Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Richard Todd: D-Day veteran and actor celebrated for his role as Guy Gibson in 'The Dam Busters'

Tom Vallance
Saturday 05 December 2009 01:00 GMT
Todd as Guy Gibson in 'The Dam Busters' which Eric Coates composed music for
Todd as Guy Gibson in 'The Dam Busters' which Eric Coates composed music for (EVERETT COLLECTION / REX FEATURES )

A major star of the British cinema in the 1950s, Richard Todd won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a taciturn dying Scot in The Hasty Heart (1949), played Robin Hood and Sir Walter Raleigh on screen, and was Ian Fleming's first choice to play his creation, James Bond.

But the short, stocky actor will be best remembered for his portrayal of Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the acclaimed war film, The Dam Busters. Todd was himself a war hero, one of the first British officers to parachute into Normandy during the D-Day landings in 1944, and he re-lived some of that experience when he played Major John Howard in the film The Longest Day (1962). His private life was marked by the tragic suicides of two of his sons.

The son of a physician, he was born Richard Andrew Palethorpe-Todd in 1919 in Dublin, where his father, Andrew William Palethorpe-Todd, was celebrated as an international rugby union player who won three caps for Ireland. Todd spent his early childhood in India, where his father served as an army doctor, but later the family moved to West Devon. After attending Shrewsbury Public School, he was expected to follow his father in a military career, and trained at Sandhurst, but left to study acting at the Italia Conti Academy.

He made his stage debut as Curio in Twelfth Night (1936), at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park, and after gaining experience in regional theatres he co-founded the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1939, but his stage career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1941 he received a commission in the Army, serving in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry before joining the Parachute Regiment as part of the British 6th Airborne Division. His battalion parachuted into Normandy on 6 June, 1944 as reinforcements after glider troops had landed, and he later helped Major John Howard secure Orne Bridge (now called Pegasus Bridge) in Caen, fighting off several German counter-attacks.

On demobilisation, he returned to Dundee Rep before signing a seven-year contract with Associated British Films. He made his screen debut in Cavalcanti's For Them That Trespass (1949), giving a strong performance as an ex-convict wrongly imprisoned for murder. "My first film didn't light any fires," he told the historian Brian McFarlane, "but Cavalcanti taught me a great deal about techniques to overcome my faults and, really, the rudiments of screen acting."

On the last day of shooting at Elstree Studios, Todd was spotted by director Vincent Sherman, who was preparing a film version of John Patrick's play The Hasty Heart and felt that Todd would be ideal casting as the dour, truculent soldier Lachlan McLachlan, who initially rejects the attempts at friendship made by fellow patients in a military hospital in Burma (the Scottish actor Gordon Jackson had already been tested for the part.) Though his co-stars, Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal, gave fine performances, Todd was outstanding as the dying Scot, later commenting, "I had seen boys in the war in much the same state and I knew what he was feeling," and he won an Academy Award nomination as best actor (losing to Broderick Crawford in All The King's Men).

"I got the impression that Ronnie Reagan was sizing me up a bit at the beginning, but I think his misgivings faded when he saw I could handle the part all right; he was extremely nice and helpful." Patricia Neal said, "I respected Todd immensely as an actor, and later when I lived in England, I always saw him whenever he played Oxford."

In Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) Todd played a villain on screen for the first time, as the former boy-friend of an acting student (Jane Wyman) who comes to her for help, describing in a vivid flashback his involvement with a musical star (Marlene Dietrich) who has killed her husband. Hitchcock's use of a flashback that turns out to be a lie was heavily criticised, and despite a strong cast the film is not among the director's best, with Todd a dour killer.

"Hitchcock was a strange man," he recalled, "not a lot of help to his actors." Todd was also a not very sympathetic character in his first Hollywood-made film, King Vidor's mystery drama Lightning Strikes Twice (1951), as a man wrongly suspected of killing his wife, but he regained his popularity with three period romps for Walt Disney, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1951); The Sword and the Rose (1953), a fanciful account of the love of a commoner (Todd) for Mary Tudor (Glynis Johns), sister of Henry VIII; and Rob Roy – The Highland Rogue (1953), for which Todd once more assumed a Scottish brogue.

