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Michael Gambon, Dumbledore in ‘Harry Potter’ Franchise, Dies at 82

Flowers on a casket. (Unsplash)

Michael Gambon, the Irish-English actor best known for his role as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore in six of the “Harry Potter” movies, has died, Variety has confirmed. He was 82.

“We are devastated to announce the loss of Sir Michael Gambon,” his family said in a statement. “Beloved husband and father, Michael died peacefully in hospital with his wife Anne and son Fergus at his bedside, following a bout of pneumonia.”

While it is easier for a character actor, often working in supporting roles, to rack up a large number of credits than it is for lead actors, Gambon was enormously prolific, with over 150 TV or film credits in an era when half that number would be impressive and unusual — and this for a man whose body of stage work was also prodigious.

He played two real kings of England: King Edward VII in “The Lost Prince” (2003) and his son, King George V, in “The King’s Speech” (2010); Winston Churchill in his later years in the 2015 ITV/PBS “Masterpiece” telepic “Churchill’s Secret”; U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in John Frankenheimer’s 2002 HBO telepic “Path to War,” for which he was Emmy-nominated; and a fictional British prime minister in “Ali G Indahouse,” also in 2002. And as Hogwarts headmaster in the “Harry Potter” movies, he presided over the proceedings therein. In 2016, he served as the narrator for the Coen brothers’ paean to golden-age Hollywood, “Hail! Caesar.”

But Gambon was just as likely to play a gangster as an eminence grise: He recurred on David Milch’s HBO horse-racing drama “Luck” in 2011-12 as a powerful adversary of Dustin Hoffman’s mobster Ace Bernstein, but if there is a single film role for which Gambon should be remembered, it is his thunderous, sulfurous foray as the thief of the title — a gangster if ever there was one — in Peter Greenaway’s 1999 “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” This role, after decades of appearing in movies, is what really brought him to the attention of the film world. Roger Ebert declared: “The thief’s thuggish personality stands astride the movie and browbeats the others into submission. He is a loud, large, reprehensible criminal, played by Michael Gambon as the kind of bully you can only look at in wonder, that God does not strike him dead.”

Playing another excellent gangster in Matthew Vaughn’s 2005 British crime film “Layer Cake,” Gambon was handed one of the best lines: “England. Typical. Even drug dealers don’t work weekends.” (Ebert said that Eddie Temple, Gambon’s character, is “the kind of man whose soul has warts on its scars.”)

But Gambon could equally well play upper crust, as in Robert Altman’s 2001 film “Gosford Park” or the 2008 rendition of “Brideshead Revisited.”

And he played an excellent villain in Michael Mann’s whistleblower film “The Insider,” in which the actor portrayed the head of a tobacco company.

Gambon took over the role of Albus Dumbledore after the death of Richard Harris, who had played the role in the first two films. Gambon admitted that he had never read the “Harry Potter” books, and he told the U.K.’s the Independent, “I’d never seen any of the previous films, but working on the series was huge fun — and for lots of dosh.”

Gambon was also among the stars of the 2015 BBC/HBO miniseries based on J.K. Rowling’s novel “The Casual Vacancy.”

In addition to his nomination for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or movie for “Path to War” in 2002, Gambon was Emmy-nominated for supporting actor in a miniseries or movie for playing Mr. Woodhouse in the 2009 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” that starred Romola Garai in the title role.

The actor won four BAFTA TV Awards for best actor, first for his career-changing role in 1986’s “The Singing Detective,” next for 1999’s “Wives and Daughters,” then for 2000’s exquisite telepic “Longitude” and then the following year for “Perfect Strangers.”

His TV career also included starring as the legendary French police inspector in the Granada Television series “Maigret,” which aired on PBS in early 1990s, and more recently included starring, in 2015,  in the Scandinavian series “Fortittude,” airing in the U.S. on Pivot.

