Sir Michael Redgrave, 77, one of the great actors of his time, the head of a great theatrical family and a man of notable courage and intelligence, died yesterday at The Nursing Home in Denham, Buckinghamshire, England. He had Parkinson's disease.
The malady, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system, which is characterized both by trembling and muscular rigidity, was diagnosed in 1972. Although Sir Michael took some stage and screen parts until 1979, when he made his final appearance in "Close of Play," a drama by Simon Gray, the illness began to take its toll as early as the 1960s and increasingly curtailed his career.
By then, however, he had long since established himself as one of the premier thespians in a generation that included Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Flora Robson and Dame Peggy Ashcroft. He was a master of the great roles of Shakespeare and the modern tragedies of Ibsen and Chekhov.
He made 35 films, including Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" (1938); "Kipps," a 1941 adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel; "Thunder Rock" (1942), a story about a man who retreats to a lighthouse when his warnings about the Nazi menace are ignored; "Dead of Night" (1945), a ghost story; "The Browning Version" (1951), for which Terrence Rattigan wrote the screenplay and in which Sir Michael played a schoolmaster whose life disintegrates; "The Dam Busters" (1955), a film about Royal Air Force operations in World War II; "The Quiet American" (1958), the Graham Greene story about inept Americans abroad in which Audie Murphy starred and Sir Michael played a British reporter, and "The Hill" (1965), in which Sir Michael was an alcoholic doctor at a British military prison in North Africa.
In addition to acting, Sir Michael produced a number of plays and operas and wrote several books, including two on the theater and an autobiography, "In My Mind's Eye," which was published in 1983.
In this country, he was best known as a film actor, although he had a number of Broadway sucesses. He was also known as the father of Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, stars of stage and screen in their own right. (Vanessa Redgrave has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actress this year for her role in "The Bostonians.")
His wife, Rachel Kempson, is a noted actress, and his son, Corin, was an actor before he entered politics. Sir Michael's parents were on the stage, as was one of his grandfathers. Two of his grandchildren have taken their first steps before the footlights or cameras.
At 6 feet 3 inches and 175 pounds, Sir Michael had the physical gifts of a romantic hero. Yet he was not a matinee idol in that sense. The same physique makes a good senior officer, and Sir Michael was more apt to play the remote and forbidding colonel or the quietly suffering intellectual than the dashing lieutenant and lady's man. For there was about his work a cerebral turn that could be profoundly moving, but which was essentially unromantic. Instead, his extraordinary skills allowed him to give original and memorable performances as Macbeth, for example, or as Crocker-Harris, the failed teacher in "The Browning Version."
Writing of the latter, the critic Dilys Powell said Sir Michael was "beyond praise . . . . Redgrave puts an infinity of variation into gestures which are involuntary in the driven human being: and when at a touch of kindness control suddenly gives way the contrast with the hardness and tightness of the earlier scenes is heartbreaking. Screen playing is often a matter less of acting than of being; here for once the player both becomes the character and acts it."
Sir Michael's many honors included his knighthood, which he received in 1959, the New York Critics Award for his portrayal of Hector in "Tiger at the Gates" in 1955, and honors from the Cannes and other film festivals.
His most compelling performance was his reaction to the long illness that finally took his life.
"I'm not going to pretend that this is an easy or especially happy time for me," he said in an interview on his 70th birthday. "For a long time nobody understood the Parkinson's condition and doctors thought I was just forgetful or drunk, and even now the work isn't easy. But when I do look back, it's almost always in amazement and gratitude at the way my career has gone and the people I've been allowed to know."
Michael Scudamore Redgrave was born on March 20, 1908, in Bristol, England. His father was George Ellsworthy Redgrave, an actor whose professional name was Roy Redgrave, and his mother was Margaret Scudamore, who used her maiden name on the stage. When Michael was still a small boy, his father, who had a reputation as a womanizer, ran off to Australia. Mother and son followed, but shortly returned to England.
Sir Michael said in an interview that his mother wanted him to avoid the precarious life of the stage and to become a writer instead. The boy was educated at Magdalen College, Cambridge University, and graduated with honors in French, German and English. He took a job teaching at a private school, but soon turned to the theater.
His first job was with the Liverpool Repertory Theater and with it he made his professional debut on Aug. 30, 1934, in "Counsellor-at-Law." In 1936, he joined the Old Vic company and there developed his skills as a Shakespearean actor. He spent the 1937-38 season with the famous company put together by Sir John Gielgud. This established him as an important talent.
During World War II, Sir Michael served in the Royal Navy from 1941 to the end of 1942, when he was discharged for medical reasons.
Survivors include his wife, whom he married in 1935, and three children.
On hearing of her father's death, Vanessa Redgrave said he put "all the troubles he felt . . . into his work . . . . I loved him very much." What she admired about him most, she said, "was his feeling. He thought very deeply and he felt very deeply."