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Michael Gambon - Biography

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Michael Gambon

Personal details

Name: Michael Gambon
Born: 19 October 1940 (Age: 74)
Where: Dublin, Ireland
Height: 6' 2"
Awards: Won 4 BAFTAs, 1 Golden Globe nomination

All about this star


Had you told any member of the mid-Seventies general public that Michael Gambon would become one of Britain's greatest thespians and a film star to boot, you'd have been deafened by their howls of laughter. After all, he was known at the time simply as "the other bloke" in Richard Briers' unsuccessful follow-up to The Good Life. A few might recall him as the dashing hero of the period adventure series The Borderers. A few more might have spotted his bit-part in dodgy Amicus thriller The Beast Must Die. But theatre god? Film star? No one would ever have suspected that this big, unfortunately moustachioed galoot would rise so high.

What we didn't recognise then was the extraordinary talent the man possessed. We didn't know the years of work he'd already put in. We didn't realise that Laurence Olivier had hand-picked him for the original National Theatre Company as far back as 1963. We didn't understand that he'd then risen through the rep companies to successfully headline in Shakespeare's tragedies. We thought of him as a bumbling sidekick when, in fact, he was just a couple of years from becoming a fully-fledged West End behemoth. The film stardom would take much longer, but still it was an inevitable progression. So, belated apologies to Michael Gambon. Our ignorance cannot have been bliss for him.

He was born in Dublin during WW2, on the 19th of October, 1940, to be precise. Dark days, indeed, but still fun for an infant surrounded by a large extended family. Come 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, including Michael and his seamstress mother, took up residence near Mornington Crescent, north 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 and a knighthood.

Growing up in a mostly struggling Irish community, Michael was raised a strict Roman Catholic. He attended the Jesuit St Aloysius Boys' School in Somers Town and served on the altar during the large-scale Latin masses of the time (he's said this was perhaps his first experience of performing). He'd move on to St Aloysius' College in Hornsey Lane, Highgate, one former pupil being Peter Sellers and one peer Bryan Manning, later to become a renowned Savile Row tailor. School was not a good time, Gambon later saying "My only memories of school are of being beaten, of being hit in the playground, of masters poking their fingers in my chest all day". It was no surprise when, after a brief stint at a school in Kent, he left at 15, with no qualifications whatsoever.

He decided to follow his father into engineering - a good, steady job - and took up an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at Vickers Armstrong in Crayford. It would take 7 years and leave him with an abiding fascination with all things mechanical. He has a serious collection of antique guns, clocks and watches, as well as classic cars.

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. This led him to join up with the Unity Theatre in Kings Cross, close to his home. He took to it immediately, as if there were some genetic attraction. It was "like a heartbeat", he recalled later "something inside me. Some dream. I think it's being a dreamer as a child. Dreamy kids become actors, don't they?"

Relying on the limited knowledge of the local community and quite fancying an extended trip back to the Emerald Isle, he wrote a letter to Michael MacLiammoir, the Irish theatre impressario who ran Dublin's Gate Theatre. It was accompanied by a CV describing a rich and wholly imaginary theatre career. And he was taken on. The adventure had begun.

While on the subject of deceit, Gambon is notorious for his lying. Throughout his career he has told magnificent porkies both to journalists and his peers about his past life and achievements. It's not to look big, just not to be bored. Often he would claim to have started out as a dancer at the Royal Ballet, only to have his career ruined when he fell from the stage and crashed through the orchestra's timpani kit. For years he carried round a photo of Robert De Niro that read "To Mike, Best wishes and love forever, Bob". He'd regale any entrant to his dressing-room with tales of the work he'd done with De Niro and the affection they had for one another - until some bright spark noted that Gambon had actually never worked with De Niro and clearly written the note himself. Most outrageously, he once claimed that he used to be gay, but stopped because it made his eyes water.

The thing is, he's so bright, so entertaining and such a brilliant actor, how would you know if he was lying (this is one reason why one should never date a thesp)? And why would you care? This has served Gambon well from the start, for he is famously keen to protect his private life from public scrutiny, feeling it would undermine his ability to convince when playing a character. He will not tell journalists of his life, not even his own biographer. Thus we know few details of his early years, particularly when it comes to his marriage in 1961 to former actress Ann Miller, a union that produced a son, Fergus.

Gambon 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 Company, alongside such luminaries as Maggie Smith, Nicol Williamson and newcomers like Lynn Redgrave. Gambon would 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.