Gambon made his movie debut in “Othello,” starring Laurence Olivier, in 1965. While his craggy appearance as an older man may make it hard to believe, he played romantic leads in film and TV for a time. He was, for example, the swashbuckling Gavin Ker in BBC series “The Borderers” in the early 1970s. And, in 1970, Gambon was asked by James Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli to audition for the role of 007 to replace George Lazenby.

Gambon’s first role in a film where Americans might have noticed him was as the zookeeper who helps Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson abscond with the sea turtles in 1985’s delightful, eccentric romance “Turtle Diary.”

After decades in British television, the actor starred in Dennis Potter’s extraordinary 1986 musical mystery miniseries “The Singing Detective,” drawing a BAFTA TV Award for best actor. The series later aired on PBS and won a Peabody Award.

In his long and illustrious stage career, he was, in addition to Shakespeare, most associated with the works of Alan Ayckbourn (including the “Norman Conquests” trilogy) and Harold Pinter.

In 2004, Gambon starred with Annette Bening in Istvan Szabo’s “Being Julia,” playing the theater impresario who taught Bening’s Julia much of what she knows.

He won three Laurence Olivier Awards (the highest honors in British theater, equivalent to a Tony): in 1986, for best comedy performance, for Ayckbourn’s “A Chorus of Disapproval”; in 1988, for best actor, for Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge”; and in 1990, for comedy performance, for Ayckbourn’s “Man of the Moment.” He was also nominated for best actor a further 10 times.

Despite a long career on the stage in the U.K., Gambon appeared on Broadway only once, starring in David Hare’s play “Skylight” in 1996 and drawing a Tony nomination for best actor.

Michael John Gambon was born in Cabra, Dublin, Ireland. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from the ages of 18 to 21, all the while apprenticing as a toolmaker (and forever maintaining a fascination with machines big and small, collecting antique guns, clocks and watches as well as classic cars).

Gambon made his professional stage debut in the Gate Theatre Dublin’s 1962 production of Othello; he was 24and toured with the Gate before catching the attention of Laurence Olivier, who brought him into the newly formed National Theatre Company. In 1967, Gambon departed to join the Birmingham Repertory Company, where he had the chance to take on the starring roles in the Shakespearean canon, his favorite of which was the title role in “Othello,” though he also essayed “Macbeth” and “Coriolanus.” In his early 40s, he impressed critics and audiences with his take on the title role in “King Lear” at Stratford.

Impressed by the young actor, Ralph Richardson once dubbed him the Great Gambon; decades later, in July 2012, the BBC included Gambon on its list of the top 10 British character actors.

In 2004, he played Sir John Falstaff in Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of “Henry IV,” Parts 1 and 2, fulfilling a lifelong ambition.

In addition to the three Olivier Awards he won, Gambon’s additional 10 nominations, all for best actor, were for Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” in 1979; Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” in 1980; Christopher Hampton’s “Tales From Hollywood” in 1983; David Hare’s “Skylight” in 1997; Stephen Churchett’s historical drama “Tom and Clem” in 1998; Yasmina Reza’s “The Unexpected Man” in 1999; Pinter’s “The Caretaker” in 2001; Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” in 2003; Beckett’s “Endgame” in 2005; and Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” in 2009.

In February 2015, at the age of 74, Gambon announced that he was retiring from stage acting because memory loss was making it increasingly difficult for him to remember his lines. He had, for several years before that, relied on an earpiece through which he could be prompted if he forgot his lines. A few years earlier he had been rushed to a hospital over the panic attacks caused by forgetting his lines.

Gambon was loath to reveal details of his private life. He married Anne Miller in 1962 and had a child, Fergus, in 1964. Fergus, schooled in part by his father, appeared as an expert on the BBC version of “Antiques Roadshow.”

In 2002, Gambon moved out of the home he shared with his wife in Kent and soon introduced Philippa Hart as his girlfriend. In addition to son Fergus, he is survived by Hart and two young sons by her, Michael, born in 2007, and William in 2009.

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