Roy Dotrice, a British stage, film and television actor who began performing as a prisoner of war in Germany and worked in Britain and America for six decades, notably in one-man shows portraying Abe Lincoln, the diarist John Aubrey and other historical figures, died Monday at his home in London. He was 94.
His family confirmed the death, The Associated Press reported.
Hailed by critics for suffusing his character with fine-tuned blarney, malevolent passions and brooding gloom, Dotrice won the Tony Award for best featured actor in 2000 for his portrait of the conniving Irish father and pig farmer in an acclaimed Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” with Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones.
Reviewing the production in The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote, “To watch Ms. Jones, Mr. Byrne and Roy Dotrice, who completes the triangle of principal performers, react to one another is to realize the degree to which O’Neill’s last completed play is about how everyone is an actor, a deceiver, by necessity.”
Dotrice appeared in more than 50 plays in London, New York and other cities, not counting some 300 more as a young British repertory stalwart. He performed for nine years with the troupe that became the Royal Shakespeare Company, took scores of roles in television and Hollywood films, and became familiar to millions on television series and miniseries broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic.
With a nimble voice that evoked creatures from realms of fantasy, Dotrice was a popular storyteller on albums and audiobooks. He narrated the epic tales of “The Lion King,” the adventures of Richard Adams’ rabbits in “Watership Down” and the myriad characters of “A Song of Fire and Ice,” the fantasy books by George R.R. Martin that were adapted for the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones."
But Dotrice was perhaps best known for one-man shows, including “Brief Lives,” a portrayal of the 17th-century writer John Aubrey, which opened in London in 1967 and ran intermittently there and in the United States for years. Onstage for 2 1/2 hours, his Aubrey ruminated insightfully on the lives of English worthies of his Elizabethan age. “Brief Lives,” became one of the most successful solo productions of its generation, and won Dotrice a mention for a time in the Guinness Book of Records, with 1,782 nonconsecutive performances. (Hal Holbrook went on to give more nonconsecutive performances as Mark Twain.)
In another one-man tour de force, in 1980, Dotrice starred in Herbert Mitgang’s “Mister Lincoln” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, where Lincoln was slain in 1865, and later on Broadway and on PBS. He had immersed himself for months in Lincoln’s life, and colleagues said his renderings of Lincoln, and especially of the Gettysburg Address, were performances of remarkable subtlety and power. Mitgang, who wrote the play, was the author of two biographies of Lincoln. He also wrote for The New York Times.
“The role of Lincoln is probably one of the hardest to play of any historical character,” Frankie Hewitt, the play’s executive producer, told The Times. “If you try to humanize him, it can get corny and awkward, and if you try to play him larger than life, he is turned into a Disney World mechanical Lincoln. But Roy is such a superb actor, he succeeds where everyone else has basically failed.”
Roy Dotrice was born on the Island of Guernsey, a British dependency off the French coast, on May 26, 1923, to Louis Dotrice, a Belgian pastry chef, and the former Neva Wilton, an English baker. In 1940, when Nazi troops occupied Guernsey, Roy and his mother escaped to Britain, where he joined the Royal Air Force and became a radio operator and gunner in a bomber.
On a raid in 1942, his plane was shot down over the Baltic. He and a few other survivors floated in a dinghy for days and were washed ashore. They were captured and spent the rest of the war as prisoners in Germany.
To keep captive spirits up in the stalag, the prisoners staged makeshift plays. Dotrice’s first role was the Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella.”
“We didn’t have any real women, unfortunately,” he said.
After the war, he rejected a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and plunged into acting. For 12 years he performed in, and sometimes directed, hundreds of plays in repertory companies, often a new production every week, in a thespian grind of lines, characters, plots and venues: Liverpool, Manchester and, he said, “every dreary North Country town.”
In 1947, he married Katherine Newman, an actress. They had three daughters, Michele, Yvette and Karen, who all became actresses. His wife died in 2007. His daughters survive him, as do grandchildren and a great-grandson, AP reported.
In 1957, Dotrice joined the forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and for nine years he appeared as Hamlet, Iago, Falstaff, Julius Caesar and other Shakespearean characters with casts that included future luminaries of the British theater, including Charles Laughton and Albert Finney.
While he kept a home in London, Dotrice lived in Los Angeles and worked mostly in the United States after 1980. He appeared in New York stage productions of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” (1985) and Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” (1991). On film, he portrayed Mozart’s father in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” (1984) and a skating coach in Paul M. Glaser’s “The Cutting Edge” (1992).
On television, he played Charles Dickens in Masterpiece Theater’s 13-part “Dickens of London” (1976); a British monarch in the miniseries “Shaka Zulu” (1986); the father of the beast on the CBS crime series “Beauty and the Beast” (1987-90); and a priest on the CBS dramatic series “Picket Fences” (1993-96).
Looking back on his career in an interview in 1980, Dotrice recalled one of his more unusual achievements: introducing baseball — learned from Canadian POWs during the war — to cricket-playing members of his Shakespeare troupe in 1959. He put together an “all-star” team to challenge Americans at a nearby air base.
“Paul Robeson played first base, Sam Wanamaker second and Laurence Olivier third,” he said. “Peter O’Toole was shortstop, Albert Finney was catcher, I pitched and Charles Laughton was umpire. We wore black tights and white Hamlet blouses. The women said, ‘Never mind the game, look at their legs.'”