In 1953 he told the BBC of his ambition to play Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and a television version was quickly arranged, with Nigel Kneale given one week to write the script. Todd returned to Hollywood to star as the Reverend Peter Marshall, the Scotsman who became chaplain for the US Senate, in the screen biography, A Man Called Peter (1955). Todd was superb as the charismatic preacher, delivering his sermons with flair and fervour, dealing with tuberculosis and maintaining a warmly loving relationship with his wife (Jean Peters). The film was a big hit in the US, and Todd then co-starred with Bette Davis in The Virgin Queen (1955), as Sir Walter Raleigh, with Joan Collins as Raleigh's sweetheart. The film was initially titled Sir Walter Raleigh, and planned as a starring vehicle for Todd and Collins, but when Davis was cast the emphasis shifted to her character and the title changed (though her role took only 12 days to shoot).

Todd then returned to the UK to star in his most famous role, that of Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters (1955), which he considered "the best military war picture ever made". Gibson trained the crews of the aeroplanes with the responsibility of precisely releasing the "bouncing baby bombs" that would destroy the hitherto unassailable Ruhr dams that supplied the power needed to run the large German factories. Though Todd never met Gibson, he spent time with the inventor Barnes Wallis. "They got the technical details about the bomb itself from him, although some of that had to be cheated a bit because it was still secret."

Todd returned to the Normandy landings again when he starred in D-Day, The 6th of June (1956), with Robert Taylor and Dana Wynter as the other sides of a triangular love story, and he was a sea captain during the Chinese civil war of 1949 in Yangtse Incident (1957). He was Dunois in Otto Preminger's ill-fated filming of Shaw's Saint Joan (1957), then starred in three good thrillers.

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958), a gripping study of deception and murder, co-starred Anne Baxter, whom Todd considered "highly professional and a very intelligent actress". Intent to Kill (1958) was a breathlessly paced hospital drama in which Todd was a surgeon operating on a South American leader who is the object of an assassination attempt, and Danger Within (1959) was a whodunnit that neatly blended tension and humour in the setting of a prisoner-of-war camp.

Todd enjoyed his role in Never Let Go (1960) starring Peter Sellers ("I loved doing it because it was a character part for me, playing a scruffy little salesman whose car has been stolen"), but he "loathed" making the screen version of the play The Long, the Short and the Tall (1961). "I didn't enjoy working with Laurence Harvey... I took it for granted that they would cast Peter O'Toole, who was marvellous on stage, but they said they wanted a 'name'."

It was around this time that Ian Fleming stated that Todd would be his first choice to play James Bond on the screen, but "scheduling conflicts" prevented his being in contention. After more military roles – his semi-autobiographical part in The Longest Day, an army investigator in Death Drums Along the River (1963), and one of the army officers seeking the sites of Nazi rockets in Operation Crossbow (1965) – Todd returned to the stage in 1965 to play Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband at the Strand Theatre, with a starry cast including Margaret Lockwood, Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray and Roger Livesey, after which he toured in the play in South Africa.

In 1967 he was one of the stars in an exquisite revival of Dodie Smith's Dear Octopus at the Haymarket Theatre, then he formed Triumph Theatre Productions, producing and acting in many productions in the UK and all over the world. In 1972-73 he toured Australia and New Zealand in Sleuth, and in 1975 he played Martin Dysart in Equus for the Australian National Theatre, which he later described as his favourite stage production. In 1983 he started a run of eight years in The Business of Murder at the Mayfair Theatre in London. His television appearances included a Doctor Who story, "Kinda" (1982), opposite Peter Davison as the Doctor, and episodes of Virtual Murder and Silent Witness, and in 2004 he took part in a musical remembrance of the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. His last television appearance was in an episode of Heartbeat in 2007. He published a volume of memoirs, Caught in the Act, in 1986. In 1993 he was awarded the OBE.

Todd married twice, first to Catherine Grant-Bogle, an actress he met in the Dundee Repertory Company, and secondly to Virginia Mailer, a model, each union producing two sons. In 1997 a son from his second marriage, 20-year old Seamus Palethorpe-Todd, shot himself in the head, an inquest concluding that the suicide might have been a depressive reaction to a drug he was taking for severe acne. In 2005 the eldest son from his first marriage, Peter, killed himself in a car with a shotgun after problems with his health and his marriage. Todd regularly attended the adjoining graves of the two boys.

Richard Andrew Palethorpe-Todd, actor: born Dublin 11 June 1919; married 1949 Catherine Grant-Bogle (divorced, one son deceased, one daughter); 1970 Virginia Mailer (divorced, one son, and one son deceased); OBE, 1993; died near Grantham, Lincolnshire 3 December 2009.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in