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Michael Gambon, the Iconic Dumbledore of ‘Harry Potter’ Films, Passes Away at Age 82

His career, which blossomed in London during the 1970s, spanned a diverse spectrum of roles, encompassing portrayals of historical figures such as Edward VII, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill.

Michael Gambon, the Iconic Dumbledore character in  'Harry Potter' Film
Michael Gambon, the Iconic Dumbledore character in  ‘Harry Potter’ Film

Mr. Gambon’s demise was confirmed by his family through a succinct statement issued by a public relations firm on Thursday. The statement conveyed that Michael had peacefully passed away in a hospital, surrounded by his wife, Anne, and their son, Fergus, following a battle with pneumonia. However, it refrained from specifying the hospital where this somber event took place.

The pivotal moment that led the esteemed actor Ralph Richardson to dub him “the great Gambon” transpired with Michael’s performance in Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” at London’s National Theater in 1980. This was his breakthrough, although he had already achieved a degree of success in plays penned by Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter.

Peter Hall, who was the artistic director of the National Theater at the time, characterized Mr. Gambon as “unsentimental, dangerous, and immensely powerful.” He recounted in his memoir that he had approached four prominent directors to cast him in the titular role, only to face rejections on the grounds that he wasn’t “star material.”

After John Dexter agreed to direct him in what Mr. Gambon would later describe as the most challenging role of his career, his portrayal exuding a blend of volcanic energy and tenderness, sensuality, and intellect, garnered not only critical acclaim but also the admiration of his fellow actors.

As Mr. Hall recalled, on the night following the premiere, the dressing-room windows at the National were adorned with actors, in various states of undress, leaning out and applauding him—an unprecedented tribute.

This marked Mr. Gambon’s nomination for the Best Actor category at the Olivier Awards. In 1987, he clinched the award for his rendition of Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” at the National Theater. It was his ability to meld vulnerability with visceral power that left audiences astounded; Miller himself hailed Mr. Gambon’s portrayal as the finest he had witnessed. Alan Ayckbourn, who directed the production, deemed Mr. Gambon awe-inspiring.

Michael John Gambon, born in Dublin on October 19, 1940, obtained dual citizenship, British and Irish, when he and his mother, Mary, a seamstress, relocated to London to join his father, Edward, an engineer engaged in the city’s post-World War II reconstruction.

He openly admitted to being a daydreaming student, often lost in fantasies of assuming various personas, and left school with no qualifications or credentials. His journey led him to an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at Vickers-Armstrongs, renowned for its construction of Britain’s Spitfire fighter planes.

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Mr. Gambon, during his teenage years, had never encountered the world of theater, confessing to a lack of familiarity with the very concept of a play. However, when he contributed to the construction of sets for an amateur dramatic society in Erith, Kent, he was bestowed with small on-stage roles. This experience was a revelation. He recollected, “I went vroom!” realizing that acting was his calling. Subsequently, he affiliated himself with the politically progressive Unity Theater in London, where he performed and underwent improvisation training at the Royal Court.

This emboldened him to write to Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, the founders of Dublin’s Gate Theater, falsely presenting himself as a West End actor merely passing through the city en route to New York. This deceit led to an invitation and an opportunity to portray the Second Gentleman in “Othello,” followed by an offer to join Laurence Olivier’s fledgling National Theater, which was actively seeking strapping individuals like Mr. Gambon to take on spear-carrying roles.

Subsequently, he essayed several minor or non-speaking roles, including a memorable moment where he uttered, “Madam, your carriage awaits,” to Maggie Smith in a Restoration comedy. It wasn’t until 1974, when he assumed the role of a slow-witted veterinary surgeon in Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy “The Norman Conquests,” that he truly made his mark in London. One particular scene, where he perched on a child-sized chair, revealing only half of his face, left audiences in stitches. According to Mr. Gambon, a spectator laughed so heartily that he tumbled out of his seat and rolled down the aisle.

Mr. Gambon harbored an aversion to gazing into mirrors, disliking his own countenance to the extent of comparing it to a crumpled plastic bag. His distinctive features, including jowls and a substantial physique, precluded him from ever portraying iconic or conventionally attractive characters like Hamlet. Nevertheless, his versatility earned universal acclaim. He possessed an uncanny ability to either expand or contract his presence as needed. Despite being likened to a lumberjack, he displayed astonishing agility and nimbleness. One critic even likened him to a rhinoceros capable of tap-dancing.

In many of his roles, Mr. Gambon brought forth a paradoxical fragility. His portrayals of King Lear and Antony, performed simultaneously for the Royal Shakespeare Company, his leading roles in Pinter’s “Betrayal” and “Old Times,” his rendition of Ben Jonson’s Volpone at the National Theater, and his portrayal of the anguished restaurateur in David Hare’s “Skylight” were all met with critical acclaim. The latter performance, taken from London to Broadway, earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in 1996.

