Micahel Gambon was born in Dublin during WW2, on the 19th of October,
1940, to be precise. At the end of the war, when Michael was 5, it made
sense that his father, an engineer, should cross the Irish Sea and find
work amidst the rebuilding of London. Thus the family took up residence
in London. Unbeknownst to Michael, his father would take out official
papers for him, making him an English citizen - a fact that would later
allow him to be awarded a CBE (1992) and a Knighthood in 1998.
decided to follow his father into engineering - a good, steady job -
and took up an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at Vickers Armstrong in
Crayford. The acting came gradually, almost accidentally. He'd first
attended the theatre at the late age of 19 (though he'd always loved
cinema). Then he'd had something of an epiphany when, passing the Shaftsbury
Theatre one day, he noticed that the doors were open. The bustle of
theatre life, the organised chaos of rehearsal leapt out at him and
he approached for a closer look.
made his stage debut in the Gate Theatre's 1962 production of Othello,
playing "2nd Gentleman". An inauspicious opening, but glory
would quickly come his way when, the very next year, he was chosen by
Sir Laurence Olivier to form part of the original Royal National Theatre
, he would later describe himself as "one of his (Olivier's) spear-carrying
boys". While their new home was being built on the South Bank,
the company would perform at the Old Vic, their first production being
Hamlet, directed by Olivier and starring Peter O'Toole.
was to be a massive influence on the young man, all the actors watched
and listened closely, when stuck they would just do what Olivier did.
Gambon admits that he still does, and says he recognises the same trait
in the work of others, including Anthony Hopkins.
Throughout the Seventies he did not find much screen success at all.
Notable was ‘Nothing But The Night’, produced by Christopher
Lee's Charlemagne company and intended to improve the quality of British
output. This film brought Lee and Peter Cushing together again as a
weird, immortality-seeking cult kidnapped orphans and Gambon playing
a cop on their trail.
had the benefit of one of the finest teachers ever in Laurence Olivier.
But throughout the seventies he was to continue to play fairly sporadic
roles in both TV, theatre and films.
break though, if you will, was when he BAFTA for his next TV project,
Dennis Potter's classic ‘The Singing Detective’ (1986().
This was a groundbreaking series that combined Potter's love of musical
hall and crime fiction. Gambon starred as Philip E. Marlow, confined
to a hospital bed by psoriatic arthropathy, a condition that saw him
in constant pain, his skin peeling, stretched and glazed with Joanne
Whalley caring for him and ex-wife Janet Suzman trying to rip him off.
played a magistrate in the very acceptable ‘A dry white season;
(1989) but the role for which he will probably be best remembered for
was Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway's ‘The Cook, The Thief, His
Wife And Her Lover’ (1989). Here he was the titular thief, a big,
bellowing bully who revels in browbeating everyone around him
he was a stage actor of huge repute, Gambon's fear of boredom now led
him to embrace TV and cinema with amazing vigour. His work rate over
the next 10 years would have crushed much younger men.
saw ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ as an aging priest returned from
the missions, wrecked by drink and the hot African sun. He followed
this with ‘Plunkett And Macleane’ (1999) a period piece
where gentleman Jonny Lee Miller and rogue Robert Carlyle become successful
highwaymen, a situation complicated when Miller falls for Liv Tyler,
daughter of Michael's Lord Chief Justice.
came Michael Mann's ‘The Insider’ also (1999) where campaigning
60 Minutes producer Al Pacino and tobacco industry employee Russell
Crowe tried to undermine tobacco bosses' claims that they didn't know
nicotine was addictive. Gambon was in peak form as Thomas Sandefur,
head of B&W, who's satanically smooth in disguising the truth and
funds a campaign to fatally smear Crowe.
would then step back in time once more for Sleepy Hollow (1999) where
he played Baltus Van Tassel in Tim Burtons. A master of timing (even
comic) learnt no doubt in the theatre years before he quips to Johnny
sir, you are most welcome, even if you are selling something.'
dialogue is strewn thoughout the film but my favourite is what follows
and maybe you have to see the film to understand the comic moment,
Crane: It was a headless horseman.
Baltus Van Tassel: You must not excite yourself.
Ichabod Crane: But it was a headless horseman.
Baltus Van Tassel: Of course it was. That's why you're here.
Ichabod Crane: No, you must believe me. It was a horseman, a dead one.
Baltus Van Tassel: I know, I know.
Ichabod Crane: You don't know because you were not there. It's all true.
Baltus Van Tassel: Of course it is. I told you. Everyone told you.
Ichabod Crane: I... saw him.