thunder Rock (1942), and in the ventriloquist's dummy episode of the Ealing compendium film Dead of Night (1945).

His first American film role was opposite Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. In 1951 he starred in The Browning Version, from Sir Terrence Rattigan's play of the same name. The Daily Mirror described Redgrave's performance as Crocker-Harris as "one of the greatest performances ever seen in films".[11] The 1950s also saw Redgrave in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Dambusters (1954), 1984 (1956), Time Without Pity (1957), for which he was nominated for a BAFTA Award, and The Quiet American (1958).

Notable television performances include narration for The Great War (1964), a history of the First World War using stills and 'stretched' archive film, and the less successful Lost Peace series (BBC Television, 1964 and 1966). Of the latter, Philip Purser wrote: "The commentary, spoken by Sir Michael Redgrave, took on an unremittingly pessimistic tone from the outset."[12]

Personal life


Main article: Redgrave family

Redgrave was married to the actress Rachel Kempson for 50 years from 1935 until his death. Their children Vanessa (b. 1937), Corin (1939–2010) and Lynn Redgrave (1943–2010) and their grandchildren – Natasha (1963–2009), Joely Richardson (b. 1965) and Jemma (b. 1965) are also involved in theatre or film as actors. His grandson Carlo Gabriel Nero is a screenwriter and film director whilst Luke Redgrave is not connected to acting.

His daughter Lynn created a one-woman play for herself called Shakespeare for My Father, in which she was nominated for Broadway's Tony Award, in which she traced her love for Shakespeare as a way of following and finding her often absent father.[13]

Redgrave owned White Roding Windmill from 1937 to 1946.[14] He and his family lived in "Bedford House" on Chiswick Mall from 1945 to 1954.[15] His entry for Who's Who in the Theatre (1981) gives his address as Wilks Water, Odiham, Hampshire.


Corin helped his father in the writing of his last autobiography. During one of Corin's visits to his father, the latter said, "There is something I ought to tell you". Then, after a very long pause, "I am, to say the least of it, bisexual". Corin encouraged him to acknowledge his bisexuality in the book. Michael agreed to do so, but in the end he chose to remain silent about it.[5]:p.274 Alan Strachan's 2004 biography of Redgrave discusses his affairs with both men and women.[16] Although Redgrave had some long-term relationships with men, he also was prone to cruising Victoria or Knightsbridge for what he called "a necessary degradation", a habit that gave him a lasting sense of self-disgust.[17]

The 1996 BBC documentary film Michael Redgrave: My Father, narrated by Corin Redgrave, and based on his book of the same name, discusses Michael's bisexuality in some depth.[18] Rachel Kempson recounted that, when she proposed to him, Redgrave said that there were "difficulties to do with his nature, and that he felt he ought not to marry". She said that she understood, it didn't matter and that she loved him.[19] To this, Redgrave replied, "Very well. If you're sure, we will".[20]

During the filming of Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (1948), Redgrave met Bob Michell. They became lovers, Michell set up house close to the Redgraves, and he became a surrogate "uncle" to Redgrave's children (then aged 11, 9 and 5), who adored him. Michell later had children of his own, including a son he named Michael.[5]:p.193 Michell was followed by Fred Sadoff, an actor/director who became Redgrave's assistant and shared his lodgings in New York and London.[5]:p.178–183

A card was found among Redgrave's effects after his death. The card was signed "Tommy, Liverpool, January 1940", and on it were the words (quoted from W.H. Auden): "The word is love. Surely one fearless kiss would cure the million fevers".[21]

Illness and death

In 1976, after suffering symptoms for many years, Redgrave was diagnosed with rapidly advancing Parkinson's disease; and he began a regimen of therapies and medications that caused disorientation and other side effects. Costs for his healthcare expenses and his diminished earning power caused the family to apply for public assistance from the King George's Pension Fund. In an interview on his seventieth birthday, he said: "For a long time, nobody understood the Parkinson's condition, and directors thought I was just forgetful or drunk--and even now the work isn't easy. The difficulty is not just remembering lines but getting from place to place."[5]:p.258

Redgrave died in a nursing home in Denham, Buckinghamshire, in 1985, from Parkinson's disease, one day after his 77th birthday.

Honours, awards and appointments

In 1951 Redgrave received the Best Actor Award (Cannes Film Festival) for The Browning Version. Redgrave twice (1958 and 1963) won Best Actor trophies in the Evening Standard Awards and twice received the Variety Club of Great Britain 'Actor of the Year' award (in the same years).

