Sir Michael Gambon, famous for Dumbledore and the Singing Detective, dies aged 82

Tributes pour in for the towering figure of stage and screen whose stellar six-decade career was filled with accolades

Isobel Lewis
Thursday 28 September 2023 12:38 BST
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Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman prank Daniel Radcliffe on set of Harry Potter

Sir Michael Gambon, the actor known for playing writers, wizards, and everything in between, has died aged 82.

The legendary star of stage and screen, who received three Olivier Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and four Baftas in his lifetime, died with his wife and son by his side in Essex following a bout of pneumonia.

Over a stellar six-decade career, Gambon became a household name starring in the BBC series The Singing Detective but also played crime kingpin Eddie Temple in Noughties thriller, Layer Cake.

To younger audiences, however, he will be remembered as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. He took over the role in 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, two years after the death of Richard Harris.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling recalled seeing Gambon in Shakespeare’s King Lear in 1982. “If you’d told me then that brilliant actor would appear in anything I’d written, I’d have thought you were insane,” she said.

Gambon’s death was announced by his wife, Lady Anne, and son Fergus via his publicist. “We are devastated to announce the loss of Sir Michael Gambon,” they said.

“Beloved husband and father, Michael died peacefully in hospital with his wife, Anne, and son, Fergus, at his bedside, following a bout of pneumonia. We ask that you respect our privacy at this painful time and thank you for your messages of support and love.”

Born in Dublin in 1940, Gambon and his family relocated to London after the Second World War. Here, Gambon received British citizenship and attended school before the family moved to Kent.

Despite being born in Ireland, Gambon admitted: “I suppose I can’t get away from it, I’m English, aren’t I?” He did, however, speak with a Dublin accent when talking to his parents. He left school with no qualifications aged 15 and trained as an engineering technician like his father.

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Sir Michael was best known to younger audiences as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore

In his twenties, Gambon decided to kickstart his acting career. He returned to Ireland and took on a small role in a production of Othello at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1962. While touring Europe with the company, he caught the eye of Laurence Olivier. Olivier was about to found the National Theatre and was looking for exciting actors to join the company.

During his four years at the National, Gambon also made his film debut in Olivier’s 1965 screen adaptation of Othello, and his first TV appearance two years later. It also proved to be an important time in his private life, with Gambon marrying mathematician Anne Miller in 1962 and welcoming a son, Fergus, in 1964.

He left the National in 1967 to gain experience at Birmingham Rep (on Olivier’s recommendation), playing one of his best-loved screen roles in the BBC comedy series The Borderers from 1968 to 1970. The performance earned him an audition to play James Bond in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but when he appeared before producer Cubby Broccoli, Gambon dismissed the idea.

Recalling the exchange in a 2016 interview with The Independent, Gambon remembered: “I said I didn’t want the part because I’m not like [Bond]. I haven’t got nice hair and I’m a bit fat, and he said, ‘Well, the present James Bond doesn’t have any hair... it’s a wig’. Nice man.” The role went to George Lazenby.

Gambon appeared in a number of shows in the West End throughout the Seventies. Around this time, he received the nickname “The Great Gambon”, which continued throughout the Eighties and Nighties. Gambon was dismissive of the moniker, however, which was first given to him by actor Ralph Richardson following a production of Brecht’s Galileo. “Peter Hall told me that’s what Ralph said to him about me, but he well might have meant it in the circus sense, you know, like a clown or something,” he told Playbill in 1996. “Back home in England, I don’t hear it much because we’re such a cynical bunch of b******s.”

Gambon (left) on stage with Peter Bowles in 1990

While he’d taken on film roles in The Beast Must Die and Nothing But the Night in the Seventies, his main work away from the stage in these decades were on the small screen. Gambon won his first Bafta for his performance in The Singing Detective, and received praise for his portrayal of detective inspector Jules Maigret in ITV’s take on George Simenon’s books.

In 1990, Gambon won an Olivier Award and an Evening Standard Theatre Award five years later, collecting the latter with the words: “F*** it, I’m off for a p***.” One of Gambon’s most esteemed stage roles came in a 1995 production of David Hare’s Skylight.

