Thursday, January 21, 2016

Farewell, Brian Bedford

Another great Stratford actor gone. I first encountered Brian Bedford in a 1966 movie called Grand Prix, where the driving sequences were rendered in glorious 70 mm Cinerama. The intense racing scenes were interspersed with a delicious soap opera-y plot that had drivers hopping in and out of bed with each others' wives, groupies, etc. Bedford played a sensitive British driver struggling to come back after a terrible crash and my 12-year-old heart thought this was all very thrilling.

Later, I saw him on Broadway with the enchanting Tammy Grimes in Private Lives and as far as I'm concerned, he was the definitive Elyot Chase,whose suavely elegant exterior fell apart when provoked by the love/hate of his life, Amanda. 

What a joy it was, therefore, upon moving to Canada to discover that Bedford was a stalwart at the Stratford Festival. He played many great roles, including the Shakespeare tragedies, but I loved most the way he could unearth the most poignant humanity in a comedic role.

The only time I met him was on a flight from London to Toronto. He was studying the script of London Assurance, the great Dion Boucicault comedy. Usually, I believe in leaving people alone, but a long flight breeds a certain informality. I stopped by his seat and simply said, "Hello, Mr. Bedford. I enjoy your work." He thanked me very warmly and we had a word or two about the famous London production in the 1970s, which I'd seen, starring Donald Sinden.

Months later, he was wonderful as Sir Harcourt Courtly, pursuing a much younger woman and not aging particularly gracefully.

Stratford's tribute is here:


Stratford mourns the loss
of beloved actor and director Brian Bedford
Macbeth will be dedicated to his memory

January 14, 2016… The Stratford Festival has been dealt a double blow with the death of two beloved actors within 24 hours. Brian Bedford, 80, one of the Festival’s very brightest stars, died of cancer on Wednesday, January 13, a day after the passing of theatrical pioneer William Needles.

Mr. Bedford was one of the defining geniuses of the Stratford Festival, admired and loved by audiences and fellow artists.

“Brian Bedford was the prime reason I went into the theatre,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “I saw him in Molière’s Misanthrope, and it made me feel that he embodied the spirit of comedy itself. And yet he was entirely himself. Here was an actor who knew who he was and we loved him for it. He was brilliantly witty, completely relaxed, and made us all adore him. 

“But to see him in tragedy was another revelation. He was absolutely in the moment, with a strongly personal point of view, a vital intelligence keyed to a modern sensibility. 

“When I had the great privilege of working with and eventually directing Brian, I was overwhelmed by his generosity. He became a mentor, a role model and an inspiration.”

Mr. Bedford’s credits read like a list of Shakespeare’s greatest hits: Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Jaques in As You Like It, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, King Lear.

His comic pairings are the stuff of dreams: Benedick to Martha Henry’s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; Elyot Chase to Maggie Smith’s Amanda in Private Lives; Charles to Carole Shelley’s Elvira in Blithe Spirit; Garry to Domini Blythe’s Liz and Seana McKenna’s Monica in Present Laughter.

His work with Noël Coward was as near perfection as any could be, and with good reason: his degrees of separation from the playwright? Zero. Widely regarded as an authority on Coward’s work, he has not only directed and acted in his plays numerous times, but he also knew the playwright personally.

His portrayal of the suave sophisticate appeared so effortless that it was almost impossible to reconcile with the reality of his childhood. He was born to a poor family in Yorkshire in 1936. Two of his brothers died of tuberculosis and his father committed suicide.

The young Brian found escape in the theatre, first performing in amateur theatrics and then, at 18, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he studied alongside Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates and Albert Finney. He was a protégé of John Gielgud, who coached him as Hamlet and directed him in the acclaimed Five Finger Exercise. The two shared the stage in 1958, when Mr. Bedford played Ariel to Mr. Gielgud’s Prospero in The Tempest.

Mr. Bedford’s star rose quickly in the U.K., with leading roles in The Young and the Beautiful and A View From the Bridge. In 1959, Five Finger Exercise transferred to Broadway, where the play found great success and Mr. Bedford found a happier existence. He had a dozen Broadway credits and a Best Actor Tony to his name when then Artistic Director Robin Phillips lured him to the Festival.

He made his Stratford debut in 1975, playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure, opposite Martha Henry’s Isabella – the first in a long series of legendary performances. Over 29 seasons, Mr. Bedford performed in more than 50 Stratford productions and directed another 20.

Timon of Athens and The Importance of Being Earnest moved on to Broadway, swelling his Tony nomination tally to seven. The Festival’s 1998 production of Much Ado About Nothing, featuring Mr. Bedford as Benedick and Martha Henry as Beatrice, toured to New York’s City Center, and was recently remembered by Charles Isherwood of The New York Times as one of the great moments in 20th-century Shakespeare performance.

Though he was primarily a stage actor, Mr. Bedford could be seen on some of the day’s most popular television shows, including Cheers, Frasier and Murder, She Wrote. He starred opposite James Garner in the 1966 film Grand Prix, and was the voice of Robin Hood in the Disney animated classic.

Mr. Bedford’s most recent Stratford credits included the title role in 2007’s King Lear, Lady Bracknell in 2009’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and his one-man show based on the letters of Oscar Wilde, Ever Yours, Oscar, all three of which he also directed. His 2013 production of Blithe Spirit would turn out to be his final project at Stratford.

“Over the years Brian’s luminous presence on our stages made his performances ‘must sees’ for countless audience members,” said Mr. Cimolino. “We were blessed indeed that he chose to make Stratford his artistic home. And we are bereft to think that we shall not see, or hear, his like again.

“Brian, we thank you, we honour you and we miss you.”

Mr. Bedford leaves behind his partner of 30 years, Tim MacDonald, also a Stratford Festival veteran.

The Festival will dedicate the 2016 production of Macbeth to Mr. Bedford’s memory. Details will follow of a memorial, to be held in Stratford at a later date. 

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