He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1952 and was knighted in 1959. He was also appointed Commander of the Order of the Dannebrog, Denmark in 1955.

Redgrave became the First President of the English Speaking Board in 1953, and President of the Questors Theatre, Ealing in 1958.

In 1966, he received an honorary DLitt degree from the University of Bristol.

In 1986, he was inducted posthumously into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[22]

The Redgrave Theatre in Farnham, Surrey, 1974–1998, was named in his honour.

Box office ranking

For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted him among the top ten British stars at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.


Sir Michael Redgrave by Allan Warren, 1973


Year Title Role Notes
1938 The Lady Vanishes Gilbert First major role
Climbing High Nicky Brooke
1939 Stolen Life Alan MacKenzie
1940 The Stars Look Down Davey Fenwick
A Window in London Peter Released as Lady in Distress in USA
1941 Kipps Kipps Released as The Remarkable Mr. Kipps in USA
Atlantic Ferry Charles MacIver
Jeannie Stanley Smith
1942 The Big Blockade Russian
Thunder Rock David Charleston
1945 The Way to the Stars David Archdale Released as Johnny in the Clouds in USA
Dead of Night Maxwell Frere
1946 The Captive Heart Captain Karel Hasek
The Years Between Michael Wentworth
1947 The Man Within Richard Carlyon Released as The Smugglers in the USA
Fame Is the Spur Hamer Radshaw
Mourning Becomes Electra Orin Mannon
Secret Beyond the Door... Mark Lamphere
1951 The Browning Version Andrew Crocker-Harris
The Magic Box Mr Lege
1952 The Importance of Being Earnest Jack/Ernest Worthing
1954 The Green Scarf Maitre Deliot
The Sea Shall Not Have Them Air Commodore Waltby
1955 The Night My Number Came Up Air Marshal Hardie
The Dam Busters Doctor B. N. Wallis
Mr. Arkadin Burgomil Trebitsch
Oh... Rosalinda!! Colonel Eisenstein
1956 1984 O'Connor
1957 The Happy Road General Medworth
Time Without Pity David Graham
1958 The Quiet American Thomas Fowler
Law and Disorder Percy Brand
Behind the Mask Sir Arthur Benson Gray
1959 Shake Hands with the Devil The General
The Wreck of the Mary Deare Mr Nyland
1961 No My Darling Daughter Sir Matthew Carr
The Innocents The Uncle
1962 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner Ruxton Towers Reformatory Governor
1963 Uncle Vanya Uncle Vanya
1965 Young Cassidy W.B. Yeats
The Hill The Medical Officer (credited as Sir Michael Redgrave)
The Heroes of Telemark Uncle
1966 Alice in Wonderland Caterpillar (credited as Sir Michael Redgrave)
1967 The 25th Hour Defense lawyer
1968 Assignment K Harris
Heidi Grandfather TV Movie
1969 Oh! What a Lovely War General Sir Henry Wilson
Battle of Britain Air Vice Marshal Evill
Goodbye, Mr. Chips The Headmaster
1970 David Copperfield Dan Peggotty TV Movie
Connecting Rooms James Wallraven
Goodbye Gemini James Harrington-Smith
1971 The Go-Between Leo Colston
A Christmas Carol (1971), narration Narrator Voice
Nicholas and Alexandra Sazonov
1972 The Last Target Erik Fritsch
1975 Rime of the Ancient Mariner The Ancient Mariner narration, (Last appearance)

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1952 Theatre Guild on the Air The Unguarded Hour[25]
1953 Theatre Guild on the Air Jane[26]