It was a smash hit and transferred from the National to the West End and then on to Broadway, earning Gambon his only Tony Award nomination. Other acclaimed theatre roles came in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, The Life Of Galileo and Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

On stage as Falstaff in ‘Henry IV Part 1’ at the National Theatre

In 1998, Gambon was knighted for his contribution to the entertainment industry. He received an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination for his performance as US president Lyndon B Johnson in Path to War. After years of keeping his marriage private, Gambon set tongues wagging in 2001 when he began introducing Philippa Hart, who was 25 years younger than him, as his girlfriend on the set of Gosford Park in 2001.

The following year, the affair was made public and he moved out of his marital home. Hart and Gambon had two children together. However, he never divorced Anne Miller and, in 2011, they returned to living together even while he continued his relationship with Hart.

Gambon (left) with Emily Watson and Richard E Grant in ‘Gosford Park’

Gambon continued to work largely on independent films, but in 2004 he appeared in five different films, including gangster film Layer Cake and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Most notable, however, was the release of the third film in the Harry Potter franchise. The role of Dumbledore, the twinkly-eyed headmaster of school for magic Hogwarts, was played by Richard Harris in the first two films. Gambon took over after Harris’s death in 2002, making his first appearance in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (The role was originally offered to Ian McKellen, who revealed in a previous interview that he turned down the part due to comments the late Harris had previously made about his acting skills.)

Gambon took on the role instead, and appeared in all the remaining Harry Potter films. The actor would insist it was an easy job, saying: “I just stick on a beard and play me, so it’s no great feat.”

Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon (back right) with the young cast of Harry Potter in 2004

A notorious prankster, Gambon was known for fibbing in interviews, which he loathed, to keep himself amused. In an appearance on Top Gear, he confessed to telling one journalist he trained at the Royal Ballet Theatre, but quit after falling off the stage and through a kettledrum at Royal Opera House.

In another interview, he told the journalist he was gay while discussing his role as Oscar Wilde. Asked if he found playing a gay man difficult, Gambon responded: “Well I found that very easy, because I used to be a homosexual.

“He was so thick,” Gambon recalled of the journalist. “I said I was forced to give it up, and then he asked, why was that? And I said, because it made my eyes water. I thought he’d laugh, but he just wrote it down.”

He kept his young co-stars on the set of Harry Potter entertained with practical jokes, including the time he and the late Alan Rickman hid a “fart machine” inside Daniel Radcliffe’s sleeping bag in the great hall, and set it off during a particularly quiet scene. Behind-the-scenes footage from the 2004 film shows the hall erupting with laughter as the prank unfolds.

After Harry Potter, Gambon appeared in a number of screen roles but retired from the stage due to memory problems. In 2009, he was admitted to hospital after suffering a panic attack at the National Theatre when he couldn’t remember his lines.

Speaking at a TV event in 2016

He appeared in The King’s Speech in 2010 and returned to the work of JK Rowling for the BBC’s 2015 adaptation of The Casual Vacancy. Other recent film roles were in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! in 2016, history Victoria and Abdul in 2017, and Judy Garland biopic Judy in 2019.

He starred Sky Atlantic series Fortitude in 2015 and 2018 and was due to appear in the Sky comedy series Breeders, but reportedly left the show in 2019 after struggling to remember his lines due to memory loss. His final credited role was in the 2019 film Cordelia.

Michael Gambon with his Harry Potter co-stars

Throughout his career, Gambon kept his private life private, one responding to an interview question about his wife with: “What wife?” He was self-deprecating, too, saying of his appearance in 2010: “ I can’t look in a mirror or look in a window because I hate it… It’s like a f***ing old wet bag. Puffy f***ing eyes. But there’s nothing you can f***ing do about it.”

However, his passion for acting remained until the end. “When I’m not working, which is rare, I don’t exist,” he said. “Everything else in my life relates to being an actor and if the acting isn’t going well or I’m not working then everything else goes into a blur. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true.”

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