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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Michael Gambon, celebrated British actor, dies at 82

The actor Michael Gambon in London in 2013.

By Benedict Nightingale

Michael Gambon, who played Professor Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” films and was hailed by Arthur Miller and others as one of the greatest British actors, has died. He was 82.

Gambon’s family confirmed his death in a brief statement issued Thursday through a public relations company.

“Michael died peacefully in hospital with his wife, Anne, and son Fergus at his bedside, following a bout of pneumonia,” the statement said.

The breakthrough that led actor Ralph Richardson to call him “the great Gambon” came with Gambon’s performance in Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” at London’s National Theater in 1980, although he had already enjoyed modest success, notably in plays by Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter.

Peter Hall, then the National Theater’s artistic director, described Gambon as “unsentimental, dangerous and immensely powerful,” and recalled in his autobiography how he had approached four leading directors to accept him in the title role, only for them to reject him as “not starry enough.”

After John Dexter agreed to direct him in what Gambon was to describe as the most difficult part he had ever played, the mix of volcanic energy and tenderness, sensuality and intelligence he brought to a role — in which he aged from 40 to 75 — excited not only critics, but also his fellow performers.

As Hall recalled, the dressing-room windows at the National, which look out onto a courtyard, “after the first night contained actors in various states of undress leaning out and applauding him — a unique tribute.”

That brought him a best-actor nomination at the Olivier Awards and, in another great role, as Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” at the National in 1987, the award itself. Again, it was his blend of vulnerability and visceral force that impressed audiences, with Miller declaring that Gambon’s performance as the embattled longshoreman was the best he had seen. Ayckbourn, who directed, described Gambon as awe-inspiring.

“One day he just stood in the rehearsal room and just burst into tears — no turning upstage, no hands in front of his face,” Ayckbourn said. “He just stood there and wept like a child. It was heartbreaking. And he did angry very well too. That could be scary.”

His television roles varied from Inspector Maigret to Edward VII, Oscar Wilde to Winston Churchill. And in film he played characters as different as Albert Spica, the coarse and violent gangster in Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” and the benign Professor Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” films, a role he took over from Richard Harris, who died in 2002.

Although he answered interviewers who questioned him about acting with, “I just do it,” he prepared for roles very conscientiously. He would absorb a script, then use rehearsals to adapt and deepen his discoveries.

“I’m very physical,” he said. “I want to know how the person looks, what his hair is like, the way he walks, the way he stands and sits, how he sounds, his rhythms, how he dresses, his shoes. The way your feet feel on the stage is important.”

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