There surely cannot be a better grounding in the theatre arts than the one enjoyed by Michael Gambon. Over the next four years, he appeared in many NT productions, including Hamlet, St Joan, The Recruiting Officer, Play, Andorra, Philoctetes, Othello, The Royal Hunt Of The Sun, The Crucible, Much Ado About Nothing, The Crucible and Mother Courage (appearing with Lynn Redgrave). They covered classic pieces and the work of unknown authors, like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz And Guildernstern Are Dead. He worked with guest directors like Noel Coward, Lindsay Anderson and Franco Zeffirelli. Samuel Beckett showed up for Play and, as Gambon remembers, was very impressed by Billie Whitelaw's behind. Michael played alongside the likes of Michael Redgrave, Ian Richardson, Robert Stephens and Tom Courtenay. And all the while there was Olivier.

All the actors were scared of Olivier, utterly intimidated. Gambon tells one hilarious story of how one day he was sitting alone in the canteen. In walks the great Sir Larry who gets himself a cup of coffee and, as politeness demands it, sits down with Michael. Michael can think of nothing to say but is desperate to strike up a conversation. Eventually, he spies the word Norge emblazoned on Olivier's document case. "Norge", he stammers. "What?" replies Olivier. "Norge", repeats the terrified youngster. "What the f*** are you talking about?" snaps the famously irascible knight. "It says Norge on your case, Sir Laurence," explains Gambon, before fatally continuing "That's Norwegian for Norway, isn't it? Did they give you that in Elsinore, Sir Laurence, for playing Hamlet?" There's a terrible pause before Olivier stands, gathers up his cup and delivers a withering "Elsinore is in Denmark. Hamlet was Danish. And you are a c***".

Olivier was a massive influence. 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, one being Anthony Hopkins. And there were others to look up to at the NT. Ian Richardson, and in particular Nicol Williamson. Gambon had shared a dressing-room with Williamson and watched his inexorable rise. He was impressed by his voice, his stance and what Gambon calls "his anarchy". But the success of others meant no leads for Gambon and, in 1967, he left the NT for the Birmingham Repertory Company and a chance to headline as Othello. Having made his screen debut in 1965 playing a spear-carrier to Olivier's Othello, he knew his master's interpretation well (more Arab than African) and would now copy it as best he could. He'd stay in rep for several more years, taking the lead in Macbeth and Coriolanus, before returning to Othello at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

At the same time, he was open to TV and film offers, and his first real screen break came in The Borderers, a BBC2 series concerning the lives of an extended family of Scots, living on the borders with England in the 1500s and dealing with raiders, rustlers and political shenanigans. Ian Cuthbertson would play Sir Walter Ker, patriarch and warden of the area, while Michael would swashbuckle away as Gavin Ker, the tough head of another branch of the clan. The show would run from December 1968 to March 1970 and would, amazingly, turn Gambon into somethig of an action hero.

Even more amazingly, this would bring him to the attention of the Broccolis, then desperately seeking a new James Bond, after George Lazenby's On Her Majesty's Secret Service had failed and Sean Connery had again refused to return. He met up with Cubby Broccoli in Mayfair, not knowing what the meeting was about. When told it was Bond he was flabberghasted. But I'm bald, he said. So was Sean, we'll get around it. But my teeth are like a horse's. We'll take you to Harley Street. But I've got tits like a woman. We'll use ice-packs before the love scenes, just like we did with Sean. Their replies convinced him that he was in, the new 007 and a soon-to-be worldwide sensation. But, on leaving, he noticed a parade of others waiting to audition. Beyond this, the Broccolis were concerned about casting another unknown. Worldwide fame was to take a little longer, it seemed.

Throughout the Seventies he did not find much screen success at all. There were a few plays filmed, including A Midsummer Night's Dream (with Robert Stephens, Amanda Barrie and Ronnie Barker!), Aldous Huxley's Eyeless In Gaza,, Cows, Beryl Bainbridge's Tiptoe Through The Tulips and The Seagull. There were also bit-parts in several British movies. Nothing But The Night, produced by Christopher Lee's Charlemagne company and intended to improve the quality of British output, brought Lee and Peter Cushing together again as a weird, immortality-seeking cult kidnapped orphans and had their personalities surgically implanted into the youngsters' bodies, Gambon playing a cop on their trail. Charlemagne would not make another picture. Then there was Catholics where a group of monks on an island off the coast of Ireland disregarded the Pope's orders and carried on in traditional ways, US priest Martin Sheen being sent to bring them back onto the Vatican line. And there was the aforementioned The Beast Must Die, again with Peter Cushing, where a millionaire brought a disparate group to a mansion, informed them that one of them was a werewolf and then locked them in. Horrible deaths ensued, but success did not, despite a rather exciting Werewolf Break towards the end, where the film paused and the audience were invited to guess which of the guests was hairy on the inside.

