Richard Keith Johnson, actor and producer, 30 July 1927 - 05 June 2015
Richard Johnson in Radiator.
A tribute to Richard Johnson from Richard Digby Day
In 1957 a thirty year old actor made his memorable debut at Stratford-upon-Avon. Richard Johnson was Orlando in As You Like It, playing opposite Peggy Ashcroft, one of the greatest of Rosalinds. As a schoolboy I was at that first night and vividly remember the impression he made - darkly handsome with a rich baritone speaking voice together with a driving energy and great charm of manner. In that same season he played a fine Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, a romantic and impassioned Posthumus in Cymbeline and, less happily, Ferdinand [a part strikingly lacking in opportunity] in Brook and Gielgud’s The Tempest. To have such a range of parts in one season is now a rarity and Richard made the most of this considerable opportunity.
The following season he was a fine Romeo to Dorothy Tutin’s Juliet, a darkly brooding Don Juan in Much Ado About Nothing and a very moving Pericles in a rare revival of the play. As a contrast to these he was Andrew Aguecheek, both absurd and moving in Peter Hall’s great production of Twelfth Night. Not long ago, in our conversation at the Gower Street bus stop after a RADA Council meeting he told me that, in many ways, he thought this production to be the most enjoyable he had ever been in.
When Peter Hall, a Director, brought Stratford to a London home Richard gave a guest performance as the priest Urbain Grandier in John Whiting’s commission The Devils, a poetic tragedy of supposed demonic possession in seventeenth century France. It was work on a heroic scale and had he not been diverted by the promise of a film career it seems he was destined to be one of the major classical actors.
Strangely he turned down the part of James Bond in the first of the hugely successful series and his only really outstanding movie was The Haunting directed by Robert Wise. There were many other films but none of the same class.
He returned to the classics at Stratford in the 70s playing a splendid Anthony to Janet Suzman’s Cleopatra. It was a part that appealed to him and he played it again opposite actress Clare Higgins in Stratford on 90-91, when he also played The King of France in Peter Hall’s All’s Well That Ends Well – the only successful production of this difficult play I have ever seen. In the 70s he was also at the National in plays by Coward and Wycherley.
Richard had trained at RADA in the last years of WWII and in 2000 became a member of the RADA Council, where he showed great enthusiasm and energy. He was always much concerned with the nature of training for the stage and the well-being of the students themselves.
He is an actor we shall miss but also remember with affection and admiration.
Richard Digby Day
A RADA graduate, Richard Johnson enjoyed a long and successful career on stage, as well as on screen and radio with over 130 TV and film credits to his name in his seventy-year career as an actor and producer.
Born in Essex, Johnson joined Sir John Gielgud's company on leaving RADA and, in between stints in the navy, he became a big name film star signing to MGM in the 1950s where he featured in numerous films alongside stars such as Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida, Laurence Olivier, and Charlton Heston. Later he appeared in several TV dramas such as Lewis and Silent Witness.
Johnson was a founder member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and, according to Michael Coveney in his Guardian obituary, Peter Hall almost entirely credits Johnson’s commitment to John Whiting’s The Devils of Loudon for the success of company's artistic policy. Having helped Hall establish the RSC, Johnson later helped him launch the new National Theatre on the South Bank.
On stage Johnson realised a myriad of roles, being hugely versatile and not having a ‘a type’; however, he did play Mark Anthony in both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra for Trevor Nunn’s 1973 RSC versions with Janet Suzman as his queen.
Johnson also produced for screen and stage, with a TV docudrama about the death of Steve Biko and a revival of John Arden’s masterpiece Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance at the Old Vic (1984) to his credit.
He was working until quite recently, alongside fellow RADA graduate Gemma Jones, in what he called the best role of my career in Tom Browne’s Radiator. The film, a darkly comic examination of family life, marriage, age and love, premiered at the 2014 London Film Festival and goes on general released this Autumn. Fionnuala Halligan, wriitng in Screen Daily, said, In a powerful reminder of just what a great actor he is, Richard Johnson gives us a Leonard who is by turns tyrannical and petulant, irascible, sardonic, needy, funny, terrified – a fragile bully.
Johnson had what Coveney called a career of astonishing range and variety and said he was an actor who was authoritative, calm and compelling.
Johnson was also a council member of BAFTA and RADA