Monday, October 16, 2023

“The Great Gambon”: A Tribute to Michael Gambon

 Michael Gambon as the ailing writer in The Singing Detective (1986).

Michael Gambon, the towering English actor who died on September 27 at the age of eighty-two, had such a distinctive, jowly appearance that if he’d been born American and looked for work in Hollywood he certainly would have been typecast in gangster roles. He was lumpy and broad-shouldered and he had the long, rectangular face of a weary pugilist, with tiny eyes peeking out from beneath heavy, outsize lids and from above cheeks like thick pillows. Yet he had universes in him. He was born in Ireland but his family moved to London and then to Kent, where he apprenticed as a toolmaker. He caught the acting bug when, laboring on set crew for an amateur dramatic society, he was asked to play some small roles. Eventually he joined the Gate Theatre in Dublin under Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards and the Royal National Theater under Laurence Olivier, who was his role model – Olivier, whose physical and vocal transformations were legend, who could bury himself in a character. No one who looked like Gambon could help being recognized in part after part, yet his range was as staggering as that of any British performer of his astonishing generation, and his metamorphoses could be so miraculous that they seemed to trick the eye. In the role with which most moviegoers identify him, the Hogwarts schoolmaster Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, which he took over in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004 following the death of Richard Harris, he has the paradoxical look of a giant elf. Harris’s Dumbledore is other-worldly and wrapped in wonder; Gambon’s is Zen and self-amused – Yoda reborn as a lordly English eccentric whose white hair and beard complete him.