Personal detailsName: Michael Gambon
Born: 19 October 1940 (Age: 72)
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".