Aside from these, Gambon took part in several TV series. 1972 saw him alongside Colin Blakely in the short-lived The Challengers, concerning the problems and triumphs of two MPs. 1977 brought The Other One, written for Richard Briers by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey in the hope of replicating The Good Life's success. This saw Briers as Ralph, a compulsive liar and thoroughly useless fellow who meets Gambon's shy Brian at the airport on the way to Spain and convinces him that, if they stick together, their holday will be a record-breaking shag-a-thon. They do stick together, and very embarrassing it is, too. As are their exploits back in Blighty when they work together as travelling salesmen.

It was a fine series, far deeper than the average sitcom, more Mike Leigh than Dad's Army, and as such was way ahead of its time. For different reasons, Gambon's 1979 effort, Chalk And Cheese, which saw Michael Crawford as a loudmouth Cockney layabout moving into a gentrified street, fared no better.

Probably Gambon's most exciting project of the decade saw him star as Oscar Wilde in the BBC's Forbidden Passion, a no-holds-barred account of the writer's fame, trial and demise (this would be cut down and released in America nine year later, in 1985). And the excitement was not limited to the acting. Having by now built something of a reputation in theatre, he was, by his own admission, becoming something of a prima donna. After filming in Bristol, where he was openly unhappy with the script, Gambon returned to his hotel to collect his gear for a move on to Oxford, only to discover his room had been cleared and his clothes were missing. Naturally (for what else could one do, darling?), he threw an almighty wobbler and, still dressed as Oscar Wilde, stormed off, running across the motorway and through the busy streets to the train station, all the while screaming obscenities at the production manager who was attempting to follow in his car. On the train, still dressed as Wilde, he proceeded to get incredibly pissed then, on arrival at Paddington, hurled yet more abuse at some forewarned BBC big-wigs waiting for him and ran off into the night, somehow managing to make it home without being beaten or, considering what he was wearing, otherwise ill-used.

In this behaviour he'd obviously had the finest teacher in Laurence Olivier. But, before this incident, Gambon had already been treading the boards professionally for nearly 15 years. Also, the mid-Seventies had seen his stage profile rise considerably. Having played in Not Drowning But Waving at Greenwich , he'd stayed at Greenwich to take one of the leads in the 1974 premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, with Tom Courtenay and Richard Briers' Good Life buddies Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendal, a production so successful it moved to the Globe in the West End. Gambon moved on to Zoo Story in Regent's Park and, in 1976, Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged at The Queen's Theatre. Then would come Just Between Ourselves and Alice's Boys, where he was dubbed "The Great Gambon" by his illustrious co-star Sir Ralph Richardson.

Like most actors of his generation, Gambon was afraid to turn work down. He starred in Uncle Vanya and alongside Jack Lemmon in Veterans' Day before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company to take the lead in the premiere of Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Directed by Peter Hall and co-starring Penelope Wilton, this was the author's account of his own affair with broadcaster Joan Bakewell. Gambon would continue with the RSC in When Thou Art King, Henry VIII, The Plebeians and Rehearse The Uprising. And then would come the big breakthrough. Gambon had appeared and starred in many successful productions, but his performances in Brecht's The Life Of Galileo in 1980, a part he was invited to take by Peter Hall, saw him named as Best Actor by London's Drama Critics. Thus recognised, the Eighties would see him emerge as one of Britain's finest actors.

Still with the RSC, 1981 saw him alongside Wilton (coincidentally another of Richard Briers' TV co-stars, in her case in Ever Decreasing Circles) again as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the Olivier Theatre. The next year he was roughed up by a tigerish Helen Mirren (not for the last time) at Stratford when playing Marc Antony to her Cleopatra, then starred as King Lear, with Alice Krige and Jenny Agutter playing his daughters Cordelia and Regan, and Richard III. Much of his success was in collaboration with Alan Ayckbourn, who'd been his artistic director back at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. He'd appear on TV in the playwright's Absurd Person Singular and onstage in 1985 in A Chorus Of Disapproval, for which he won an Olivier award, then A Small Family Business (1987) and Man Of The Moment (1990, another Drama Critics' Best Actor award). Also in 1987, Ayckbourn would direct him as Eddie Carbone in a revival of Arthur Miller's A View From A Bridge, which transfered to the West End's Aldwych Theatre and won Gambon every single major drama award on offer. After 24 years of climbing, he was king of the West End. His 1988 performances were hot tickets indeed, including a return to Uncle Vanya with Rachel Kempson and Jonathan Pryce, and the premiere of Pinter's Mountain Language, a brutal 25-minute work co-starring Miranda Richardson and digging into the evil effects of totalitarianism. As he'd returned to the National Theatre for these he was now the only actor to be employed by the NT at its inauguration and its 25th anniversary.

