Obituary: Wolfe Morris

Was there any limit to Wolfe Morris's range as a character actor as long as the character was not ordinary? In a career which stretched over half a century in plays and television drama and a handful of films, he may have turned up as no one in particular once or twice just to fill a corner, but it seems doubtful.

If Wolfe Morris was cast as a nonentity, he could be counted on to turn it into something colourful, distinctive, interesting and arresting.

Not, in the upstager's sense of seizing the limelight when it was meant for others - though that may have happened from time to time in a singularly restless career - but because he had such striking looks, strong eyes, a sturdy build, a swarthy complexion and a reverberant voice which, together, kept our attention whenever he came on.

The Queen Mother, when she was Queen, never forgot her first sight of him as a graduate at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he won the Forbes Robertson and Kendal prizes. Her Majesty saw him as Richard III. I should like to have seen his Othello. But, in these politically correct times, Morris would no doubt be disqualified on numerous grounds, religious as well as racial, for there was nothing Moorish in his roots as far as is known.

Not many actors, however, were more engagingly exotic or more meticulous in wielding that exoticism. Hence his fascinating gallery of foreigners - from the Arab boy in Andre Gide's The Immoralist in one of Peter Hall's earliest London productions at the Arts Theatre Club, to a fearful, roaring, overwhelming Pozzo in a pinstriped suit and bowler hat for the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 1980, or a delicate portrait of Professor Godbole in A Passage To India (Comedy, 1960) in which he convinced E.M. Forster that he was Indian.

What enabled Morris to convince so many of us that he was what he wasn't - even when in fact he must have breached today's abysmal standards of political correctness as a rabbi in The Dybbuk - was the pains he took with every role. His daughter, Shona, used to say that for her father acting was a religion; and why not?

Bigots, braggarts, bullies and other obsessive figures in the margins of any play contribute vitally to the general picture; and Wolfe Morris was nothing if not picturesque. But he never treated stereotypes as stereotypes.

Hence the singularity of all his strangers - Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, Asians, Germans and Boers. The gallery began for me at the old Birmingham Rep in the early 1960s in the British premiere of the Broadway derivation of a famous film, Rashomon. As the rapist-bandit encountered in a shadowy Japanese forest, Morris filled the stage with mystery and dread with his grunts, croaks, squeals and rapid short jumps. Had he been listed in the programme as Wo Mo we must have believed it.

Soon after that, though, he turned up as Karl-Heins Fessel, a fictitious post-war German big-wig in Robert Muller's Night Conspirators, a dark warning to the West End against trusting Germany to behave itself if Hitler or his like were to pop up again. Morris's character had evidently once backed the dictator. The question was: might he not be ready to do so again? And, as usual, the actor added shivers to the hypothesis.

It was, though, on the whole as Orientals or definitely oddbodies that Morris came to the minds of West End casting directors (Tea House of the August Moon, Charley's Aunt, The Case of the Oily Levantine) or in early television plays like Michael Dyne's Two Ducks on a Pond, James Kirkup's The Peach Garden or (as a simple Mexican basketmaker exploited by Sam Wanamaker's American businessman) Ted Allen's The Legend of Pepito.

Even as a Shakespearean, Websterian or Ibsenite, the versatile Morris made his mark - part of that helpless scene-stealing tendency? One cannot imagine Robert Helpmann or Tyrone Guthrie letting him get away with that kind of thing.

He made his London debut after the usual spell in rep with Margaret Rawlings and Robert Helpmann in their classical season at the Duchess (1947), as Camillo in The White Devil; and for Guthrie in the Old Vic's last decade as our leading home of Shakespeare, he played, according to one of the more perceptive critics of the time, two tiny parts which he turned into "small perfections". The first was "a delicate and deeply moved" sketch of Griffiths in Henry VIII; and he narrated Wolsey's death "beautifully". As recently as 1990 he was acting in Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken (Almeida) with Claire Bloom; and had himself played John Gabriel Borkman twice some way from London.

We cannot wonder if his best work was often lost, therefore, to critical view. He was not the sort of actor to stick around the West End, even in its relative heyday, if there was something to get his teeth into elsewhere.

He toured for the Royal Shakespeare Company or acted with the Bristol Old Vic or the Glasgow Citizens, or the Royal Exchange, where he made a name in Samuel Beckett (End Game and Waiting for Godot, both of which transferred to London); and he also worked with Anthony Quayle's heroic Compass Theatre on tour in The Government Inspector.

Therein perhaps lies a clue to the actor's Russian-Jewish roots and his theatrical talent. His father fled to Britain from the Tsar as a small boy at the turn of the century. He had been on the East End halls in their heyday before he had to become a businessman; and his mother, according to legend, was a most joyously audible mezzo- soprano at Jewish weddings. Yet it seems odd that her son's best-known role on television - where he acted in The Dybbuk - was Thomas Cromwell in The Six Wives of Henry VIII. In preparation for it, he visited, with his daughter, a number of English castles to study the characters' portraits.

Not perhaps so remarkable that it should have been his best-known role. He had always been a student actor. And he played as cast, as often as not to perfection.

Wolfe Murray, actor: born Portsmouth 5 January 1925; married (one daughter); died London 21 July 1996.

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