UPDATE Thursday morning, with more tributes throughout.
Brian Bedford, a British-born actor of formal elegance, contagious modesty and impish spontaneity, died Wednesday in Santa Barbara after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.
In a career spanning more than half a century and traversing stages from Broadway to Stratford, Ontario to Los Angeles, Bedford was revered as an actors’ actor, comfortable in Shakespearean tragedy, French farce and modern comedy from Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward to Tom Stoppard. Although he guest-starred in numerous television series including Murder, She Wrote, Cheers, and Frasier, his film work was more limited: He is best remembered as the voice of Robin Hood in Disney’s 1973 animated feature, and as FBI number two Clyde Tolson in Oliver Stone’s 1995 Nixon, opposite Anthony Hopkins as the President and Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover. Earlier he appeared with James Garner in the 1966 Grand Prix.
‘He was not only kind, loving and generous, but one of the finest classical actors in North America. A talent like Brian’s is literally irreplaceable.’ — Todd Haimes, Roundabout Theatre Company artistic director
But Bedford was fully and essentially a creature of the stage, where he metamorphosed effortlessly from Elizabethan fops to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Molière’s foolish hypocrites and Stoppard’s frantically bouncing philosophers (he starred opposite Jill Clayburgh in the short-lived Broadway premiere of Stoppard’s 1974 university-set Jumpers). In his last and perhaps choicest Broadway performance, he played Lady Bracknell in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, a doyenne role traditionally played by a male actor, in which he seemed at once the essence of Wildean mock-prudery and a game fox having the time of his life in a production he also directed (originally for Canada’s Stratford Festival) and whose run was extended several times.
The performance earned him his seventh Tony nomination. He won once, in 1971, for his performance in Molière’s School for Wives.
“He was not only kind, loving and generous, but one of the finest classical actors in North America,” Todd Haimes, the Roundabout’s artistic director, told Deadline. “A talent like Brian’s is literally irreplaceable.”
Bedford found a welcome home at Stratford, where he appeared frequently over four decades in classical roles on its stages with such fellow thespians of the first rank as Christopher Plummer. Bedford’s repertory included Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and one of the more memorable crookback king Richard III in a generation. He also played the composer Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and the dissolute title character in Simon Gray’s Butley.
“Brian Bedford was the prime reason I went into the theatre,” Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino said in a statement from the company. “I saw him in Molière’s Misanthrope, and it made me feel that he embodied the spirit of comedy itself…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,” Cimolono continued. “He became a mentor, a role model and an inspiration.”
Bedford was born on February 16, 1935, in the Yorkshire mill town of Morley, near Leeds, and his family life was grim with tragedy: two older brothers died of tuberculosis and his father committed suicide sometime after he left home and had begun his acting studies.
One of his most memorable performances was in Richard Nelson’s 1992 Two Shakespearean Actors, based on the rivalry of two actors appearing on proximate stages as Macbeth in New York City in the mid-19th century whose rivalry was so intense that fans were given to riots outside the theaters. Bedford played the British actor William Charles Macready opposite Victor Garber’s homegrown matinee idol Edwin Forrest in Jack O’Brien’s grandly-scaled production for Lincoln Center Theater. The show also starred Hope Davis, Laura Innes, Zeljko Ivanek and Judy Kuhn.
“Brian Bedford led the way, by brilliant example, for generations of serious classical actors,” Jay O. Sanders, an actor who, like Bedford, has been lauded for performances in works across every genre and period, told Deadline. “The discipline, passion, and grace he exhibited season after season throughout his life was a beacon of artistic commitment to live theater, the glory of language, and the instrument of the human voice, a feat which has become increasingly difficult to duplicate in this age of screens with its lure of commercial paychecks and the siren of worldwide celebrity.”