British actor Dirk Bogarde, who segued from frothy comedies to serious dramas like “The Servant” and “Death in Venice,” died of a heart attack Saturday at his London home. He was 78.

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1992 upon his return to England after living for many years as a tax exile in France, Bogarde largely gave up acting after 1977 except for two TV movies and Bertrand Tavernier’s “Daddy Nostalgie” in 1990. He largely devoted his later years to his four-volume memoir and writing popular novels.

But in his prime, during the 1950s and ’60s, he was one of the most popular English male stars, with more than 40 films to his credit. The rare Hollywood project he made, such as “Song Without End,” did not test his abilities to the extent that director Joseph Losey did in “The Servant,” “Accident,” “Modesty Blaise” and “King and Country.” Or Luchino Visconti in “The Damned” and “Death in Venice.” Or John Schlesinger in “Darling.”

Bogarde didn’t scale the heights of histrionics in the manner of his notable countrymen like Laurence Olivier or Peter O’Toole. His famous cocked eyebrow was usually the extent of his external emotional exposure.

Artistic heritage

The son of London Times art critic Ulric Van Den Bogaerde and actress Margaret Niven, Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven Van den Bogaerde was born in the London borough of Hampstead. He attended University College School in London and Allan Glens College in Glasgow, Scotland.

Painting was his first love, and at age 12, he entered the Chelsea School of Art and at 16 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art — but acting was his overriding passion. He started in set construction and gradually worked his way up to a stage role at the Q theater as the juvenile in “When We Are Married,” in 1939, which was followed by roles in “Cornelius,” “You Never Can Tell” and the revue “Diversion.” He also snared an extra role in the 1940 film “Come on George.”

The war intervened, tearing him away from the play “The Ghost Train.” He tried to be a signaler in the Royal Corps of Signals but spent some of the war in the cookhouse and finally as part of the Dramatic Society. He ventured as far as Calcutta, Java and Malaysia over the next five years, earning his lieutenant stripes.

After playing Jesus Christ in a children’s play, he landed an early television role in a production of “Rope” and segued into the stage drama “Power Without Glory” in 1947 (which was later adapted to TV). Based on the strength of that performance, the J. Arthur Rank Organization signed him to a long-term contract.

Debuted on ‘Waters’

His official film debut was the period piece “Esther Waters,” followed by a role in “Quartet,” based on four Somerset Maugham short stories. But it was “The Blue Lamp” in 1950, in which he played a petty crook, that made him a star in England. In the same year, he appeared with Jean Simmons in “So Long at the Fair,” a thriller, following it with similarly dramatic fare such as “The Woman in Question” and “Desperate Moment.”

He was also busy in the theater during the 1950s in Jean Anoulih’s “Point of Departure,” Noel Coward’s “The Vortex,” and, later, Ugo Betti’s “Summertime” and Anouilh’s “Jezebel.”

He won some theater roles on TV during his career including “Little Moon of Alban” and “Blithe Spirit,” both on NBC in the 1960s. But there was hardly time for theater since he had become one of the top male film stars in England, largely as a result of a series of comedies starting with “Doctor in the House” in 1954 and “Doctor at Sea,” “Doctor at Large” and “Doctor in Distress.”

He mixed the comedies with light dramas including “Cast a Dark Shadow” (as a villain); “A Tale of Two Cities”; and George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma.”

He played a dual role in the 1959 courtroom drama “Libel,” and then tried his hand at big-budget Hollywood fare with “Song Without End,” and “The Angel Wore Red” (stepping in for Montgomery Clift). He turned down roles in other films such as “Gigi and “The Egyptian” and almost played the title role in Anthony Asquith’s proposed “Lawrence of Arabia,” which was scrapped.

The campy 1962 melodrama “The Singer Not the Song” seemed to be taking Bogarde further afield, but fortunately his stock as an actor was saved by “Victim” in 1961 (the year his Rank contract expired). The film was X-rated in Britain and notable in that Bogarde was the first major star to play a gay man on screen. As a lawyer threatened with blackmail, the drama was a major U.S. arthouse hit, though it could not play wider because it did not receive the Production Code seal of approval. Daily Variety wrote that Bogarde, “gives what is probably the performance of his career to date — subtle, sensitive and strong.”

Breaking with tradition

It was not until “The Servant,” in 1963, that Bogarde finally broke clean of his handsome leading-man roles. Already in his early 40s, he gave in to middle age as the clever manservant in the outstanding Harold Pinter drama. He won the British Film Academy Award as best actor and repeated the feat two years later as Julie Christie’s patient lover in “Darling.”

Another Pinter script directed by Losey, “Accident” in 1967, was not as well appreciated, but significant nonetheless, as was “King and Country” and the comic book comedy “Modesty Blaise.” Another strong performance was in Jack Clayton’s “Our Mother’s House.” Other pics included the 1968 thriller “Sebastian,” “Oh What a Lovely War,” “The Fixer” and “Justine.”

But it was his role in Visconti’s “The Damned,” as a ruthless business man, that made him an international star. And it was followed in 1971 by “Death in Venice,” regarded as his best performance. But internationally financed productions like “The Serpent” in 1973, the TV film “Upon this Rock,” as well as “The Night Porter” all went awry.

Alain Resnais’ “Providence” was probably the last film that gave him the opportunity to really shine. After making Fassbinder’s version of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Despair,” which he claimed the director re-edited beyond recognition, Bogarde called it quits.

There was occasional TV work in “The Patricia Neal Story” in 1981, “May We Borrow Your Husband,” which Bogarde adapted from Graham Greene, in 1986, and “William Nicholson’s “The Vision” in 1988. Tavernier’s “Daddy Nostalgie” was not so much a return as a desire to work with the noted French director.

Bogarde lived in Grasse until he returned to England in 1991 at the request of his manager and longtime companion Tony Forwood, who was dying of cancer. In France he wrote four volumes of his autobiography titled “A Postillion Struck By Lightning,” “Snakes & Ladders,” “An Orderly Man,” and “Backcloth”; a collection of letters titled “A Particular Friendship” and various novels, including “A Gentle Occupation,” “Voices in the Garden,” and “West of Sunset.”

Bogarde said he would like his ashes scattered in France.