He was a mystery—a diffident man who shunned all fame and celebrity. This son of a country headmaster remained his own admirable, honest self—a man apart from the world. He became an international star principally through his magnificently sympathetic performance as the principled Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966), but he went on to make relatively few movies (and had his Oscar delivered to his home by post). Can you name a star actor other than Paul Scofield who always declined to appear on any talk show? He quietly turned down a knighthood in the 1960’s, finding nothing undignified in remaining plain “Mr.” He wasn’t making a statement. It was the unassuming way he was.
Yet Peter Hall, who directed his acclaimed Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, once told me that beneath the elegant surface, Scofield was like a volcano about to erupt. He was a tall man (6-foot-2—tall for a stage actor) whose craggy handsomeness appealed to both sexes. He possessed a ruminative quality, danger, intelligence, the rarity of silence, melancholy behind wary eyes taking life’s measure. He never looked young; he looked forever ravaged by time.
Heir to the golden trio of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, he was the first modern stage actor in England, the first to reject the 19th-century theatrical tradition. Peter Brook talks in wonder of his transformative stage magic. Scofield’s celebrated Hamlet was directed by Mr. Brook when they were both in their 20’s. He was just 40 when he took on the ultimate challenge of King Lear in 1962 (also directed by Mr. Brook)—yet his Lear endures as a benchmark of the finest classical acting.
I’ve even seen Scofield act badly, when he played the editor of a Fleet Street tabloid in a 1989 West End flop, Exclusive, written by Jeffrey Archer, of all people. For some inexplicable reason, Scofield not only took the role but gave an exaggerated impersonation of the laconic nasality of the playwright John Osborne.
Five years ago, I interviewed him for the biography I was writing about his friend Osborne. Knowing that he avoided all personal interviews, I wrote to him suggesting that we simply correspond: I’d send him a few questions and he’d write a response at his leisure to any that interested him. He replied charmingly that he would like that, as it gave him more time to think.
My first question was “How are you?” To which he replied in his careful, handwritten letter back, “Quite well, thank you!”
I asked him about his role in The Hotel in Amsterdam, Osborne’s 1968 play about growing older and what Tennessee Williams called “the bitch Goddess of Success.” He was 46 when he played the middle-aged dramatist’s alter ego so memorably that no other major actor would take on the part for another 35 years. I thought that if anyone understood the conflicted Osborne, it would be Scofield.
When I asked him about it, he wrote back in an extraordinary note that he first came to understand him through acting in his play. “I knew the quality of his writing voice,” he explained. “And, as sometimes happens, speaking the words brought me close to knowing him. And I found within them and all the banter of the character a bitter sense of betrayal, something truly passionate, and night after night in speaking these lines I knew a deeply serious man, eloquent, unsentimental, unselfpitying and troubled. He was honestly and fearlessly articulating his loss of faith in—what? People? And I loved him for that.”
And I thought then, as now: Why did Paul Scofield love him for that?