Born Alan Arthur Bates, February 17, 1934, in Allestree, Derbyshire, England; died of pancreatic cancer, December 27, 2003, in London, England. Actor. British stage and screen veteran Alan Bates was best remembered for his quiet power in a range of supporting roles. A member of a cadre of postwar British actors who had been trained in Shakespeare but made their mark in gritty realist dramas, Bates was one of the more prolific of the bunch. Known by his shock of thick dark hair and sly smile, "his particular gift was for conveying a dangerous charm flecked with irony," Guardian writer Michael Billington said of Bates.
Born in 1934, Bates was the first of three sons, and grew up in the British Midlands area of Derbyshire. His father was an insurance salesperson who also played the cello, while Bates' mother was an accomplished pianist. His parents hoped he would become a concert pianist, but by the time he was eleven he had resolved to become an actor. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London, and made his stage debut in 1955 with the Midland Theater Company. A year later, he joined the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in London, and was cast in an audacious new drama about disaffected working-class youth in Britain, Look Back in Anger. Bates originated the role of Cliff, the more easygoing sidekick to the lead role in John Osborne's acclaimed drama, and took it to Broadway as well in 1957. A Hollywood studio offered Bates a seven-year contract, but he declined, not wishing to map out his career that far in advance.
Bates' generation of fellow actors, who began their careers after World War II and the subsequent social upheavals, included Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed. He studied with some at RADA, and worked with others at the Royal Court. All were eager to move British drama forward with plays like Osborne's and others, which had emerged as part of Britain's new "kitchen sink" movement. These gritty, realistic stories usually tackled social issues and cast a grim eye on the stuffy middle-class morals left over from the Victorian era. Harold Pinter's plays were also part of this postwar wave, and Bates excelled in Pinter's 1960 drama The Caretaker as Mick, a young man with a brain-damaged brother.
Bates also starred in the screen version of The Caretaker, and went on to take other notable film roles during the rest of the decade. He was Basil, the poetry-spouting British writer in Zorba the Greek, and appeared in the box-office smash of 1966, Georgy Girl, with Lynn Redgrave. In 1969, he was one of a quartet in the screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's novel Women In Love, which featured Bates and Oliver Reed in a rather famous nude wrestling match scene.
Bates made the occasional Hollywood film. He won an Academy Award nomination for his lead in the The Fixer, adapted from the Bernard Malamud novel about a Russian Jew unfairly accused and tortured, and also appeared as the painter who tries to capture Jill Clayburgh's heart in the 1978 film An Unmarried Woman. A dozen years later, he starred as Claudius alongside Mel Gibson in the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli version of Hamlet.
The stage, however, remained Bates' true calling. He won a Tony Award in 1972 for the title role in Butley, a play from Simon Gray about the psychological disintegration of a petty-minded English literature professor, and a second Tony three decades later for Fortune's Fool, an Ivan Turgenev play. Always choosy about his roles, he took only the film jobs that appealed to him, such as the starchy butler in Gosford Park in 2001, or the terrorist with designs on the Super Bowl in the 2002 Ben Affleck film The Sum of All Fears.
Bates stayed away from the legendary carousing and romantic entanglements for which many in his generation of British actors were known. He wed an actress, Victoria Ford, with whom he had twin sons, and rarely gave lengthy interviews. In 1990, his son Tristan died of an asthma attack in Japan at age 19, and Bates' wife died two years later. He later spoke of enduring what he called "a trough of bewilderment," according to a Los Angeles Times article by Susan King. "It's physical as well as an emotional loss. For a year or two, you think they are going to come through that door."
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2003, Bates characteristically refrained from courting press attention as he underwent chemotherapy. His condition worsened in November, however, and he died at a London hospital two days after Christmas at the age of 69. He is survived by two brothers, his son, Ben, and a granddaughter.
Chicago Tribune, December 29, 2003, sec. 1, p. 10.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Movies/12/28/alan.bates.dead.ap/index.html (January 5, 2004).
Entertainment Weekly, January 9, 2004, p. 18.
Guardian (London), December 29, 2003, p. 15.
Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2003, p. B9.
New York Times, December 29, 2003, p. A19.
Times (London), December 29, 2003, p. 25.
Washington Post, December 30, 2003, p. B4.