The fatherly, urbane Richard Johnson was well-equipped for a career as one of the leading lights of the RSC, of which he was a founder member.
With a voice that could command as easily as it could charm, lounge-lizard good looks and a sturdy physicality, his 70-year career also included spells as a matinee idol and a star of schlock horrors, and even saw him turn down the role James Bond.
Of his many Shakespearean roles, it was Mark Antony with which he was most strongly associated. He played the part three times for the RSC; in Trevor Nunn's 1972 cycle of the Roman plays he played the role both to Corin Redgrave's Julius Caesar and to Janet Suzman's Cleopatra. He then made an unlikely return to it in 1993, in John Caird's production of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Clare Higgins, almost 30 years his junior, was his energetic lover.
He was born in Upminster, Essex in 1927, and educated at Felsted School before attending Rada. At 17 he was part of John Gielgud's company at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and then moved to Perth Rep, a stint punctuated by three years in the Royal Navy.
His first stage triumph was playing Warwick in Peter Brook's production of Anouilh's The Lark at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1955. The production moved to the West End and then to the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, with a cast full of names to conjure with, including Donald Pleasence as the Dauphin and Dorothy Tutin as Joan of Arc. After he had played Laertes in Brook's production of Hamlet with Paul Schofield, he and Tutin reunited for Romeo and Juliet at Stratford in 1958. Johnson's performance was enjoyed by a Hollywood talent scout, and after his film debut, Never So Few (1959), a jungle warfare romp starring Frank Sinatra, he was contracted to MGM.
On reflection, he felt he wasn't cut out to be a movie star, although he graced some good films of the 1960s, including The Haunting (1963), and was the 22nd and last actor to date to play Bulldog Drummond on screen, in the enjoyable Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and the lamentable Some Girls Do (1969). It was exasperation with being contracted that made him turn down Terence Young's offer to play Bond. The part went to Sean Connery – who, Johnson said, was perfect "because it turned the thing on its head and he made it funny."
The 1960s were a lucrative time financially and artistically: he was making up to four films a year, and became an Associate Artist of the newly formed RSC. At its new London base, the Aldwych, he triumphed in Brook's legendary production of John Whiting's The Devils (1961); other West End successes included John Mortimer's first full-length play, The Wrong Side of the Park (Johnson also appeared in the fine 1964 film of The Pumpkin Eater, a novel by Mortimer's then-wife Penelope).
There was even a musical comedy, Thomas and the King (Her Majesty's, 1975), John Williams' only attempt at musical theatre. Johnson then followed Peter Hall from the RSC to the National Theatre, indulging in his seldom expressed passion for comedy in Blithe Spirit and in Wycherley's The Country Wife (1977).
Spending most of the 1980s on the screen didn't diminish his power on the stage, however: at the Almeida in 1995 he was riveting as a rival mobster in the modish Gangster No 1. From there he appeared opposite Cate Blanchett in a revival of David Hare's Plenty (Albery, 1999), while he and Penelope Wilton made a haunting partnership in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night the same year.
His appearances on the small screen were many and varied, from The Kenny Everett Television Show (1982) to the deliciously naughty The Camomile Lawn (1992), and he developed a fine line in murderous suburbanites in series like Thriller (1973). His performance as Mark Antony was captured in an ATV production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1974, and a snatch of it also turned up in "Shakespeare – or Bust", a charming Play for Today the same year, in which three Yorkshire miners make a pilgrimage to Stratford, only to be turned away from the theatre, which they take to be a decision based on social class rather than seat capacity. Crestfallen, they bemoan their lot to a couple of passers-by, Johnson and Janet Suzman, who treat them to an impromptu recital. It's a lovely, strange, sweet piece of television.
Although Johnson followed a tradition of classical actors appearing in terrible films in his later years (he was rather proud of being in Lucio Fulci's banned 1979 Zombie Flesh Eaters), in his eighties three fine roles fell into his lap: Sir Philip Bin in the Radio 4 comedy series Bleak Expectations, a good, unsentimental stage production of On Golden Pond (2011) with Stefanie Powers, and his last film role, Radiator (2014), a mighty study of growing old in which he was well-matched by Gemma Jones.
Johnson also had interests in stage and screen production companies, and owned a Wiltshire hotel which, in adherence with his passionate environmentalism, grew all its produce on site. Shortly before he died, he reflected happily that it had been "a curious, unlikely life", and that he had spent 70 years playing other people, and enjoyed every minute of it.
Richard Keith Johnson, actor, producer and hotelier, born Upminster, Essex 30 July 1927, married 1957 Sheila Sweet, 1957 (marriage dissolved; one daughter, one son), 1965 Kim Novak (marriage dissolved), 1982 Mary-Louise Norlund (marriage dissolved; one daughter, one son), 2004 Lynne Gurney; one further son; died London 6 June 2015.Reuse content