Having worked so hard in the theatre, it was amazing that Gambon also found time for any screen work. Yet 1985 saw him back before the cameras for the first time since the ill-fated Chalk And Cheese. First would come TV play Tropical Moon Over Dorking where he'd play part of a harsh reality invading the reveries of romantic novelist Pauline Collins. Then there'd be his first movie since The Beast Must Die, a very different piece called Turtle Diary. Here lonely Londoners Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson both become obsessed with giant sea turtles at the zoo and join keeper Michael in a plot to release them into the sea.

An award-winning actor onstage, now he took a BAFTA for his next TV project, Dennis Potter's classic The Singing Detective (his first triumphant Potter production). This was a groundbreaking series that combined Potter's love of musical hall and crime fiction, his memories and even his past diseases into an amazing collage of truth and hallucination. Gambon starred as Philip E. Marlow, confined to a hospital bed by psioratic arthropathy, a condition that saw him in constant pain, his skin peeling, stretched and glazed. As nurse Joanne Whalley cares for him and ex-wife Janet Suzman tries to rip him off, he's visited by his own fictional characters, haunted by the past and racked with guilt over his mother's death, all the while snapping and swearing, tearing into good and bad alike and generally revealing himself to be one of the most scabrous, bigoted, misanthropic and thoroughly entertaining characters ever to assault the public consciousness. Not that it wasn't fun to make. At one point Whalley pulled back the bed-covers to rub ointment into Gambon's legs only to find that he'd painted on gold stockings and suspenders. A hugely popular show (which saw only the second screen appearance of David Thewlis), The Singing Detective ensured that all memory of those dodgy Seventies TV series was wiped away. Gambon had the respect of everyone.

As his stage career went into overdrive, his screen profile remained low-key. After a shot at Ibsen's Ghosts with Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in 1986 he did not appear again for two years. Then he played the supremely wicked husband of Charlotte Rampling's ambitious MP in David Hare's anti-Thatcherite Paris By Night. He followed this with a cameo in Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers, where Dexter Fletcher played a young scoundrel who misused literature, art, anything to get girls into bed. Gambon would pop up as Dr Knowd, a professor who tears Fletcher's persona to pieces in the movie's funniest scene. Next would come another brief role as an unsympathetic magistrate in A Dry White Season, where teacher Donald Sutherland and lawyer Marlon Brando struggled against a South African judicial system made evil by Apartheid.

His next film saw him as another classic Gambon monster - Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. Here he was the titular thief, a big, bellowing bully who revels in browbeating everyone around him. Every night he holds a decadent feast in a restaurant, where he pigs his face and humiliates his reluctant guests, the cook, and especially his wife, Helen Mirren. She takes a lover (who could blame her?) and they have sex absolutely everywhere until Gambon finds out. What follows remain some of the most shocking and controversial scenes in cinema history.

The furore surrounding the movie, combined with a weighty reputation gained from theatre and The Singing Detective, meant that Gambon was now very much in demand. He saw out the 1980s with a TV adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat Of The Day which saw him as a profoundly shady denizen of blacked-out WW2 London, maybe a spy, certainly weaving webs of deceit around Patricia Hodge and Michael York. He then added thespian gravitas to the Greek Myths section of Jim Henson's Storyteller series, and appeared as William The Conqueror in Blood Royal, victorious at Hastings then quelling the rebellion of Hereward the Wake. There'd also be a headlining series of atmospheric thrillers when he took the part of Inspector Maigret, replacing Richard Harris, who'd starred in the pilot. The next time he replaced Harris would be a far sadder occasion.

But Gambon's rise had also caught the attention of Hollywood, and he made his US screen debut in Mobsters, an extremely violent vision of the early careers of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Michael would play Don Salvatore Faranzano, an old-school mafioso and arch-rival of Anthony Quinn's Masseria. Now would come his first high-budget outing, when he took his place in the Robin Williams vehicle Toys. Here the dying owner of a toy corporation decides not to trust daffy son Williams and kooky daughter Joan Cusack with the running of the company, instead entrusting Gambon's aggressively militaristic uncle Leland. It was a great chance to show off his authority and Michael took it, revelling in his character's megalomania as he creates toys that can invade countries and slaughter people.

