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LONDON — Paul Scofield, hailed as one of the great British actors of his generation and awarded an Oscar for his haunting performance in “A Man For All Seasons,” has died aged 86 of leukaemia, his agent said on Thursday.
Scofield, a fiercely private actor who spurned the limelight, had the power, voice and presence to outdo any other classical actor with unforgettable performances in roles ranging from Shakespeare’s King Lear to a homosexual barber in the comedy “Staircase.”
But the glitter of Hollywood did not appeal and he was quite happy never to match the glamour of his contemporaries Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier.
“Of the 10 greatest moments in the theatre, eight are Scofield’s,” Burton once said of Scofield.
Agent Rosalind Chatto said Scofield died peacefully at a hospital near his home in southern England on Wednesday. “He had leukaemia and had not been well for some time,” she told Reuters.
Hollywood’s Academy Award as best actor of 1966 went to Scofield for his masterly portrayal of Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More, who chose to be executed by King Henry VIII rather than betray his conscience, in the film “A Man For All Seasons.”
The film was adapted by author Robert Bolt from his play in which Scofield was acclaimed on stages in London and New York.
Despite a volley of offers from Hollywood, Scofield chose a much lower profile, making few more films but still commanding the stage in such roles as Othello and Macbeth.
In the early 1980s he scored one of his greatest successes as court composer Antonio Salieri in the London production of “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer’s boxoffice hit about Mozart.
Director Peter Brook once said Scofield had the ability “to leave space around him on a stage.”
The self-deprecating Scofield was a very private person who hid behind the mask of a multi-talented actor.
“It’s true,” he once said. “There seems little to say about myself. About my work I believe, like the conjuror at a children’s party, if you show them how the rabbits come out of the hat then somehow next time I try to do the trick it will go wrong.”
Scofield, six feet (1.8 metres) tall, with a lean frame, a lined face and thick, wavy white hair, made his acting debut at the age of 13 in a school production of “Romeo and Juliet.” He was Juliet.
He began a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon after World War Two, from which he had been exempted for medical reasons.
Between Stratford seasons he triumphed in the capital as Richard II in a production in which the queen was played by his wife, Joy Parker. They had married in 1943.
His much praised interpretation of Hamlet won rave reviews in Moscow in the winter of 1955-56 when the Royal Shakespeare became the first English-speaking company to appear there since the Russian revolution.
He returned to packed houses in Moscow and Leningrad as Lear in 1962 and as Macbeth in 1967 — the same year he won the best male actor award at the Moscow International Film Festival for his role in “A Man For All Seasons.”
The prospect of working in the United States did not interest him. “I never liked the idea of going to live or work in California,” he said.
“Indeed, I’ve never been there, not even to collect my Oscar, because we were rehearsing at Stratford.”
Scofield lived with his wife in a cottage in the Sussex countryside south of London. They had a son and daughter, who both became teachers.
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