Oscar-winner Scofield dies aged 86

Oscar-winning actor Paul Scofield, who has died aged 86, was one of the greatest British classical actors of his generation. Yet he was a man who shunned publicity and who positively hated talking about himself.

He was renowned as an actor who invariably left his audiences wanting more. And he was also, according to the headlines, "a very private actor", unfailingly polite and courteous but possessed of an impenetrable reserve.

Unlike the stars of today, the man who probably had more classical roles under his belt than any of his contemporaries would not dream of flaunting himself at film premieres.

Once it was said of him: "Only the dead play harder to get."

Scofield was considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, winning an Oscar in 1966 for his portrayal of the Tudor statesman Sir Thomas More in the film of Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons.

And whether on the stage or screen, he was always the dominant figure, with a presence described as "monumental but reassuring" and a voice compared variously to a Rolls-Royce being started up and a sound rumbling up from an antique crypt.

He was noted for being highly selective about the roles he took on, rejecting many scripts put before him, but always with the utmost politeness. And he had, untypically for an actor, a deep dislike of press interviews.

Scofield was appointed a CBE in 1956 after a triumphal appearance in Peter Brook's Hamlet in Moscow.

But he more than once rejected a knighthood - because he wanted to remain "plain Mister". He once said: "If you want a title, what's wrong with Mr? If you have always been that, then why lose your title? But it's not political. I have a CBE, which I accepted very gratefully."

In the 2001 New Year Honours, he became a Companion of Honour, which ranks with a knighthood, but is more select in that only 65 people are allowed to hold it at any one time.

The roles for which he was probably most famous were as the tormented composer Salieri in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, and as Sir Thomas More in the film of Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. It was the latter performance which won him an Oscar in 1966.

David Paul Scofield was born on 21 January 1922 at Hurstpierpoint, Sussex, where his father was the village schoolmaster. He was educated at Varndean School for Boys, in Brighton, where, wearing blond plaits, he played Juliet and Rosalind.

At the age of 17, he left school and went straight to Croydon Repertory Theatre to train as a professional actor. He remained an actor from that date onwards, with remarkably few periods of unemployment.

His first professional role was a walk-on part in Desire Under The Elms at the Westminster Theatre in 1940. His first real break came when he joined Basil C Langton's touring company in Birmingham in 1942. He played Horatio in Hamlet, and his wife-to-be Joy Parker played Ophelia. They married in 1943.

He returned to Birmingham and the repertory company where his most notable roles were as Konstantin in The Seagull, Philip the Bastard in King John, and Doctor Wangel in Ibsen's The Lady From The Sea.

It was towards the end of the war, that Scofield met Peter Brook, and a lifelong friendship ensued.

Scofield went to Stratford for three years, where he played some of the great Shakespearean roles, including Henry V, Lucio in Measure For Measure, Mercutio in Romeo And Juliet, a long, blond-haired Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Pericles, rounding off that period with a highly-acclaimed performance of Hamlet - and he was still only 26.

His career never faltered. Although his first love was the stage, he appeared in more than a dozen films, including Robert Redford's film Quiz Show in 1995, while his TV work included the BBC's £4 million adaptation of Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit the previous year.

Other roles which brought him fame included Alexander the Great in Adventure Story, written for him by Terence Rattigan, the whisky priest in The Power And The Glory, King Lear, Frederic in Anouilh's Ring Around The Moon, and Macbeth.

Nothing ever induced him to take part in anything unless his seasoned instinct assured him of its rightness. Although, in the early 1990s, he did make one spectacular error of judgment, with an overnight flop called Exclusive by Jeffrey Archer.

The fact that he did not enjoy parties and discouraged media contact did not mean he was reclusive in his home at Balcombe, West Sussex.

Once he said: "People always ask me what I do down there, and it seems so silly. I mean, there's everything to do. There are very good walks - I like to go walking."

He also enjoyed riding, cycling and savoured the wind and rain in his holiday home on a Scottish island.

Scofield leaves a widow, a son and a daughter.