Gambon's third American movie, Clean Slate, was another star vehicle, this time for Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey. Carvey would play a private detective with terrible amnesia called to give evidence in a murder trial involving mobster Michael. The movie was similar in theme to the recent Groundhog Day but, like most Carvey vehicles, was too lightweight by far. Also not faring too well would be Disney's Squanto: A Warrior's Tale, where a native American who greets the Mayflower settlers is kidnapped and brought to England as a curiosity. He escapes and is ruthlessly pursued by Michael, an English nobleman who feels he owns Squanto, allowing Gambon to play the Beastly Brit card to the max.

Though 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. Now taking up interesting projects of any size and shape, he appeared in Mike Figgis's The Browning Version, playing a headmaster overseeing an educational modernisation that causes classics teacher Albert Finney to re-examine his life. Then there'd be Faith, a TV movie involving love and political and journalistic intrigue, when a tabloid writer falls for politician Michael's daughter. Following this came a return to Dublin and Albert Finney with A Man Of No Importance. Here Finney played a homosexual in the Sixties who tries to repress his sexual tendencies and get on with his life as bus conductor by day (he fancies driver Rufus Sewell) and amateur theatre director by night (he wants to put on Wilde's Salome), Michael deliberately hiding his talents as Finney's hammy leading man.

Nicolas Roeg's Two Deaths would see Gambon as a chubby, smug Bucharest doctor who invites some friends to a dinner just as the Ceaucescu regime is toppled. Over the course of one night, the fears and fantasies of all involved are revealed, as well as secret obsessions and even slaveries. His next effort would be no less heavy, Nothing Personal taking him to 1975 Belfast to play the politically savvy head of a gang of Loyalist paramilitaries as IRA atrocities send the city into uproar, a claustrophobic sense of doom pervading the lives of all involved.

Very different would be Bullet To Beijing, which saw Michael Caine take on the role of Harry Palmer for the first time since 1967's The Billion Dollar Brain. Gambon would play the Russian businessman who recruits Harry to recover a stolen chemical weapon, currently being transported to China. He'd reprise his role two years later in Midnight In St Petersburg, when Palmer tries to stop terrorists from acquiring the plutonium necessary to build nuclear warheads.

Having provided the voice of Badger in 1995's hugely popular adaptation of The Wind In The Willows, he now appeared in a further British production, The Innocent Sleep, where he played the detective who found banker Roberto Calvi hanging from London Bridge in 1982. Rupert Graves would play a homeless witness whose tale is believed by no one except ambitious journalist Annabella Sciorra.

Now Gambon was enjoying the best of all worlds. In demand for well-paid Hollywood movies, he could now afford to take on any film or theatre project that interested him. His next money-spinner was Stephen Frears' Mary Reilly where Julia Roberts played the Irish housemaid unnnerved yet attracted by John Malkovich's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Gambon would play the drunken father who beat her and locked her in a rat-infested cellar. If she can understand and still love him, maybe she has room in her heart for her dangerous and suffering employer?

Now would come another US production, and a very strange one at that. This was a TNT retelling of the Samson and Delilah story using the cream of British talent. Nicolas Roeg would be directing Gambon again, with Diana Rigg on hand, and Gambon would play King Hamun, leader of the Philistines, who cannily uses the beauty of Delilah to break his enemies. So far, so biblical. But then Elizabeth Hurley shows up as Delilah and Dennis Hopper arrives as a bug-eyed Philistine general (a fine actor, Hopper, but it's hard to imagine him controlling himself, let alone an army) and all credibility is replaced by high camp entertainment.

Gambon's next would be a project of undeniable class, being an excellent adaptation of Henry James' The Wings Of The Dove. Here he played another penniless drunk, this time one whose wife lost her inheritance due to marrying down and later died. Helena Bonham Carter would play his daughter, Kate Croy, who's taken in by wealthy aunt Charlotte Rampling and plots with her poor lover to dupe a fortune from a dying American girl travelling in Europe. Gambon would stick with literary productions for The Gambler, playing a broke and doddering Dostoevsky, suffering seizures and self-doubt in St Petersburg as new stenographer Jodhi May helps him meet the frighteningly short deadline for his next novel. Failure to reach it will cost him the rights to all his works, and the film switches between his struggle and the unfolding tale of the novel itself, all sex and roulette.

For a couple of years, Gambon would restrict his work to his twin homes of Ireland and England. 1998's Dancing At Lughnasa saw him in 1930s Ireland as an aging priest returned from the missions, wrecked by drink and the hot African sun. His years away have undermined his Christian beliefs and melded them with a life-affirming paganism, his wise and earthy pronouncements bringing chaos to a household of five sisters, ruled over by a severe and unforgiving Meryl Streep. He followed this with Plunkett And Macleane, a roustabout 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. Then it was back to Ireland, this time in the 1920s, for Deborah Warner's The Last September. Here Gambon and Maggie Smith (onscreen together for the first time in 34 years) presided over a fading estate as the Troubles erupted around them. They think they're Irish, the Irish think they're British-backed intruders and love and loyalty are tested to breaking point.

