Sir Michael Redgrave, scion and sire of Britain's best-known and longest-running theatrical dynasty, died Thursday in a nursing home, one day after his 77th birthday. The gentlemanly, slightly bemused veteran of 35 films and dozens of memorable stage performances had been suffering with Parkinson's Disease for many years.
Redgrave said that for several years "nobody understood the Parkinson's condition. Directors thought I was just forgetful or drunk." He was admitted Jan. 22 to St. Bartholomew's Hospital and then transferred to the nursing home at Denham, west of London.
His son, Corin, was at his side.
Best known to contemporary American audiences as the father of actresses Vanessa and Lynn and actor-turned-politician Corin, Sir Michael was a respected stage and screen actor in his own right, with a half century of credits ranging from theatrical leads and supporting performances as a member of the Old Vic company to such motion picture triumphs as the smoothly sinister turncoat-villain in the 1955 film version of George Orwell's "1984."
Although considered a specialist in "cerebral" roles, he was one of Britain's most versatile players, reaching the peak of his film career in the late 1940s, when he received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Orin Mannon in the otherwise less-than-satisfactory "Mourning Becomes Electra."
Other honors included the (Danish) Order of Dannebrog, three years as governor of the British Film Institute, longtime presidency of the English Speaking Board, awards from the Cannes and other film festivals, the order of Commander of the British Empire in 1952--and knighthood, conferred in 1959.
His latter years were devoted to supporting roles (in which he frequently outshone the leads), to directing and producing opera and legitimate theater and to writing plays and books, including a 1983 autobiography, "In My Mind's I."
"Not too bad," he told a 1973 interviewer, "for a chap who really never intended to be anything but a country schoolmaster. . . ."
Michael Scudamore Redgrave was born March 20, 1908, in Bristol, England, to an acting tradition that was already well established.
"It began," he told an interviewer in 1969, "with an elegant old party who called himself by the unlikely stage name of Fortunatus Augustus and played the hero in literally hundreds of Victorian melodramas. He was my grandfather--so I suppose you could blame him for all the rest. . . ."
Michael's father, George Ellsworthy Redgrave, was a romantic leading man known as Roy Redgrave, and his mother was also a successful performer, known on stage by her maiden name of Margaret Scudamore.
"One might imagine," Sir Michael said later, "that the youngest member of such a household would simply enter the acting profession as a matter of course. But one would jolly well be wrong. My mother considered acting a precarious livelihood at best and carefully aimed me at a literary career; I was to be a poet or editor, or, failing that, a teacher.
"I can't say exactly why I went along with her plan, except that I'd no real objection--I've always liked to write--and besides, children did pretty much what their parents wanted them to in those days.
"The world was rather simpler then, you know. . . ."
Accordingly, he pursued literary studies, first at Clifton College and then at Magdalene College (Cambridge) and in Germany and France, receiving a Cambridge master of arts degree in 1930 with honors in French, German and English.
He was promptly employed as a modern language master at Cranleigh, a private school.
"But blood will tell," he said with a laugh. "Within the first month at Cranleigh, I found myself involved in producing and directing the school's plays--and I was lost.
"The clincher came during holiday; I got a 'walk-on' part in one production at the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Festival . . . and promptly went larking off to London for a tryout at the Old Vic."
After reading a few lines in his now-celebrated perfect diction, he was found eminently acceptable. But because of an oversight (no one told him he had been chosen for the Old Vic), he went on to audition for William Armstrong of the Liverpool Repertory Theater, who accepted him on the spot.
As a result, Redgrave's professional debut, on Aug. 30, 1934, was as Roy Darwin in the Liverpool Rep production of "Counselor-at-Law."
His performance and the play were both well received, and Redgrave spent the next two years with Anderson's troupe, appearing in such vehicles as "Libel," "The Flowers of the Forest," "Youth at the Helm," "Boyd's Shop," "Storm in a Teacup" and "Twelfth Night."
That final production, in 1936, had immediate consequences: "I discovered a taste for Shakespeare," he explained, "and so I went to work under Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic, playing Ferdinand in 'Love's Labour's Lost.' "