Lynn Redgrave: Much-loved member of acting dynasty who was celebrated for her comic flair

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lynn Redgrave was a fine actress who had many individual triumphs – she was twice nominated for an Oscar, nominated three times for a Tony and had notable achievements on screen, stage and television. Her first big success, the film Georgy Girl (1966), was a key film of the "Swinging Sixties" and won Oscar nominations for Redgrave and for its potent title song, written by Tom Springfield and Jim Dale and sung by the Australian group The Seekers. Three decades later she was nominated again for her feisty but caring housekeeper in Gods and Monsters (1998).

Her stage roles encompassed the farcical capers of the National's legendary Hay Fever of 1964 and the searing emotion of the one-woman play she wrote, Shakespeare For My Father, an autobiographical work that enabled her to come to terms with the traumas of her upbringing. She was part of an acting dynasty – her parents were Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, and her older siblings were Vanessa and Corin Redgrave – and on her own admission she suffered from a lack of self esteem because of a troubled relationship with her famous but remote father and the shadow cast by her more glamorous siblings. "It was always, 'Corin's the brain, Vanessa's the shining star, oh, and then there's Lynn.'"

Also, Lynn was not as politically committed as her sister and brother, and sometimes held opposing views. The differences between the sisters led to a temporary estrangement, but Lynn made headlines of her own when she sued a TV network for not letting her breastfeed her child on set, and later she features in one of the most sensational divorce cases of recent times. Despite the traumas, those who knew Redgrave echo Sir Michael Parkinson's description of her as "maybe the jolliest and most likeable of all the family."

Born in London in 1943, she was to recall a childhood spent largely in the nursery, rarely seeing her parents. She said of her father, "I really didn't know him. I lived in his house. I was in awe of him and I adored him, and I was terrified of him and I hated him and I loved him, all in one go." She was educated at Queen's Gate School then attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, despite little encouragement from her family. Michael Redgrave wrote in his diary, "This strange, shy pudding of a child thought she was going to be an actress."

She made her stage debut as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Court in 1962, and later the same year made her first appearance in the West End, in N.C. Hunter's The Tulip Tree with Celia Johnson and John Clements at the Haymarket Theatre. In 1963 she was asked by Sir Laurence Olivier to join the newNational Theatre Company at the Old Vic, playing a Court Lady in the inaugural production of Hamlet, directed by Olivier.

During the next two years she gained invaluable experience in several supporting roles, her parts including that of the scatterbrained flapper Jackie Coryton in the peerless revival of Noel Coward's Hay Fever (1964), which none of us who saw it will ever forget. Directed by the author, it featured Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi and Robert Stephens in a priceless cast and matchless performance, with Lynn working comic wonders with a string of beads.

During this golden era for the National, Redgrave also played Rose in The Recruiting Officer (1963), Miss Prue in Love for Love (with Olivier) and Margaret in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Much Ado About Nothing (1965), with Albert Finney, Smith and Stephens. Though she made her screen debut as an extra in Michael Winner's B-movie, Shoot to Kill (1960), she had her first speaking part on screen as a barmaid crying "Rape" in Tom Jones (1963), directed by Vanessa's the husband, Tony Richardson, and she followed it with an engaging, BAFTA-nominated portrayal of Rita Tushingham's best friend Barba in Desmond Davis's The Girl With Green Eyes (1964), a sensitive, rueful adaptation of Edna O'Brien's novel The Lost Girl.

In 1966 she was cast in the title role in Silvio Narizzano's Georgy Girl, as the plump Ugly Duckling with a glamorous room-mate (Charlotte Rampling). It was a deliciously brash, funny and touching performance which won her accolades and made her a star. She tied with Elizabeth Taylor for the New York Film Critics best actress award, and was beaten by Taylor (in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) for the best actress Oscar.

Smashing Time (1967) teamed her again with Tushingham in a film even more redolent of the Sixties, with its "dolly birds", mini-skirts and outlandish sunglasses. Redgrave then displayed her flair for drama in A Deadly Affair (1967), which reunited her with her Georgy Girl co-star James Mason. In 1967, the year she married actor-director John Clark, who became her manager (he had been the BBC's first Just William on radio in the 1940s) she made a triumphant Broadway debut with a hilarious performance in Peter Shaffer's brilliant one-act farce, Black Comedy, with Michael Crawford. She developed a strong affection for New York, and her outgoing performances on talk and game shows made her a popular television attraction.

