The title of Garry O’Connor’s 2002 biography Paul Scofield: An Actor for All Seasons seemed an appropriate one to purloin for this column. When asked to name someone from among the better-known theatre royalty of the mid-to-late twentieth century I missed seeing on stage, my mind reels. I think of Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Laurence Olivier, Kim Stanley … all of whom made their professional exits before 1969, the year I began going to the theatre regularly as a teenager. But if pressed hard, I think the one who might have spoken to me most dynamically (and poetically) would have been Paul Scofield.
Born in Birmingham, England in 1922, Scofield only appeared on Broadway once in a British stage career that spanned six decades. That was when he reprised his award-winning London performance as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Too young to have seen him play it on the stage in 1961, I vividly recall the film version released in 1966 in which he reprised his performance (thankfully). I can recall certain scenes from that first viewing as a nine-year-old as if it were yesterday. I don’t know how I wandered into the theatre at such a young age, as it certainly wasn’t a film for kids, but I must admit that its power over me was immense. Besides To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m not sure of another film that depicts a person’s thorough goodness so completely without becoming mawkish. An actor can’t play “humanity,” a quality that can neither be conjured or faked. It just is — and that is what Scofield possessed. The ability to let us in on his “is.” It’s hard to describe it any other way. You get it in nearly every one of his lean and mean thirty film or TV credits. At six foot-two, with a spare frame, a lined face and a thick shock of wavy hair, he was never an ingenue, though it should not go unmentioned that his acting debut at the age of thirteen in a school production of Romeo and Juliet was a personal triumph.
“The Romeo was not very good, but my Juliet was a sensation,” Scofield recalled. “It’s the only part I’ve ever played of which I can remember every word. It’s just stayed.”
Is it any wonder that I yearn to have seen what this actor was capable of on the stage? Scofield spent his entire lifetime performing in England, not only in London’s West End but throughout its environs, acting in original plays (even a musical or two) and especially in the classics, where it has been said that no other actor came near to so complete success in the playing of the four great tragic Shakespearean roles: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear. First taking on the aged king under the guidance of Peter Brook at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, with the action set against a huge, empty white stage, a film version upon which they collaborated, was filmed, and released in 1971 in all its unrelenting bleakness. Yet as good as it is, I prefer a radio performance of the play, released in 2002 to commemorate Scofield’s 80th birthday. It is readily available on YouTube and includes such British stalwarts as Kenneth Branagh, Harriet Walter, and Alec McCowen, repeating his performance as the Fool from Scofield’s first Lear in ‘62). Listening to the recording, with nothing but Scofield’s voice speaking the verse allows for no visual distractions, as close to perfection as an aural performance can get. Forty when he first played it on stage, and eighty when he stood in front of a microphone for this recording, it’s something that needs to be heard to be believed.
And about that voice. Fred Zinnemann, the director of Scofield’s Oscar winning performance in the film of A Man for All Seasons, coined it “a Rolls Royce being started up.” Simon Callow, Scofield’s co-star in the original National Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, described it as “an instrument like none other, an organ with limitless stops, from the mightiest of bass rumbles to falsetto pipings.” Unlike many actors possessed with his vocal gifts, Scofield described in his own words that was “prepared to sound ugly as long as the meaning is fresh.” Recalling with pleasure upon the way he and Scofield worked together, Callow has stated “our relationship was pretty well that of the characters in the play, with the difference that I was playing a genius, while he actually was one.”
The video below with Scofield performing a monologue from Amadeuscontains what little there is to view of his performance. If it doesn’t send you to the moon and back, as if it does me, then maybe his style of acting isn’t your cup of tea. But I love the mixture of theatricality and genuine feeling, along with the unique sound of his speaking voice, perfectly matched to what he is talking about: how the majesty of music can lift you as nothing else can.
Four years after the world premiere of Amadeus in London, and after Ian McKellan and Tim Curry played it with distinction in New York, Scofield and Callow (along with the play’s director Peter Hall) went into a recording studio and set it down for posterity. For anyone with 2:16 minutes to spare will find it most worthy a listen.
And what of this exquisitely written scene by Paul Attanasio from Quiz Show (directed by Robert Redford)? Not only does it offer two great actors in Ralph Fiennes and Scofield, but it’s also a father/son scene, which makes me both a sucker and a goner when it comes to how it delivers. Watch the gentleness in Scofield’s work; those deep brown eyes feel like you could fall and swim in them for want of their acceptance and approval. As the actress Irene Worth, who played Goneril to his Lear, said: “His eyes always spoke more than his words.”
Though he was never high on receiving awards, Scofield sure won a lot of them. His Oscar, Tony and Emmy were accomplished over a seven-year span, quicker than any of the two dozen “Triple Crown” winners who’ve achieved this feat for acting in competitive categories. He is also in the rarified club of nine actors who have won both an Academy Award and a Tony Award for performing the same role on film and stage (A Man for All Seasons). But none of that meant very much to him (he rarely showed up to accept these trophies). A quiet and reclusive man, Scofield eschewed a life in London proper. He preferred the countryside where he and his wife, the actress Joy Parker, raised their two children. Married for sixty-five years until his death in 2008, Scofield was blissfully content commuting back and forth, relishing the solitude of the train whenever he performed in the West End. He also declined most interviews and never once submitted to being on a TV “chat show” (as they are called in Britain). “It is a snare and a delusion to become too well known,” he once said.
Four years prior to his death, Scofield received the singular (and unique honor) of being voted by his colleagues at the Royal Shakespeare Company as having given the greatest performance of all time in a Shakespeare play (his King Lear). Upon hearing this, he was quoted as being “overwhelmed, astonished and delighted” by their judgment. It obviously meant more to him than a knighthood, as he turned down the honor on three separate occasions (the first time in the 1960s).
With or without a “Sir” affixed to his name, Scofield will forever be mentioned in the same hallowed company as that of his compatriots from that era, all of whom accepted their titles (ladies included): Dames Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson and, of course, Olivier. As Richard Burton once said, “Of the ten greatest moments in the theatre, eight are Scofield’s.”
Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway is available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.