Having joined John Hurt in lending his voice to the animated A Monkey's Tale, Gambon now returned to Hollywood for two of the biggest features of 1999. First came Michael Mann's The Insider 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. After this he'd step back in time once more for Sleepy Hollow, at last working with Tim Burton, who'd earlier left Mary Reilly for his own Ed Wood project. Here Gambon played Baltus Van Tassel, head of Sleepy Hollow's foremost family who's drawn into a murderous plot to win an inheritance, a plot that involves calling Christopher Walken's fabulously unpleasant Headless Horseman back from the grave. Michael's former Pinter co-star Miranda Richardson would play his seemingly graceful and proper wife, Michael would be impaled on a spike, dragged through a church window and beheaded, and they'd all enjoy a US number one.

If anything, his work-rate now increased. With another former Pinter co-star, Penelope Wilton, playing his wife, he now appeared as old-fashioned Tory landowner Squire Hamley in a miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives And Daughters - part psychological study, part social history of the 1860s, as love and status are sought. He then ended the millennium with the dark comic short Dead On Time, where a young man decides to become the first suicide of the new century, only to discover that his landlord, Michael, has plans to become its first murderer.

Incredibly, Gambon was still hard at it on the stage. 1995 had seen another hit in Jonson's Volpone, and the same year he'd opened in David Hare's Skylight at the National, a production that moved on to the Wyndham Theatre and then in 1997 on to New York's Royale where he made his Broadway debut (after 35 years of acting!). In 1997 he'd also played in Tom And Clem at the Aldwych, a performance which gained him another Olivier nomination. He'd score yet another for Yasmina Reza's The Unexpected Man, then be voted the Drama Critics' Best Actor once more for his efforts in Pinter's The Caretaker and Nicholas Wright's Cressida in 2000. Another Olivier nomination would come for Caryl Churchill's A Number in 2002.

Stage-work aside, 2000 brought TV success with Longitude, where he played John Harrison, a carpenter in 1714 who invents a marine chronometer and struggles for 40 years to have his idea accepted (his story being paralleled with that of Jeremy Irons, playing a WW1 veteran who discovers Harrison's original papers and tries to re-make his invention). Next he'd return to Samuel Beckett when all of Beckett's plays were filmed as a series. Gambon would take the toughest role of all, as Hamm in Endgame, a blind bully who stays put in his chair though the world is ending, berating his servant Clov and revelling in hopelessness. Clov would be played by David Thewlis, back with Gambon for the first time since The Singing Detective. Thewlis would not be present, though, when Gambon reprised his role in a hugely popular run at the Albery in 2004, his place being taken by Lee Evans.

2001 was another big year. It began with Stephen Poliakoff's acclaimed series Perfect Strangers, where a rich man, selling off some of the family's estates and belongings, calls a reunion of the extended family to give everyone a last chance to share memories and view old photos. Michael would play the black sheep who severed ties years before and who would discover in the old photos a truth he cannot balance with his own memories. Many a secret and dark desire is unveiled as the past brings the present to emotional turmoil. Gambon would win a BAFTA for his efforts, completing a hat-trick after awards for Wives And Daughters and Longitude.

As if seeking relief from the heaviness of these roles, Gambon began to flit between classy productions and dodgy comedies. First of these was Mel Smith's High Heels And Low Lifes where two girls in London (one being Minnie Driver) overhear a plot to rob a safety deposit box and decide to blackmail mobsters Michael and Kevin McNally into sharing the loot. Then, after providing the voice of the Ghost of Christmas Present for an adaptation of A Christmas Carol also featuring Kate Winslet and Juliet Stevenson, he moved on to Robert Altman's far meatier Gosford Park. This brought together some of the great British actors of past and present as Gambon played Sir William McCordle, a rich old sod who, in 1932, invites friends and family down to his pile for a shooting party. As time progresses we see his sister (Maggie Smith again) tortured by his threats to cut her off, we see his trophy wife Kristen Scott Thomas enjoying sexual dalliances, and discover that Sir William is no stranger to unfaithfulness himself, indeed he's been jumping maid Emily Watson, just as he has most maids before her - a fact that brings about his eventual demise as he's brought to destruction by Helen Mirren for the third time.