She returned to the UK for more theatre work, including Born Yesterday, directed by Tom Stoppard in Greenwich in 1973 – the dumb blonde, Billie Dawn, who develops a hunger for knowledge, was one of her favourite roles. In 1974, the year she had a personal success on Broadway in My Fat Friend, playing Vicky, an overweight young woman who sheds fat to find romance, she settled in the US, where she co-hosted a syndicated chat show, Not For Women Only. She also co-starred in the TV series House Calls (1979-81), based on the Glenda Jackson-Walter Matthau comedy in which a hospital administrator is frequently at odds with the doctor she loves.

Though the show lasted until 1982, Redgrave made a sudden departure in 1981 due to a dispute with the producers, who refused to allow her to breastfeed on set. Redgrave took CBS to court for a long and expensive battle. Though she lost the case, which made her bankrupt, she is credited with changing executives' attitudes to the needs of mothers.

She also starred in two more TV sitcoms, Teachers Only (1982-83), set in the staff-rooms of a high-school, and Chicken Soup (1989-90), in which her co-star was Jackie Mason. As a result of shedding many pounds, she also became a television spokesperson for Weight Watchers products. Her catchphrase for the advertisements, "This is Living" became the title of her semi-autobiographical book, which also included favourite slimming recipes and dealt with her battle with bulimia.

Her film career was sporadic, but included Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), as The Queen, who is given an aphrodisiac by the court jester (Allen) who then finds he cannot open her chastity belt, plus another role that Redgrave used to cite as one of her favourites, that of the real-life "madam" Xaviera Hollander in The Happy Hooker (1975), which recounted how the Dutch secretary left her dull office job and became a high-class prostitute.

On Broadway, Redgrave won her first Tony nomination for her performance in Mrs Warren's Profession (1976). She won the Sarah Siddons award as best actress for a Chicago production of Misalliance, and toured in The King and I. It is surprising that she did not appear in more musicals: in 1979 she sang on the first of several albums for producer Ben Bagley, who specialised in unearthing rare songs by the great popular composers. Among the numbers she handled adroitly were a delightfully droll duet with Arthur Siegal, "The Letter Song", cut from Rodgers and Hart's score for Love Me Tonight, and Cole Porter's wry "Why Marry Them?"

In 1991, while Lynn and Vanessa were appearing together with Vanessa's daughter Jemma in The Three Sisters (Lynn was Masha), she and Vanessa had a major falling-out over the Gulf War when Vanessa called the Americans "imperialist pigs". Though it caused a deep rift, the following year they bravely followed in the footsteps of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford by starring in a TV movie remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with Lynn in the Davis role.

In 1993 turned the autobiographical section of her book into a one-woman play, Shakespeare for My Father, produced and directed by her husband, in which she tried to understand and come to terms with her feelings for her father, and how much his behaviour was determined by his own demons. It proved a rewarding and moving experience, which won Redgrave a Tony nomination and drew praise and enthusiastic audiences on Broadway, throughout the US, and at London's Haymarket Theatre. I met her during its run, and found her indeed open, frank, ebullient and friendly.

After seven years away from the screen she returned with two impressive performances. In Shine (1996), she played the wife of the true-life mentally disturbed piano prodigy David Helfgott (played by Geoffrey Rush), and in Gods and Monsters (1998), for which she won a deserved Oscar nomination for her hilarious depiction of the sharp but affectionate Hungarian housekeeper to director James Whale (Ian McKellen).

In 1998 Redgrave started divorce proceedings against Clark, and had to survive the sensational publicity. She had discovered that the boy she regarded as her grandson, Zachary, was actually the son of Clark and the couple's former personal assistant, who had then married the couple's son, Ben, and had kept the identity of the boy's father secret until her marriage broke up and Clark once more began to pursue her.

In 2001 she displayed her superb flair for comedy, taking over the role of the daffy repertory actress in Michael Frayn's Noises Off. In 2002 she was awarded the OBE for her services to drama, and in 2005 she joined Vanessa and her niece Natasha in the Merchant-Ivory movie The White Countess.

The same year she won another Tony nomination with an outstanding performance as Mrs Culver in W. Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife. The Hollywood Reporter called her "an utter hoot", while Clive Barnes in the New York Post proclaimed, "Redgrave plays Mrs Culver as a Lady Bracknell-in-waiting, offering an astonishing display of mannered virtuosity and flawless comic style."

She opened in another one-woman play, Nightingale, in 2006. Written by Redgrave, it was partly based on the life of her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson. Last year she made her final television appearance, as a guest star in an episode of Ugly Betty. On 12 April, she attended her brother Corin's funeral, and though it was evident that Lynn was frail, she prompted smiles when she reminisced at the service that Corin once told her how to climb trees but omitted to tell her how to get down again.

Lynn Rachel Redgrave, actress: born London 8 March 1933; OBE 2002; married 1967 John Clark (divorced 2000; one son, two daughters); died Manhattan 2 May 2010.