Time to Remember: Paul Scofield

The leading classical actor of his generation, Paul Scofield CH CBE (21 January 1922 – 19 March 2008) is most widely remembered for his Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award- winning performance as Sir Thomas More in the 1966 film A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Scofield had originally played the same part on stage in the West End and in a Tony Award-winning performance on Broadway. Scofield was one of a handful of actors to achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting”, doing so in the shortest time span. Favouring stage over film and TV, he is now perhaps less well-remembered than his contemporaries.

After the death of the legendary actor in 2008, ANTHONY FIELD was moved to reflect upon his life, and one performance with which he had a deep personal association. This reminiscence is from February 2009.

A celebration of the life of Paul Scofield will be held on 19 March at St Margaret’s church, Westminster Abbey. I feel that part of my life has died with the passing of Paul Scofield. It is sixty years since I first saw him on stage in 1949 as Alexander the Great in Terence Rattigan’s ADVENTURE STORY at the St James’s Theatre. Those were the days when H M Tennent could produce a play commercially with a cast of 22 including Gwen Frangcon-Davies, Joy Parker (Paul’s wife), Cecil Trouncer, Robert Flemyng, Noel Willman and Stanley Baker. Superbly directed by Peter Glenville, Paul bestrode the stage like a colossus in the lead role.

Little did I think that almost forty years later I would have the honour of producing, together with Richard Pilbrow for Theatre Projects (and Robert Fox with James Walsh, Lewis Allen and Martin Heinfling), I’M NOT RAPPAPORT starring Paul Scofield – first at Birmingham Repertory Theatre (where Paul first made his theatrical mark, beginning his fruitful partnership with Peter Brook), then at Brighton (where he first set foot on stage as a young boy working as an extra) and finally brought into the West End at the Apollo Theatre. Few of Paul’ s obituary notices seemed to recall his astounding eight months in this Herb Gardner play when for eight performances a week he packed out the theatre. The Guardian critic wrote “we owe something to Theatre Projects for bringing us this unforgettable production. This solid gold hit gets standing ovations every night.”

After Paul first read the script, he told me “You can have a year of my life”. But he found playing the character of an 80 year old Lithuanian Jew hugely strenuous and I had to beg him to stay with it during our rehearsal time at Birmingham, telling him, in truth, “you are so like my Russian grandfather”. Some time later he wrote to me “I love doing Rappaport; every moment has been worth it.”

It had been a difficult job persuading Herb Gardner, the play’s author, and Daniel Sullivan, the director of the play in New York and then also for us in the UK, to confirm that Paul was ideal to play the role of Nat. They readily acknowledged that he was a great actor but were not convinced that he was appropriately cast in the play’s New York setting. It was only when we took them to see Paul in NINETEEN NINETEEN, a film about patients of Sigmund Freud, that they finally agreed that he would be perfect for the role.

At Press Night the critics went overboard; Michael Coveney ( in the Financial Times) writing: ” Less indulgent that his Salieri ( in AMADEUS), this performance confirms Scofield’s prowess as a ripe and irresistible comic actor. The difference between a great actor and a good one is that the former has the ability not merely to satisfy his audiences but to astonish them. Paul Scofield’s performance is exhilaratingly funny and achingly sad providing an enthralling lesson in dramatic technique.”

Actor Richard Harris said about Scofield ‘s performance in the play “it’s unbelievable. He puts us all to shame. Every drama teacher should make it mandatory for all acting students to see this man in this play.”

For a final word, we turn to Michael Billington, writing in the Guardian about the actor; “Scofield is a matchless comic character actor in the present-day West End where the play is a rapidly vanishing species.” Actors of the calibre of Scofield, who could be heard at the back of the gallery even when whispering, are also -sadly- a rapidly vanishing species.

Paul Scofield and Howard Rollins, Jr. in I’M NOT RAPPAPORT at the Apollo, 1986

AFTERWORD In a unique 2004 poll of all of the distinguished actors of the RSC, Scofield’s performance as Lear was voted as being “the greatest ever performance in a Shakespeare play”.  He originally played it at Stratford in 1962 for Peter Brook, from where it went on to tour the world. Although several other projects were discussed between Anthony Field and Paul Scofield over the next two decades after RAPPAPORT, sadly none of them reached fruition.

With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish this article

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