'I want to look like Bill Nighy': my encounters with Michael Gambon

Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective (1986)
Contrasting qualities: Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective (1986) - Allstar Picture Library Limited/Alamy Stock Photo

It will be the task of Michael Gambon’s obituarists to sift the facts from the fictions. The main fact is that he was one of the very greatest actors to begin emerging onto the British stage in the 1960s. It took a while for stardom to be conferred on him. Like a lot of actors not blessed (or cursed) with matinee idol cheekbones, he was required to hold on for the character roles.

If he’ll be most widely remembered for screen roles such as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series and Philip Marlow in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective it was on the stage where his unique ability to marry seemingly contrasting qualities in a single role was most dazzlingly displayed. Playing anything from Galileo to Arthur Miller’s Eddie Carbone, in Ayckbourn as in Pinter, he could embody balletic stillness and volcanic rage, hollering bluster and crumpled vulnerability, lord and navvy, tragedian and vaudevillian.

Michael Gambon and Antony Sher in King Lear at the Barbican in 1983
Michael Gambon and Antony Sher in King Lear at the Barbican in 1983 - Donald Cooper/Alamy

As a stage great, Gambon feels slightly separate from contemporaries who were more committed to Shakespeare. He was far more feral than Ian McKellen or Derek Jacobi, less technically attention-seeking than Patrick Stewart or Antony Sher. Famously as Lear he felt badly upstaged by Sher’s Fool. Perhaps his best revenge would have been to swap roles, as when clowning he could work an audience like a conductor with an orchestra.

To look at, as to listen to, he was never one thing. It was part of his mystery that you could never quite tell how tall Gambon was. He developed the unparallelled skill of inflating and diminishing his bulk as the role demanded. The face, of course, was unmistakable. No fan of his own physiognomy, which was once compared to a collapsed paper bag, he professed to avoid mirrors. “I want to look like Bill Nighy, who I’m jealous of,” he told me. “If I looked like Bill I’d look in mirrors and I’d look in shop windows but I don’t, I just carry on walking, with dark glasses.”

Then there was the voice, a trombonish instrument exuding power and menace that, when the need arose, could turn itself into a thin whistling flute. Although he could convey English gentility, the seductive music of his ancestral Irishness loitered just below the surface.

Michael Gambon in The Life of  Galileo at the National Theatre in 1980
A great stage actor: Gambon in The Life of Galileo at the National Theatre in 1980 - Donald Cooper /Alamy

I interviewed him several times, the first for this paper 25 years ago, and could never quite tell if what I was getting was the truth. He shared a favourite story of his about hoodwinking the man from the Birmingham Post that he had once been homosexual but was forced to give up “because it made my eyes water”.

“Yeah I like causing trouble,” he admitted. “It’s the teddy boy in me. I used to be a teddy boy. Feeling slightly inferior and wanting to cause a bit of bother and get some action going on in the room rather than get bored stiff. Does that make sense?”

Charming and gentle and genuinely modest, even with an audience of one he could be extraordinarily entertaining. It may be that the tall-sounding stories from his propping-up-the-bar persona allowed him to conceal the secret of his art. He was also genuinely keen for audiences not to know too much about his hinterland. “I’ve always thought, the less people know about you the better. You walk on in Skylight and the bloke in the auditorium says, `Oh he collects toy trains.’ His wife says, `Oh does he?’ He says, `He’s got eight ‘undred. He drives them round his garden.’ If you were a blank canvas that would be the ideal.”

The hinterland was of course fascinating. He was good with his hands, having incredibly long and sinuous fingers. But he didn’t talk about what he did when no one was watching. “When I’m not working,” he once explained to me, “I don’t exist. The first few days of finishing a job and you haven’t got to go to the theatre or you’ve finished a film you can walk around and be happy. You’ve just done this job. But after a couple of weeks you just go, I don’t exist, become a ****ing shell. Nothing. Everything else in my life relates to being an actor and if the acting isn’t going well or I’m not working then everything else goes into a blur. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true.” But was it? With the Great Gambon – the indelible moniker conferred on him by Ralph Richardson – you really never knew.

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