Year Title Role Director Playwright(s) Theatre
1936 Love's Labours Lost Ferdinand William Shakespeare Old Vic Theatre, London
1936-37 The Witch of Edmonton Warbeck Saint Denis Thomas Dekker Old Vic Theatre, London
1936-37 As You Like It Orlando Ejme Church William Shakespeare Old Vic Theatre, London
1936-37 The Country Wife Mr Horner Tyrone Gathrie William Wycherley Old Vic Theatre, London
1937 The Bat Anderson Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood Embassy Theatre
A Ship Comes Home Christopher Drew Daisy Fisher St Martins Theatre
1938 The White Guard Alexi Turbin Mikhail Bulgakov Phoenix Theatre
Twelfth Night Sir Andrew Agnechek William Shakespeare Phoenix Theatre
1939 The Family Reunion Harry, Lord Monchesney T. S. Eliot Westminster Theatre
1940 The Beggar's Opera Captain Macheath John Gay Theatre Royal, Haymarket
1943 A Month in the Country Rakitin Ivan Turgenev St James' Theatre
1947 Macbeth Macbeth William Shakespeare Aldwych Theatre
1958 A Touch of the Sun Philip Lester N. C. Hunter Saville Theatre
1959 The Aspern Papers H.J Henry James Queen's Theatre, London
1960 The Tiger and the Horse Jack Dean Frith Banbury Robert Bolt Queen's Theatre, London
1961 The Complaisant Lover Victor Rhodes Graham Greene Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York
1962 Out of Bounds Launcelot Dodd MA Arthur Watkyn Wyndham's Theatre
1962-63 Uncle Vanya Uncle Vanya Laurence Olivier Anton Chekhov Chichester Festival Theatre
1963 Hamlet King Claudius Laurence Olivier William Shakespeare National Theatre
1964 Hobson's Choice Henry Horatio Hobson Harold Brighouse National Theatre
1971 The Old Boys Mr Jaraby William Trevor Mermaid Theatre
A Voyage Round My Father Father John Mortimer Theatre Royal, Haymarket
1979 Close of Play Jasper Simon Gray National Theatre


Redgrave wrote five books:

His plays include The Seventh Man and Circus Boy, both performed at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1935, and his adaptations of A Woman in Love (Amourese) at the Embassy Theatre in 1949 and the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers at the Queen's Theatre in 1959.


  1. Michael Redgrave: My Father, 1996 BBC documentary film narrated by Corin Redgrave, based on his book of the same name; produced and directed by Roger Michell
  2. 1 2 3 4 The Great Stage Stars, Sheridan Morley
  3. Redgrave provided his friend the actor and writer Godfrey Winn (also in the Navy at the time), with a memorable signal his ship made. The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was in collision with another carrier, HMS Formidable in poor weather visibility in the Atlantic, after the collision Illustrious signalled: "If you touch me in that place again, I shall scream". Page 115, Home from Sea, Godfrey Winn, Hutchinson & Co, London 1944
  4. The Great Stage Stars, Sheridan Morley, and Who's Who in the Theatre 1981
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Spoto, Donald (2012). The Redgraves: A Family Epic. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0307720146.
  6. Michael Billington State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945, London: Faber, 2007, p.142 ISBN 978-0-571-21034-3
  7. The National: 1963–1997 by Simon Callow, Nick Hern Books (1997) ISBN 1-85459-323-4
  8. "Michael Redgrave". Performances. Glyndebourne. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
  9. An Unnatural Pursuit and Other Pieces by Simon Gray, Faber (1985)
  10. Bowker's Complete Video Directory, Volume 4. New York: R.R. Bowker. 1998. p. 1972. ISBN 978-0835240147.
  11. Geoffrey Wansell, Terence Rattigan, p. 213
  12. Halliwell's Television Companion Third Edition, Grafton Books (1986)
  13. Vellela, Tony (28 May 1993). "From our files: An interview with Lynn Redgrave". The Christian Science Monitor:. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
  14. Farries, Kenneth (1985). Essex Windmills, Millers and Millwrights – Volume Four – A Review by Parishes, F-R. Edinburgh: Charles Skilton. pp. 121–123. ISBN 0-284-98647-X.
  15. Roe, William P., Glimpses of Chiswick's Development, 1999, ISBN 0-9516512-2-6, page 94
  16. http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/20937/part_2/one-rung-below-greatness.thtml
  17. Barber, Lynn (28 Apr 2004). "His necessary degradations". The Telegraph. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
  18. "Corin Redgrave, Actor and Activist, Dies at 70". The New York Times. 6 April 2010. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
  19. "Vanessa Redgrave 'Grieving and Glorying' After Sister Lynn Redgrave's Death". ABC News. 2010.
  20. "Rachel Kempson, 92, Matriarch of Acting Family". The New York Times. 26 May 2003. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
  21. "Sir Michael Redgrave (1908–1985)". OutStories Bristol. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
  22. "9 Stage Veterans Enter Theater Hall of Fame". New York Times. April 22, 1986.
  23. "FILM WORLD.". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 28 February 1947. p. 20 Edition: SECOND EDITION. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  24. "Vivien Leigh Actress of the Year.". Townsville Daily Bulletin. Qld.: National Library of Australia. 29 December 1951. p. 1. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  25. Kirby, Walter (December 28, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 36. Retrieved June 5, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  26. Kirby, Walter (January 11, 1953). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 42. Retrieved June 19, 2015 via Newspapers.com.

Further reading

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