There were high hopes that his next picture, Gillian Armstrong's adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' hit novel Charlotte Gray, would be equally strong. Here Cate Blanchett played a Scottish woman who joins a WW2 Special Operations unit in order to find her RAF boyfriend, lost in France. She's goes undercover as maid to Gambon's Levade, a man torn by his hatred for both the Nazis and the communist beliefs of his son, Billy Crudup, a resistance fighter. As ever, Gambon would steal his scenes but could not save the movie from a weak and sometimes silly script. Mind you, it wasn't as silly as Gambon's next feature, Ali G Indahouse, where Sasha Baron Cohen's infamous comic creation runs for Parliament and gets drawn into wicked Charles Dance's scheme to bring down Gambon's benign PM.

Thankfully, his next two projects were infinitely beefier. John Frankenheimer's Paths To War saw him return to America as President Lyndon Johnson in a TV movie that followed him from inauguration through to an escalating Vietnam crisis that caused him to refuse to seek re-election. Alec Baldwin and his Dry White Season co-star Donald Sutherland would make up part of his bickering war cabinet, Gambon delivering a performance that won him nominations for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. He'd follow this by reuniting with Stephen Poliakoff and Miranda Richardson for The Lost Prince, the tragic tale of John, the autustic and epileptic son of George V in the early 1900s. As the child's grandfather, Edward VII, Gambon was entering a second childhood and, alone amongst the royals, understood and sympathised with the boy.

After this came Dublin-set The Actors, the last in that run of iffy comedies. Directed by his Endgame helmsman Conor McPherson, this saw Gambon beside Michael Caine once more (as well as Miranda Richardson), with Caine playing a washed-up old thesp who recruits young actor Dylan Moran to help in a '50,000 scam. Gambon played a dopey Irish crim who owes the money to the London mob.

Far superior would be Open Range, a return to form for Kevin Costner that saw Gambon as a bullying rancher who runs the local town and hates free grazers like peace-loving trail boss Robert Duvall and his formerly violent sidekick Costner. But Gambon's violent intimidation leads only to bloody disaster as Costner conjured the spirit and feel of the old West for the first time since Dances With Wolves.

There was plenty more to come. Now, in Sylvia, he played the charismatic (and scene-stealing) downstairs neighbour of Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia Plath as she suffers the torments of her relationship with poet Ted Hughes. Then he joined up with Pacino and Streep again with a small part in Mike Nichols' award-winning miniseries Angels In America which drew McCarthyism, the persecution of immigrants and the arrival of AIDS into one turbulent tale.

And then came a major boost, sadly due to the death of Richard Harris. To replace him as Professor Albus Dumbledore, the producers of the Harry Potter franchise required a thespian of huge gravitas. After The Lord Of The Rings and the X-Men franchise, the best-known of these was Ian McKellen, but he'd had his fill of fantasy. Gambon was the obvious second choice and thus he brought his peculiar brand of humanity and danger to Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban as the headmaster of Hogwarts, a man who has seen and knows he will see more than anyone would ever really want to. He'd keep the part for Harry Potter And the Goblet Of Fire, and beyond.

Next up was Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, a high budget sci-fi flick that saw the world's greatest scientists going missing and reporter Gwyneth Paltrow joining forces with ace pilot Jude Law to save New York from giant flying robots, Gambon playing Paltrow's editor. Then there'd be Layer Cake, a stylish London-set drama that saw Michael as yet another crime boss, this time involved in a complicated tale of missing girls, double-crosses, neo-Nazi gangs and millions of pounds' worth of cocaine. He'd follow this with Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic (reuniting with Cate Blanchett) where Bill Murray played an Cousteau-like oceanographer dealing with both wild adventures and his estranged son, Owen Wilson, Gambon weighing in as Murray's loyal but shady and ineffective producer. 2004 would end with Being Julia, from a Somerset Maugham novel set in 1930s London. Here Annette Bening would play a fading stage star whose fear of aging leads her into a disastrous affair with a manipulative young man, Gambon playing the ghost of her old acting coach, adding humour and mischief as he encourages her towards an enemy-crushing triumph.

With three big Hollywood productions, two Brit flicks and a stage hit in Endgame, 2004 was a typically prolific year for Michael Gambon, and it showed yet again both how he smartly balances his work and how he enjoys respect right across the industry. He also still likes to play. In 2003, BBC2's Top Gear show named a corner of their test track after him because he'd taken it on two wheels. He's also a trained pilot, and a naughty one, too. When fellow actor Terence Rigby admitted to a fear of flying Gambon took him up over Greenwich in a two-seater and pretended to have a heart attack, drooling, lolling and peeking at Rigby from the corner of his eye. Smoking a cigarette and contemplating his fate, the man was cured! And of course there's still the smoking and drinking, for which Gambon remains notorious. In 2004 he was still at it, telling tales of falling over drunk in Venice and breaking two ribs.