While he primarily cherished the theater, Mr. Gambon gained recognition in the United States for his role as the daydreaming invalid in Dennis Potter’s acclaimed 1986 mini-series, “The Singing Detective.” Nevertheless, he consistently maintained that the theater held his heart, often yearning for it when absent. His screen presence remained prominent throughout his career, and he was seldom without work.

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From 1999 to 2001, he secured consecutive Best Actor BAFTA awards for “Wives and Daughters,” “Longitude,” and “Perfect Strangers.” His portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in the 2002 mini-series “Path to War” earned him an Emmy nomination, as did his depiction of Mr. Woodhouse in the 2009 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

His television repertoire ranged from Inspector Maigret to Edward VII, Oscar Wilde to Winston Churchill. In the film, he tackled diverse characters, such as Albert Spica, the coarse and violent gangster in Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” and the benevolent Professor Dumbledore.

Mr. Gambon assumed the role of Dumbledore, a central character in the Harry Potter saga, following the passing of Richard Harris in 2002. His portrayal received acclaim in A.O. Scott’s review of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” where it was noted for being supported by top-tier British acting. Mr. Gambon continued to embody Dumbledore until the franchise’s culmination with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” in 2011.

Despite the attention garnered by his acting, Mr. Gambon remained humble and refrained from viewing any of his performances as monumental achievements. He often responded to interviewers’ queries about acting with a simple, “I just do it.” Nevertheless, his preparation for roles was meticulous. He absorbed scripts thoroughly, utilizing rehearsals to refine and deepen his understanding of the characters.

“I’m very physical,” he once remarked. “I want to know how the person looks, what his hair is like the way he walks, the way he stands and sits, how he sounds, his rhythms, how he dresses, his shoes. The way your feet feel on the stage is important.” Gradually, he would navigate toward what he perceived as the essence of a character, relying on intuition to breathe life into it on stage.

Though not a Method actor, Mr. Gambon occasionally drew upon personal memories to evoke strong emotions when necessary. He found it easy to summon tears on stage, sometimes by recollecting the iconic photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. For him, acting was an irresistible compulsion—a laborious journey fraught with heartache and misery, all in pursuit of fleeting moments of pure joy.

In his personal life, Mr. Gambon remained an enigmatic figure. He asserted that his existence was inseparable from his acting and harbored a profound aversion to the concept of celebrity, and even popularity. He adamantly guarded the details of his private life, although it’s public knowledge that he married Anne Miller at the age of 22, and together they welcomed a son named Fergus. They maintained an amicable relationship even after Mr. Gambon fathered two more sons, Tom and William, with the set designer Philippa Hart.

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In 1998, he received a knighthood for his contributions to the arts.

Michael Gambon with his Knighthood
Michael Gambon with his Knighthood

Mr. Gambon’s engineering apprenticeship kindled his fascination with the inner workings of mechanical objects, including clocks, vintage timepieces, and particularly antique firearms, of which he amassed an impressive collection. He also derived immense pleasure from high-speed automobiles, once making a memorable appearance on the television show “Top Gear.” His reckless driving, which saw him negotiate a section of the track on two wheels, resulted in the segment being christened “Gambon Corner.”

Known for his mischievous antics both on and off the stage, Mr. Gambon’s reputation as a qualified pilot earned him notoriety. He once pledged to cure a fellow actor of his fear of flying by taking him on a harrowing flight, during which he feigned a heart attack and nosedived toward outer London with his tongue lolling. Alan Ayckbourn recounted an incident in “Othello” when Mr. Gambon forcibly thrust Iago’s head into a fountain. Despite the uproarious humor, the audience reportedly remained engrossed in the emotional intensity of the scene.

“I’m actually serious about my work,” Mr. Gambon asserted. Nevertheless, much of his illustrious career drew to a close after his portrayal of the wily, inebriated, and emotionally needy Falstaff at the National Theater in 2005, followed by his role as the alcoholic Hirst in Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” in 2008.

Admitting to experiencing intense anxiety before making stage entrances, Mr. Gambon suffered panic attacks during rehearsals for his role as W.H. Auden in Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” in 2009, resulting in two hospitalizations before he withdrew from the production. His struggle with memorizing lines became increasingly challenging. After his performance as the silent titular character in Samuel Beckett’s “Eh Joe” in 2013, he announced his retirement from the stage.

While he continued to grace screens both large and small, notably as the ailing titular character in “Churchill’s Secret” in 2016, Mr. Gambon’s departure from the theater left a profound void, one that weighed heavily on his heart.

“It’s a painful admission,” he confided. “But I can’t do it. And it breaks my heart.”

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