Denis Quilley, a booming-voiced British actor who starred in several major West End musicals and was a mainstay at the National Theater, died Sunday Oct. 5 of cancer. He was 75.
Quilley first became ill during the run of the National’s recent revival of the 1930’s Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes.” Poor health prevented him from rejoining the cast to play the Yale-obsessed Elisha Whitney — the delightfully dim boss of the show’s young male lead, Billy Crocker — for the West End transfer this month of director Trevor Nunn’s hit production.
In 1980, Quilley won the Society of West End Theaters Award — the precursor to the Olivier, London’s equivalent of the Tony — for playing the title role of the murderous barber in “Sweeney Todd,” opposite Sheila Hancock, at the Theater Royal Drury Lane.
Quilley returned to the same Stephen Sondheim musical, although in a different production, during the 1990s in a National revival that found him playing Judge Turpin and eventually the title role again (this time opposite Julia McKenzie).
In 1990 and 1991, he appeared in National revivals of Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal,” co-starring Jane Asher and John Neville, and Webster’s “The White Devil.” Quilley starred with George Hearn in the 1986 London premiere of the Tony-winning musical “La Cage aux Folles,” inheriting the role originated on Broadway by Gene Barry.
But he also was well known for his work in straight plays and the classics, more often than not at the National. He was frequently sighted on the 168 bus, traveling to the South Bank complex from his home in the leafy north London area of Hampstead.
From 1971 to 1976, parts he essayed for the National include Macbeth; Caliban in “The Tempest”; Jamie in a famous production of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” alongside Laurence Olivier and Constance Cummings; and Claudius in “Hamlet.”
In 2000, Quilley returned to “Hamlet,” this time doubling as the Gravedigger and as an unusually humane Polonius; Quilley’s Hamlet on this occasion was Simon Russell Beale, the senior actor’s colleague in a National revival of the Leonard Bernstein musical “Candide.”
In 2001, Quilley appeared alongside Russell Beale as Diana Rigg’s suitor in the National premiere of Charlotte Jones’ play “Humble Boy.” Quilley and Rigg previously partnered during the 1980s in a Chichester Festival production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Quilley started his career at the Birmingham Repertory Theater in 1945. He had long runs on London’s West End during the 1950s in “Wild Thyme” and “Grab Me a Gondola.”
In 1977, he won his first SWET kudo as the high-camp military man Terri Dennis in the Peter Nichols play-with-music “Privates on Parade.” Quilley played Dennis again opposite John Cleese in Michael Blakemore’s 1982 film version of “Privates.” In 1978, he starred in the London stage premiere of “Deathtrap,” Ira Levin’s long-running Broadway thriller.
His films also include “Life at the Top,” “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Mr. Johnson” and “King David.” On televison he played Lord Curzon in “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia,” starring Ralph Fiennes.
Quilley is survived by his wife, Stella, and a son and two daughters.