2005 would be a quiet year for screen releases, Gambon having only another Potter movie to add to his amazing CV. Instead he spent his time onstage at the National, playing Falstaff to Matthew MacFadyen's Prince Hal in Nicholas Hytner's lauded adaptation of Henry IV Parts I and II. His next stage performance would also bring great plaudits when he returned to Samuel Beckett in Eh, Joe,"re-imagined" for the stage by maverick film director Atom Egoyan. Here Gambon would star as an utter swine who's wrecked the lives of several women, yet he would not be acting in the traditional sense, instead having his face filmed and projected onto a giant screen, the audience watching his silent reactions to a narration by former co-star Penelope Wilton. Gambon would take on this challenge twice a night at Dublin's Gate Theatre, then London's Duke Of York, eventually taking the show to the Sydney Festival in January, 2007.

Before that, though, there would be a rapid succession of screen releases, Gambon clearly working overtime. 2006 would see him in a thoroughly unnecessary remake of The Omen, wildly hamming it up when taking Leo McKern's place as the deranged demonologist Bugenhagen. Then would come more period drama in Amazing Grace, where Ioan Gruffudd would play the 18th Ccntury politician William Wilberforce, dedicating his life to the abolition of the slave trade. Gambon would steal the scenes he had as Lord Charles Fox, arguing vociferously with Wilberforce then, by dramatically defecting to his opponent's side, changing the course of world history.

After narrating John Duffy's Brother, a short film based on a short story by Flann O'Brien, Gambon would return to Hollywood in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd. This would cover the history of the CIA by following the career of Matt Damon from his recruitment in the 1930s on through the Cold War. Gambon would play Damon's poetry teacher at Yale, a friend but a supposed recruiter for the Nazis. The loss of Damon's innocence would be shown by his failure to heed Gambon's warnings about the spiritual perils of state espionage, and his non-reaction when his friend suffers a terrible fate. Perhaps even more intense would be Gambon's next effort, an adaptation of Pinter's Celebration, where Gambon and his wife, former Pinter co-star Penelope Wilton, would dine in an expensive restaurant with James Bolam and Julia McKenzie, all of them being related. Nearby, Colin Firth would be discussing his future with partner Janie Dee, all three couples remorselessly, hilariously and painfully tearing each other to pieces.

2007 would be equally busy. First would come The Cranford Chronicles, a return to Elizabeth Gaskell and her mild but telling vignettes of 19th century life. With the stories mostly concerning a small circle of small town women, Gambon would join a powerful female cast including Judi Dench, Francesca Annis, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins and Emma Fielding, appearing briefl;y as a yeoman-farmer who has long held a candle for Dench's Miss Matty. His next effort would be far less substantial. Directed by Jake Paltrow, The Good Night would reunite Gambon with Paltrow's sister Gwyneth as a lucidly dreaming Martin Freeman enjoyed an increasingly real relationship with dream-girl Penelope Cruz.

Gambon's next feature would also be a comedy. This was The Baker, which would see hit-man Damian Lewis turn over a new leaf and try to hide from his past by posing as a baker in a rural Welsh village, Gambon popping up as Lewis's mentor (the film would be directed by Lewis's younger brother, Gareth). Then there'd be more Potter, Gambon's Dumbledore this time joining Harry in a battle against wicked Lord Voldemort and his Death Eater sidekick, played by Gambon's former co-star Helena Bonham Carter. The year would end with another reunion, this time with writer and director Stephen Poliakoff, when Gambon took on Joe's Palace, playing a weird wealthy fellow who hires a young boy to look after his family mansion while himself living nearby. Gambon, it seems, has painful family secrets and must deal with loss and loneliness as well as the terrible sins of his father. The film would be a companion piece to Poliakoff's Capturing Mary, starring Gambon's Potter co-star, Maggie Smith. Surely Gambon's finest production of 2007, though, would be a child. Aged 66, having met his partner Philippa Hart (41) on the set of Gosford Park, he was again to become a father.

Having been awarded a CBE in 1992, then knighted in 1998 (on the Angels In America set he threatened violence against anyone who called him Sir) Gambon's efforts have now been publicly recognised. Not bad for a poor immigrant with no formal training whatsoever (it's said Gambon flounders in rehearsal till he hits upon his character and is then perfect). No wonder America has finally recognised him as one of the greats.

Dominic Wills

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