Stage mourns loss of great `Lear'

Robert Stephens: `Heir to Olivier' who finally won critical acclaim during Indian summer of Shakespearian roles
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The Independent Online

Arts Correspondent

Sir Robert Stephens, one of the most talented and outrageous actors of his generation, has died at the age of 64.

His death comes just days after the publication of an intimate, revelatory autobiography, and a collaboration with the Prince of Wales on an audio cassette of Shakespearian speeches.

In the Sixties, Sir Robert was one half of a seemingly glittering showbiz marriage to Dame Maggie Smith. The marriage ended acrimoniously following Sir Robert's drinking and womanising, but the couple later became friends again.

Yesterday Dame Maggie said: "Robert was a colourful if complicated character and a very, very fine actor. I was very saddened to hear of his death."

Sir Robert, like Dame Maggie, was a star of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre company in the Sixties. Some critics hailed him as a successor to Olivier.

After this, Sir Robert's career went into the doldrums and he suffered from health problems. But at the start of the Nineties he was invited to act by the RSC's artistic director, Adrian Noble, who as a child had seen him in The Royal Hunt of the Sun in the Sixties. Under Noble's direction, Sir Robert played Falstaff and King Lear and won awards, massive critical praise and, last year, a knighthood.

To some surprise he published an autobiography this month which revealed affairs with well-known people, including Lady Antonia Fraser.

Sir Robert, who died on Monday night at the Royal Free Hospital in London, had undergone a liver and kidney transplant. His wife, the actress Patricia Quinn, and his actor sons, Toby and Christopher,were at his bedside.

Adrian Noble said: "A great light has gone out. When Robert was on form he burned brighter than almost any other actor I knew. His extraordinary vocal and physical energy belied his weak frame and a body wracked by illness and abuse."

Sir Peter Hall, who directed Sir Robert at the National Theatre, said: "I truly admired him. Robert Stephens was one of the great actors of his generation and yet his greatness was almost undeclared until very recently when he amazed and delighted us with Falstaff and King Lear.

"Theatre people will always be reminded that great talent is often a curse as well as a blessing."

Obituary, page 18