Guy Rolfe

Matinée idol turned character actor with a penchant for portraying villains
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The Independent Online

Edwin Arthur Rolfe (Guy Rolfe), actor: born London 27 December 1911; married first Jane Aird (deceased), second Margaret Allworthy; died Ipswich, Suffolk 19 October 2003.

Guy Rolfe was a very tall, lean actor with saturnine good looks who was on the way to becoming one of the screen's major matinée idols when, shortly after making one of his finest films, The Spider and the Fly, his career was curtailed by serious illness.

He went on to become a reliable character actor, with a notable penchant for portraying villains, such as the treacherous Prince John in Ivanhoe. His gaunt presence, reminiscent of Hollywood's John Carradine, also graced several horror films, and he became known to a new audience in the Nineties with his portrayal of the insane André Toulon in the series of "Puppet Master" films.

Born Edwin Arthur Rolfe in Kilburn, London, in 1911, and educated at a state school, "Guy" Rolfe had brief careers as a racing driver and boxer before making his stage début in Ireland in 1935. He then worked in repertory in the UK, and made his film début with a fleeting role in the lavish Korda production Knight Without Armour (1937) starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat and directed by Jacques Feyder. Another Korda production, The Drum (1938), directed by Zoltan Korda, followed.

After the Second World War Rolfe returned to the screen with further small roles, in such films as Carol Reed's masterly drama Odd Man Out (1946, as a policeman) and Charles Frank's ripe melodrama Uncle Silas (1947) before finally making a strong impact when cast as the pilot of a passenger aeroplane that crashes in the Alps in Ken Annakin's Broken Journey (1947). A weak comedy, Fools Rush In (1948), in which he played the father of a panic-stricken bride (Sally Ann Howes), preceded his starring role in Terence Fisher's intriguing mystery Portrait from Life (1948).

The leading performances won praise in this compelling drama in which Rolfe played a British army officer who helps an Austrian professor (Arnold Marle) track down his missing daughter (Mai Zetterling), after her likeness is noted in a picture painted by an alcoholic artist (Robert Beatty). Rolfe then had the finest of his leading-man roles, that of a brilliant safe-cracker in the Paris of 1913 in Robert Hamer's The Spider and the Fly (1949).

The audacious talent of the criminal wins the admiration of the police chief (Eric Portman), with whom he plays a series of cat-and-mouse games. Rolfe said at the time, "A strange friendship based on mutual respect develops." When the policeman is given a position in espionage detection prior to the outbreak of the First World War, he enlists the criminal's help in cracking an enemy safe that holds a list of spies operating in France. The film, a superior blend of suspense, sophistication, wit, romance and irony, consolidated Rolfe's stardom.

He then played leading man to Jean Kent in the Napoleonic romp The Reluctant Widow (1950) and was given top billing in Prelude to Fame (1950), as the music patron who discovers a child prodigy (Jeremy Spenser) in Italy. Then came a bitter irony. Rolfe was cast in one of the three stories by Somerset Maugham that formed the basis for the compendium film Trio (1950). In Sanatorium, the third and most substantial of the episodes, Rolfe was to play a retired army officer, a philanderer who finds true love with a fellow patient (Jean Simmons) at a TB sanatorium and marries her though knowing that one or both of them may die. The director Ken Annakin explained, "Guy was dropped when, sadly, he actually came down with consumption like the character in the film." He was replaced by the equally lean Michael Rennie.

Although Rolfe was out of circulation for less than a year, the impetus of his career was lost, and he returned to the screen in a B movie, Home to Danger (1951). His co-star Rona Anderson told the historian Brian McFarlane,

Guy was a strange, very saturnine man who used to play vingt-et-un for money - and always used to win - while we were sitting around on the set. I was rather dubious about him, but one day I had a scene where I had to ride a horse, but the thing went out of control. I couldn't make it stop . . . The next thing I knew, I was lying in the mud and who should be picking me up and wrapping me in his camel-hair coat but Guy Rolfe, so I changed my opinion of him after that.

He settled into a career as a character actor, frequently cast as goateed villains. He was splendid as the wicked usurper Prince John in Richard Thorpe's lively version of Ivanhoe (1952) and as the scheming Ned Seymour who sends his own brother to the executioner's block in George Sidney's Young Bess (1953). The latter film was made in Hollywood, and during his brief stay in the film capital Rolfe also played the leader of rebel tribesmen in Henry King's rousing King of the Khyber Rifles (1953) and an evil vizier in George Sherman's Veils of Bagdad (1953).

Later roles included a rare comic role as a sea captain trying to conceal from a visiting admiral the presence of girls on his ship in Girls at Sea (1958) and the troubled padre in Val Guest's bleak war movie Yesterday's Enemy (1959). He was top-billed as an officer in the India of 1826 uncovering a cult of killer thuggees in The Stranglers of Bombay (1959), made by Hammer Films in a process they called "Strangloscope". He was Caiphas in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961), and played the title role of a man whose face has been frozen into a wide grin in Mr Sardonicus (1961). He also featured in the epic productions Taras Bulba (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1963) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). Occasional television work included roles in The Saint, The Avengers and Space 1999.

In 1991 Rolfe became known to fans of gory horror movies with his portrayal of Toulon, the kindly but crazed creator of living puppets who wages war against a group of Nazis who want to create an army of zombies in Puppet Master III: Toulon's revenge. He played the same character in Puppet Master 4 (1993), Puppet Master 5: the final chapter (1994) and Retro Puppet Master (1999).

Rolfe's first wife was the Scottish actress Jane Aird, who had a supporting role in one of his films, Dance Little Lady (1954). She predeceased him, and he is survived by his second wife, Margaret.

Tom Vallance