R.I.P. Michael Gambon

All the headlines mention Dumbledore. and I get it. Fine. But Dumbledore Shmumbledore. Michael Gambon’s stage career was spectacular. He played everything (see him here as King Lear), and when I heard he passed, I thought immediately of a hilarious section in Antony Sher’s excellent book The Year of the King, about Sher’s year of preparation to play Richard III. (I highly recommend the book if you haven’t read it.) There’s a great entry where Sher recounts meeting Michael Gambon in the RSC canteen. Gambon shares some anecdotes about auditioning for Laurence Olivier when Gambon was still a “nobody”, and Gambon’s “big break”. It’s unexpectedly moving. And also hilarious.

Tuesday 21 February

CANTEEN I’m having my lunch when I hear a familiar hoarse shout, ‘Oy Tony!’ I whip round, damaged my neck further, to see Michael Gambon in the lunch queue …

Alan Howard (a previous Richard III at the RSC) is standing in front of him, puzzled as to who is being sent up.
Wonderful seeing Gambon again. He and Howard have been rehearsing a play here. They’ve just heard it’s been cancelled because of the scene-shifters’ strike. Everyone assures us that it will be over by the time we go into studio in four weeks.

Gambon tells me the story of Olivier auditioning him at the Old Vic in 1962. His audition speech was from Richard III. ‘See, Tone, I was thick as two short planks then and I didn’t know he’d had a rather notable success in the part. I was just shitting myself about meeting the Great Man. He sussed how green I was and started farting around.’
As reported by Gambon, their conversation went like this:

Olivier: ‘What are you going to do for me?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Is that so. Which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Yes, but which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Yes, I understand that, but which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘But which character? Catesby? Ratcliffe? Buckingham’s a good part …’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon, no, Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘What, the King? Richard?’
Gambon: ‘ — the Third, yeah.’
Olivier: “You’ve got a fucking cheek, haven’t you?’
Gambon: ‘Beg your pardon?’
Olivier: ‘Never mind, which part are you going to do?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Don’t start that again. Which speech?’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon, “Was every woman in this humour woo’d.”‘
Olivier: ‘Right. Whenever you’re ready.’
Gambon: ‘ “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d –” ‘
Olivier: ‘Wait. Stop. You’re too close. Go further away. I need to see the whole shape, get the full perspective.’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon …’ Gambon continues, ‘So I go over to the far end of the room, Tone, thinking that I’ve already made an almighty tit of myself, so how do I save the day? Well I see this pillar and I decide to swing round it and start the speech with a sort of dramatic punch. But as I do this my ring catches on a screw and half my sodding hand gets left behind. I think to myself, “Now I mustn’t let this throw me since he’s already got me down as a bit of an arsehole”, so I plough on … “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d –“‘
Olivier: ‘Wait. Stop. What’s the blood?’
Gambon: ‘Nothing, nothing, just a little gash, I do beg your pardon …’
A nurse had to be called and he suffered the indignity of being given first aid with the greatest actor in the world passing the bandages. At last it was done.
Gambon: ‘Shall I start again?’
Olivier: ‘No. I think I’ve got a fair idea how you’re going to do it. You’d better get along now. We’ll let you know.’

Gambon went back to the engineering factory in Islington where he was working. At four that afternoon he was bent over his lathe, working as best as he could with a heavily bandaged hand, when he was called to the phone. It was the Old Vic.

‘It’s not easy talking on the phone, Tone. One, there’s the noise of the machinery. Two, I have to keep my voice down ’cause I’m cockney at work and posh with theatre people. But they offer me a job, spear-carrying, starting immediately. I go back to my work-bench, heart beating in my chest, pack my tool-case, start to go. The foreman comes up, says, “Oy, where you off to?” “I’ve got bad news,” I say, “I’ve got to go.” He says, “Why are you taking your tool box?” I say, “I can’t tell you, it’s very bad news, might need it.” And I never went back there, Tone. Home on the bus, heart still thumping away. A whole new world ahead. We tend to forget what it felt like in the beginning.’

Please read my friend Dan Callahan’s beautiful tribute over on Ebert.

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