Basil Langton, British-born actor whose roles ranged from Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1941 to a guest-starring role in the “Star Trek: Voyager” TV pilot, died Thursday May 29 at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., after a brief illness. He was 91.
Clifton, Bristol, native grew up in Canada and became an actor and director for the Vancouver Little Theater. Inspired by a 1932 performance of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” starring Donald Wolfit (whom he would later understudy as Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon before playing the role himself in a later production at the same theater), he received a scholarship to the School of Dance Mime in Devon, England. He later traveled as a puppeteer and studied art and dance, during which he met prima ballerina Louise Soelberg, who was to become his first wife.
Opted for acting instead of dance himself, he became an apprentice at The Shakespeare Memorial Theater at Stratford, then appeared in the West End play “The Hangman.”
In 1936 he returned to Stratford to work with director Theadore Komisarjevsky, who cast him in a London production of “Antony and Cleopatra” and James M. Barrie’s “The Boy David.”
He subsequently understudied Laurence Olivier in “Macbeth” at The Old Vic, was Ralph in the London premiere of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” and joined the faculty of the St. Denis’s London Theatre Studio as a teacher of acting, where Peter Ustinov was one of his students.
Other roles included Sebastian to Peggy Ashcroft’s Viola in “Twelfth Night” and with Michael Redgrave and George Devine in “The White Guard.”
He also understudied Ivor Novello in “The Dancing Years” at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1939, as well as being cast in the St. Denis London production of “The Cherry Orchard” with Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinnes and George Devine.
The production was canceled when war was declared, and this was also defning moment for him: He registered as a conscientious objector despite an asthmatic condition that would have precluded his acceptance into the armed forces. He subsequently felt ostracized by actors and staff at Stratford, and after WWII he moved to America. (But during the conflict, he served as an actor manager with the Travelling Repertory Theatre, which included Paul Scofield, Margaret Leighton, Eric Porter, Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike.)
In America, he acted in Broadway productions of “The Affair,” “Camelot,” and “Soldiers,” in addition to many TV roles. He also directed many legit productions, including Feydeau farce “13 Rue de L’Amour” on Broadway with Louis Jourdan.
In addition, he taught at the Manhattan School of Music, UCLA, Catholic University, and Sarah Lawrence College. For the Santa Fe Opera, he directed the world premiere of “Yerma” by Villa Lobos.
Two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts allowed him to stage concert versions of John Philip Sousa’s comic operas “The Free Lance and “The Bride Elect,” the latter of which received an ASCAP award.
In the 1950s he was executive Producer of the Empire State Music Festival, which commissioned and produced “The Emperor Jones” and the U.S. premiere of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with music by Carl Orff, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
Here are just a few of his many other career highlights:
- He directed “The Devil’s Disciple” in Cleveland, the first television broadcast of a play by Bernard Shaw in America.
- In 1948 he was invited by Walter Kerr, then head of the theater department at Catholic University, to be artist in residence, and staged “Heartbreak House” and “King Lear.”
- In 1951 he produced the first Shaw festival in America (at the Rice Playhouse on Martha’s Vineyard).
- In 1957 he instituted and directed the “Poets and Playwrights” series at the Donnell Branch of the New York Public Library.
- He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to do research concerning the stagecraft of Bernard Shaw.
- His photographs of such artists as Henry Moore, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Miro, Giorgio di Chirico, Thomas Hart Benton and David Hockney were exhibited LACMA and NYC’s Metropolitan Museum.
His first marriage, to dancer Louise Soelberg ended in divorce, as did his second, to actress Nancy Wickwire. He is survived by Judith Searle, his companion of 36 years; a daughter, Jessica L. Andrews, now managing director of the Arizona Theater Company; two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Donations can be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund or the Actors’ Fund of America.