British actor Brian Bedford died on Wednesday, after a two-year battle with cancer, in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 80.
Bedford, known most recently for his stint as Lady Bracknell in a 2011 Broadway revival of “The Importance of Being Ernest,” appeared in many productions on Broadway, winning the Tony for best actor in a play in 1971 for his performance in a revival of Molière’s comedy “The School for Wives.” He was known for his interpretations of the French playwright’s work, and was also nominated for a Tony in 1995 for “The Molière Comedies,” a pairing of the plays “The School for Husbands” and “The Imaginary Cuckold,” and in 2003 for his work in Molière’s “Tartuffe.” He also appeared on Broadway in two revivals of the playwright’s “The Misanthrope,” in 1969 and 1983.
But Bedford was also an extraordinary interpreter of Shakespeare who drew a 1994 Tony nomination for best actor in a play for a revival of “Timon of Athens.”
He received his first Tony nomination in 1992 for “Two Shakespearean Actors” and another for his work in Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance” in 1997.
In 2011 the New York Times’ Ben Brantley said of Bedford, “He is perhaps the finest English-language interpreter of classical comedy of his generation, and he seems to pick up a Tony nomination every time he steps on a Broadway stage.” Bedford is “best known as a classical actor of uncommon emotional transparency and hair-trigger timing, particularly in plays by Shakespeare and Molière.”
Bedford appeared in the 1966 film “Grand Prix,” starring James Garner; attempted series regular television in 1967 with CBS’ short-lived “Coronet Blue”; and voiced Robin Hood in the 1973 Disney film of the same name.
Bedford was with Canada’s celebrated Stratford Shakespeare Festival, held in Ontario, for almost three decades, and he credited the festival with making his career. “I wanted to have a typical, classical English actor’s career doing Shakespeare and the classics. That’s what Stratford has provided for me, so that’s why I say it’s made my life,” he told CBC News in 2011.
Before essaying Lady Bracknell at Stratford, he had starred in and directed a production of “King Lear.”
He was forced to withdraw from a touring production of “The Last Confession” in 2014 and from a production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the festival in 2013, both due to illness, according to CBC News.
The actor’s most notable Shakespearean efforts were Ariel in “The Tempest” opposite John Gielgud’s Prospero in 1958; Angelo in “Measure for Measure” at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1975 and 1976; and the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions of “As You Like It” (as Orlando) and “Timon of Athens” (as Timon), the latter based on a production he originated with the National Actors Theatre in 1993 and eventually played Broadway.
Bedford was born in Morley, West Riding of Yorkshire, where he was raised in poverty. Leaving school at 15, he joined an amateur theater group in Bradford. From 1952-54 he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London; his classmates included Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Alan Bates. He was “subsequently part of a glittering West End clique that included John Gielgud and the all-powerful theater mogul Hugh Beaumont,” according to the New York Times. Gielgud was his most influential mentor.
He made his Broadway debut in 1959 in a production of Peter Shaffer’s “Five Finger Exercise.”
Bedford was a friend of the late socialite Brooke Astor.