Geoffrey Toone

Handsome actor who was a member of Gielgud's New Theatre company
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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Toone, actor: born Dublin 15 November 1910; died Northwood, Middlesex 1 June 2005.

One of the last surviving members of the glorious company venture of John Gielgud's 1934-35 season at the New Theatre (now the Albery) - probably now only Frith Banbury and Sam Beazley outlive him - Geoffrey Toone's work covered a remarkable range, including classical plays, the frothiest of West End comedies, Hollywood movies and a later career on British television, usually playing top-brass military men or legal bigwigs. Had it not been for the interruption of the Second World War and a lengthy 1950s sojourn in America just as the British theatre was undergoing a sea-change, his career surely would have continued at a higher level.

Although born in Dublin, Toone was given an ultra-conventional English education, first at Charterhouse and then at Christ's College, Cambridge. He was part of a dazzling Cambridge late-1920s generation, aesthetically still heavily under Bloomsbury's spell; contemporaries included Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Malcolm Lowry, John Davenport, Julian Bell (son of Clive and Vanessa Bell), Humphrey Jennings and William Empson, already a published poet (Toone was one of the many supporters who protested publicly at the authorities' decision to send Empsom down when condoms were discovered in his room).

Many of these were also active members of an impressive group of undergraduate actors - Toone, Robert Eddison and Michael Redgrave, all three coincidentally unusually tall with distinctively rich voices and commanding stage presences - much encouraged by King's College's truffle-hound of talent George ("Dadie") Rylands.

Toone's Cambridge acting career included several Shakespearean productions under Rylands, usually for the Marlowe Society, but he scored his main triumphs in the "Smokers" - cabaret-style revue evenings in the cosy ADC Theatre in Park Street - in partnership with his great friend Arthur Marshall, not then the portly figure of Call My Bluff but renowned for his Cambridge performances in female roles. Their act was often extremely camp, with much innuendo-packed backchat:

"Are you feeling hysterical?"

"No, he's feeling mine."

Toone's early stage ambitions had been confirmed in Cambridge but his instinct that he needed to acquire more technique took him to the Old Vic for a brief period of training, a time in 1931 which also saw his professional début there in walk-on roles. His strikingly handsome looks quickly found him regular work; he played Peter of Pomfret in King John (Sadler's Wells, 1931) and then took off for a year-long tour of the West Indies. A festival season at Malvern in 1934 saw Toone shine in an impressive variety of roles, including the testing, complex character of Darroll Blake in Denis Johnston's The Moon in the Yellow River.

When Gielgud planned his West End classical seasons - in effect the nearest thing to an English ensemble in the capital between the Irving-Tree era and the 1960s birth of the two main subsidised companies - he designed the company consciously as a bridge between generations. The team ranged from veterans of Sir Frank Benson's Stratford companies and West End established stars (Edith Evans, Laurence Olivier) to new talents, to many of whom he gave first or early breaks, including Alec Guinness, Jessica Tandy, Peggy Ashcroft and Toone.

In Gielgud's own Edward Gordon Craig-inspired production of Hamlet (New, 1934), Toone was towering and eloquent as Fortinbras. He made even more of an impact as a fiery Tybalt in the Romeo and Juliet (New, 1935) which alternated Gielgud and Olivier as Romeo and Mercutio to Ashcroft's Juliet. His virile athleticism was a great asset in the part, although he had to be especially vigilant in swordfights with Gielgud, never the most convincing stage-duellist: having already wounded (quite badly) Glen Byam Shaw's Laertes in Hamlet, Gielgud still managed almost to sever Toone's thumb in Romeo and Juliet ("I was supposed to be dead and I lay on the ground with huge drops of blood dripping into my gauntlet").

An even more challenging Shakespearian chance came Toone's way when he played Posthumus - tenderly humanising a difficult and often seemingly dull role - in Cymbeline (Embassy, 1937). In marked but typical contrast he then tackled a tricky American play in a less than successful version of Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth (Palace, 1938).

