In his first great stage performance London, 1956, the landmark production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – Alan Bates was the sidekick, the easier-going pal of an archetypal Angry Young Man. In his last great turn on film – as a butler in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park in 2001 – he pressed himself into the mind with unassuming force and without any showboating. Though Bates – who died at age 69, in London, of complications from pancreatic cancer Dec. 27 – did in fact receive two Tony awards and one Oscar nomination for his leading roles, he is revered as the sturdiest of supporting actors.
He came out of the same scene that produced Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, and Oliver Reed. But Bates’ social life would feature no world-famous pub crawls, and, despite the flood of movie offers that followed Anger, the actor wouldn’t take a substantial film role until 1960, opposite Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer. He tried to avoid compromising choices, even when they might have enhanced his stardom. ”You really should go for the thing that touches you most,” he once said.
He’d also said that his Gosford Park character was a ”locked-up man in a conformist way with a lot of turbulence underneath,” and these were a specialty. The Tonys came for playing a broken professor in 1972’s Butley and a broke nobleman in 2002’s Fortune’s Fool. Ironically, he owed his 2003 knighthood and his sterling reputation to a talent for larceny: He stole scenes with quiet grace.
1964 Zorba the Greek Bates’ prim Brit is the counterweight to Anthony Quinn’s title character.
1968 The Fixer Bates earned an Oscar nod as a Russian Jew under police torture for a crime he didn’t commit in the screen version of Bernard Malamud’s novel.
1970 Women in Love The actor remembered the D.H. Lawrence adaptation as a favorite. Students of nude scenes remember his wrestling match with Oliver Reed.
1978 An Unmarried Woman A heartthrob moment. Bates’ bearded painter is as sensitive as he is manly, and Jill Clayburgh is the lover who turns him down.
1990 Hamlet Mel Gibson is the prince, Glenn Close is Gertrude, Bates is Claudius, and the tension is divine.