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Alexander Duncan "Alec" McCowen CBE, (born May 26, 1925), an English actor. He is known for his work in numerous film and stage productions. He was awarded the CBE in the 1985 New Year's Honours List.


McCowen was born in Tunbridge Wellsmarker, Kentmarker, the son of Mary (née Walkden), a dancer, and Duncan McCowen, a shopkeeper. He attended the Skinners' Schoolmarker in Tunbridge Wells and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

His partner, the actor Geoffrey Burridge, died in 1987 from AIDS complications.


Early theatre work

McCowen first appeared on stage at the Repertory Theatre, Macclesfieldmarker, in August 1942 as Micky in Paddy The Next Best Thing. He appeared in repertory in Yorkmarker and Birminghammarker 1943-45, and toured Indiamarker and Burmamarker in a production of Kenneth Horne's West End comedy Love in a Mist during 1945 with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). He continued in repertory 1946-49, during which time he played a season at St Johns, Newfoundlandmarker.

He made his Londonmarker debut on 20 April 1950 at the Arts Theatremarker as Maxim in Ivanov, and made his first appearances on the New Yorkmarker stage at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 19 December 1951 as an Egyptian Guard in Caesar and Cleopatra, and on 20 December 1951 as the Messenger in Antony and Cleopatra. Following a series of roles at the Arts and with the Repertory Players, he had rising success as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge at the then New Theatre, Bromleymarker, and appeared as Barnaby Tucker in The Matchmaker at the Theatre Royal Haymarketmarker, both 1954.

After appearances as Dr Bird in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial at the London Hippodromemarker in 1956, and Michael Claverton-Ferry in T. S. Eliot's The Elder Statesman, first at the Edinburgh Festival in 1958, then at the Cambridge Theatremarker, he joined the Old Vicmarker Company for its 1959-60 season, among several parts taking the title role in Richard II, then stayed on for the 1960-61 season to play Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in September 1962, appearing at Stratford-upon-Avonmarker playing Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors and the Fool to Paul Scofield's King Lear, subsequently appearing in both plays at the Aldwych Theatremarker in December 1962 — performing these roles again for a British Council tour of the USSRmarker, Europe and the US from February to June 1964. With the RSC he also played "the gruelling role" of Father Riccardo Fontana in Rolf Hochhuth's controversial play The Representative at the Aldwych in December 1963.

Later theatre work

He enjoyed a career breakthrough at the Mermaid Theatremarker in April 1968 as Fr. William Rolfe in Hadrian the Seventh, winning his first Evening Standard Award as Best Actor for the Londonmarker production and a Tony nomination after taking it to Broadwaymarker. And more triumphs were to follow.

At the Royal Court in August 1970 McCowen was cast to play the title role in Christopher Hampton's sophisticated comedy masterpiece, The Philanthropist. If a philanthropist is literally someone who likes people, McCowen's Philip was a philologist with a compulsive urge not to hurt people's feelings — the inverse of Molière's Misanthrope. Following enthusiastic reviews the production played to packed houses and transferred to the May Fair Theatre where it ran for a further three years, making it the Royal Court's most successful straight play. McCowen and his co-star Jane Asher went with it to Broadway in March 1971 where he won the 1971 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.

His next big successes were in National Theatre productions at the Old Vic. In February 1973 he co-starred with Diana Rigg in Molière's The Misanthrope for which he won his second Evening Standard award; followed in July 1973 by the role of psychiatrist Martin Dysart ("played on a knife edge of professional skill and personal disgust by McCowen", according to Irving Wardle reviewing for The Times) in the world premiere of Peter Shaffer's Equus.

In January 1978 he devised and directed his own solo performance of the complete text of the Saint Mark's Gospel, for which he received worldwide acclaim and another Tony nomination. It opened first at the Riverside Studiosmarker before beginning a long West End season at the Mermaid Theatremarker then at the Comedy Theatremarker. Taking the production to New York he appeared at the Marymount Manhattan and Playhouse theaters.

Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of George Steiner's novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. was not a great play, but at the Mermaid in 1982 it gave McCowen a great final speech, an attempted vindication of racial extermination delivered by Adolf Hitler, which for Guardian critic Michael Billington was "one of the greatest pieces of acting I have ever seen: a shuffling, grizzled, hunched, baggy figure, yet suggesting the monomaniac power of the Nuremberg Rallies, inhabiting the frail vessel of this old man's body." It was a performance that also won him his third Evening Standard Best Actor award, a record only equalled by Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield.

Two years later, again at the Mermaid, McCowen gave an awesomely accurate portrayal of the British poet Rudyard Kipling in a one-man play by Brian Clark, performed in a setting that exactly matched Kipling's own study at Batemans (his Jacobean rustic haven in Sussex) "and turning", as Michael Billington wrote, "an essentially private man into a performer." MacCowen appeared in the play on Broadway and on television for Channel 4.


While preparing to co-star as Vladimir to John Alderton's Estragon in Michael Rudman's acclaimed production of Waiting for Godot at the National Theatremarker in November 1987, McCowen also spent a busy autumn staging Martin Crimp's trilogy of short plays Definitely the Bahamas at the Orange Tree Theatremarker in Richmond upon Thames, having previously enjoyed Crimp's style of writing in a BBC radio version of Three Attempted Acts. As Charles Spencer wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "As a director McCowen captures both the subtlety and the richness of these three original and beautifully written plays."

At the Hampstead Theatre in December 1972 he directed a revival of Terence Rattigan's wartime London comedy While the Sun Shines.

Film and television

McCowen made his film debut in 1953 in a British film, The Cruel Sea.

McCowen has appeared in the films Time Without Pity (1957), Town on Trial (1957), The One That Got Away (1957), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), In the Cool of the Day (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), The Witches (1966), The Hawaiians (1970), Frenzy (1972). Travels With My Aunt (1972) for which he received a Golden Globe nomination, Stevie (1978), Hanover Street (1979), Never Say Never Again (1983), The Assam Garden (1985), Personal Services (1986), Cry Freedom (1987), Henry V (1989) The Age of Innocence (1993), and Longitude (TV, 2000).

Television roles included the BBC four-part adaptation of J. B. Priestley's Angel Pavement in 1958, and his one-man stage performance of The Gospel According to Saint Mark, transferred to television by Thames for Easter 1979. He appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare series as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and as Chorus in Henry V, and starred in the lead role of the 1980s TV series Mr. Palfrey of Westminster. His one-man Kipling stage performance was broadcast in 1984, and he played Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess in the BBC docudramas The World Walk in 1984 and 1985.


McCowen published his first volume of autobiography, Young Gemini in 1979, followed a year later by Double Bill (Elm Tree Books).

List of theatre roles


  • Theatre Record and its annual Indexes
  • Who's Who in the Theatre, 17th edition, ed Ian Herbert, Gale (1981) ISBN 0810302349.
  • Double Bill (autobiography) by Alec McCowen, Elm Tree Books (1980) ISBN 0241103959.
  • The National: The Theatre and its Work 1963-1997 by Simon Callow, Nick Hern Books/NT (1997) ISBN 1854593234.
  • Halliwell's Who's Who in the Movies, 4th (and final) edition, ed John Walker, HarperCollins 2006 ISBN 9780007169574.
  • Halliwell's Television Companion, 3rd edition, Grafton (1986) ISBN 0246128380.

See also


  1. BFI database
  2. Alec McCowen Biography (1925-)
  3. Double Bill by Alec McCowen, Elm Tree Books (1980), ISBN 0241103959, page 7.

External links

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