After distinguished wartime service with the Royal Artillery from 1939, Toone was invalided out in 1942, spending most of the rest of the war in another American piece, Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine (Aldwych, 1943). He returned to Gielgud for a 1944 Hamlet (Haymarket), directed somewhat ponderously by Rylands, with Toone now a volatile, highly emotional Laertes. With Gielgud directing - and characteristically changing his mind every five minutes - he also appeared in The Last of Summer (Phoenix, 1944), a feeble adaptation by Gielgud's ex-lover John Perry of Kate O'Brien's novel. It was a rapid flop.

Both Gielgud and his regular producer Hugh ("Binkie") Beaumont, of the mighty H.M. Tennent operation, greatly respected Toone's talent and he was cast as Lord Windermere in an all-star revival of Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (Haymarket, 1945). He was one of the few actors to emerge with much credit from Gielgud's indecisive production, somewhat swamped under a riot of Cecil Beaton's most extravagant draperies and lavish costumes, although post-war audiences starved of colour adored it.

Toone was pleased, when he made his first Broadway appearance, to be reunited with his Cambridge friend Michael Redgrave, playing a much-praised virile Banquo to Redgrave's ferocious thane in Macbeth (National, New York, 1948), a performance followed by characteristic versatility when he returned to the UK to tour in Ivor Novello's Regency musical Perchance to Dream (1950).

One of Toone's biggest successes - and his longest commercial run - was as the muscular, mysterious "Stranger" in Nancy Mitford's version of Andrew Roussin's The Little Hut (Lyric, 1950) with Robert Mosley, directed by no less an eminence (not grey then) than Peter Brook.

From 1953 to 1957 Toone based himself in Los Angeles when an intended brief professional visit, because of affairs of the heart, considerably extended itself. He became part of a discreetly homosexual Hollywood and made several enduring friendships there, with George Cukor and Rock Hudson included. That period included a surprising range of US television work, running the gamut from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to, much to his own delight, the Western series Cheyenne.

On his return to England parts rarely were so meaty as before and Toone seemed to be awkward to cast in an altered theatre. Beauregard in Auntie Mame (Adelphi, 1958) with Beatrice Lillie was a thankless role requiring little more than his still-impressive physical presence and aristocratic air, while the Old Vic could come up with nothing better than the French Constable in Henry V (Old Vic and European tour, 1964). His old employer Beaumont, aware of his Irish background, shrewdly cast him in a sumptuous The Rivals (Haymarket, 1966) in which Toone's splenetic dash as Sir Lucius O'Trigger was memorable.

Those who saw it still remember his Judge Brack, a sleekly well-fed, middle-aged sensualist drawn as much to the chase as to its consummation in a powerful Hedda Gabler (Leicester Haymarket, 1969); this was his finest later-career performance. Barry England's Conduct Unbecoming (Queen's, 1977) offered Toone little to challenge him. The London Palladium housed him for another lengthy run when he played the suave manager Max in the musical Hans Andersen (1976), while he was ideal casting for the world of C.S. Lewis's academe in William Nicolson's Shadowlands (Queen's, 1989) with Nigel Hawthorne.

As Sir Edward Ramsay, Toone was the perfect representative of the Empire in the Hollywood movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1956) while other films - like his television work, often seeing him cast as establishment and military figures - include Zero Hour (1957), Once More With Feeling (1960) and a splendidly batty chiller titled Terror of the Tongs (1961).

On television his work covered as varied projects as an early Dr Who, an appearance - as Lord Ridgemere - in a classic episode of Only Fools and Horses ("A Touch of Glass") and several episodes of Jeeves and Wooster (1991-93) as Lord Brittleham. Toone also appeared in episodes of most of the leading series of his time, including New Scotland Yard, The Troubleshooters, Colditz and Sutherland's Law, while he had good opportunities in the historical series Churchill's People and Fall of Eagles, in War and Remembrance (as an imperturbable British ambassador) and as the redoubtable General Wiezel in Apocalypse Watch (1997).

For the latter period of his life Toone shared a house with his fellow actor Frank Middlemass; the friends made a much-liked pair at many first nights over the years until Toone finally went into the actors' home of Denville Hall.

Alan Strachan