Richard Todd, 90, dies; Irish-born actor of 'Longest Day'

Mr. Todd, a British army paratrooper in the Normandy invasion, kept his acting career secret during his time in the service.
Mr. Todd, a British army paratrooper in the Normandy invasion, kept his acting career secret during his time in the service. (The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Richard Todd, an Irish-born actor who excelled in resolute dramatic roles in films such as "The Dam Busters" and "The Longest Day" and earned an Academy Award nomination as a dying Scottish soldier in "The Hasty Heart," died at his home in Lincolnshire, in central England. He was 90 and had cancer.

In a career spanning eight decades, the dashing but dour Mr. Todd appeared in nearly 50 films and many times on stage. His breakthrough was the 1949 screen version of John Patrick's drama "The Hasty Heart," set in a field hospital in Burma during World War II.

In a cast that included Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal, Mr. Todd was singled out by the New York Herald Tribune for a performance that "combined lofty stature with deep feeling, attracting enormous sympathy without an ounce of sentiment."

The film received an enormous publicity buildup, and film historian David Thomson wrote that Mr. Todd never again matched that initial promise, citing his "peculiarly stiff screen presence" and second-rate fare.

When the material measured up, however, Mr. Todd could be effective. He was sympathetic and eloquent as the Scottish-born U.S. Senate chaplain Peter Marshall in "A Man Called Peter" (1954). His determined style translated well to crisp war movies, including "The Dam Busters" (1955), a popular drama about the British raid in World War II against the Ruhr dams in Germany, and lesser known but critically admired films such as "Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst" (1957), in which he played the commander of a British navy ship stranded on the Yangtze River during the Chinese civil war.

Mr. Todd, a British army paratrooper during the Normandy invasion, was approached by producer Darryl F. Zanuck to play himself in "The Longest Day" (1962), an epic retelling of the D-Day landings. Mr. Todd declined and instead portrayed British Maj. John Howard, who led a critical glider-borne assault on two bridges during the offensive.

Although not boastful in interviews about his war exploits, Mr. Todd had been in peril. He had been dropped over enemy-held territory in France a day before the D-Day invasion and fought through the European campaign. In his memoir "Caught in the Act," he described landing in a cornfield on June 6, 1944, and attracting enemy mortar and artillery fire. Several men died near him after being struck by a shell.

"I never admitted to anybody during my entire service that I had been an actor," he later told the London Observer newspaper. "I was terrified that I would be put in charge of Ensa [Entertainments National Service Association]. Not even my closest friends knew I was an actor. I told them I was reading English at St. Andrews University."

Richard Andrew Palethorpe-Todd was born June 11, 1919, in Dublin. His father was a British army doctor, and Mr. Todd spent time in India before settling with his family in Devon, England. Intent on a stage career, he helped start the Dundee Repertory Theatre in Scotland before volunteering for military service during World War II.

After his discharge in 1946, the darkly handsome actor continued his stage career before transitioning to film. Despite a boost from "The Hasty Heart," his prospects dampened after appearing in a handful of lackluster melodramas that included Alfred Hitchcock's bland thriller "Stage Fright" (1950) opposite Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman.

Over the next several years, Mr. Todd was cast as a romantic hero in swashbucklers including "The Sword and the Rose" and "Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue." He was a virile Sir Walter Raleigh to Bette Davis's Queen Elizabeth I in "The Virgin Queen" (1955).

"My image was all daring deeds," he once said, "until my swash began to buckle a bit."

Mr. Todd's film career stumbled in the 1960s, and he was said to have turned down the role of James Bond in "Dr. No" (1962), which made a star of Sean Connery. Mr. Todd had a regrettable turn as a West Coast professor-turned-hippie cult leader in "The Love-Ins" (1967) and thereafter concentrated on the stage. He spent several years in the 1980s in London's West End in "The Business of Murder."

His marriages to actress Catherine Grant-Bogle and model Virginia Mailer ended in divorce. He had two children with each wife. Two of his sons, one from each marriage, committed suicide.

In addition to acting, Mr. Todd was a dairy farmer and was said to have been obsessive about quality.

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