Ralph was one of a series of great acting Knights from the middle of
the 20th Century; his peers were Gielgud and Olivier. He was born Ralph
David Richardson was born in Gloucestershire on December 19, 1902. His
father taught art at Cheltenham Ladies' College. The son of a Quaker
father and a Roman Catholic mother, Ralph Richardson lived with his
mother after she left the family home in Gloucestershire, and was raised
Catholic by her. When he was a teenager, Ralph enrolled at Brighton
School to take up the easel and follow in his father's brushstrokes.
However, after receiving an inheritance of 500 pounds, he abandoned
art school to pursue his real love: creating verbal portraits as an
Richardson began his acting career at age 18, performing in Shakespearean
plays with a touring company. By 1926, he had graduated to the Birmingham
Repertory Theatre and, four years later, appeared on the stage of England's
grandest of playhouses, London's Old Vic. He gained prominence in a
series of West End productions of modern plays, including Somerset Maugham's
Sheppey (1933) and J.B. Priestley's Cornelius (1935). His first film,
The Ghoul (1933), was about a dead professor (Boris Karloff) who returns
to life to find an Egyptian jewel stolen from his grave. Richardson,
portraying cleric Nigel Hartley, is there on the night Karloff returns
to unleash mayhem and mischief.
War descended and despite fairly busy work (about 10 films since the
Ghoul and numerous plays) he joined up, like many of his fellow actors,
to serve in the British forces. Richardson managed to successfully combine
his acting work with holding down the rank of Lt Cmdr in the Fleet Air
Arm. Here he both served and acted with Larry Olivier in the Old Vic
throughout the war. He made a couple of films during this period, including
‘The day will dawn’ (1942) The Volunteer (1943) and The
Silver Fleet (1943), as a self-sacrificing Dutch patriot.
In the 1950s he received further acclaim with the Shakespeare Memorial
Theatre Company, appearing as Prospero and Volpone. He was knighted
in 1947 for his work on stage and screen.
He made numerous quality films combining the skills of stage with the
screen. Among them was Carol Reed's ‘The Fallen Idol’ (1948)
in which Richardson won the Best Actor Award from the U.S. National
Board of Review for his portrayal of a butler suspected of murder. In
1949 he starred in ‘The Heiress’ – here he plays a
cold and emotionally abusive father to Olivia De Havilland. De Havilland
went on to win the American Academy award, Ralph was nominated but did
not win best supporting actor.