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Friedrich Robert Donat (18 March 1905 – 9 June 1958), was an Englishmarker film and stage actor. He is best-known for his roles in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and Goodbye, Mr. Chips for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Early life

Donat was born in Withingtonmarker, Manchestermarker, Englandmarker, to Ernst Emil Donat and his wife Rose Alice (née Green) who were married at Withingtonmarker, St Paul, in 1895. He was of English, Polish, German and French descent and was educated at Manchester’s Central High School for Boys. Donat had a brother, John Donat, who was trapper in Canada and later moved to Shelton, Connecticutmarker. His children were Jean, Jay, and Peter. He was the owner of Lake George Camp for Girls in Gull Bay, New Yorkmarker, which catered to old New York families.


He made his first stage appearance in 1921 and his film debut in 1932 in Men of Tomorrow. His first great screen success came with The Private Life of Henry VIII, playing Thomas Culpepper.

He had a successful screen image as an English gentleman who was neither haughty nor common. That made him something of a novelty in British films at the time, and he was likened by critics to Hollywood's Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. His most successful films included The Ghost Goes West (1935), Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), The Citadel (1938), for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). The latter saw him win the Academy Award for Best Actor, over Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, James Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mickey Rooney for Babes in Arms. He was a major theatre star, noted for his performances on the British stage in Shaw's The Devil's Disciple (1938) and Heartbreak House (1942), Much Ado About Nothing (1946), and especially as Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral at the Old Vic Theatremarker (1952).

Donat lobbied hard to be cast in two film roles, neither of which he gained. He wanted to play the Chorus in Olivier's Henry V, but the role went to Leslie Banks, and he longed desperately to be cast against type as Bill Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist, but Lean thought him wrong for the part and cast Robert Newton instead.

According to Judy Garland in an interview, although she first sang "You Made Me Love You" for Clark Gable, she felt bad because she really wanted to sing it for her idol Donat whom she wrote a fan letter to a few years before, after seeing The Count of Monte Cristo (1934).

Personal life and death

Donat suffered from chronic asthma which affected his career and limited him to appearing in only twenty films. Author David Shipman speculates that Donat's asthma may have been psychosomatic: "His tragedy was that the promise of his early years was never fulfilled and that he was haunted by agonies of doubt and disappointment (which probably were the cause of his chronic asthma)"; however, this has never been substantiated. Donat's final role was the mandarin Yang Cheng in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). He died on 9 June 1958 aged 53 in London, Englandmarker. His biographer Kenneth Barrow writes on the cause of his death: "Perhaps the asthma had weakened him but, in fact, it was discovered he had a brain tumour the size of a duck egg and cerebral thrombosis was certified as the primary cause of death."

Donat was twice married, first to Ella Annesley Voysey (1929-1946), with whom he had three children, and subsequently to British actress Renée Asherson (1953-1958). His nephew is the actor Peter Donat.

Robert Donat has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker for motion pictures at 6420 Hollywood Blvd.


Year Film Role Notes
1932 Men of Tomorrow Julian Angell
That Night in London Dick Warren
1933 Cash Paul Martin
The Private Life of Henry VIII Thomas Culpeper
1934 The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond Dantès, the eponymous Count
1935 The 39 Steps Richard Hannay
1936 The Ghost Goes West Murdoch Glourie/Donald Glourie
1937 Knight Without Armour Peter Ouronov
1938 The Citadel Dr. Andrew Manson Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actor
1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips Mr. Chips Academy Award for Best Actor
1942 The Young Mr. Pitt William Pitt / The Earl of Chatham
1943 Sabotage Agent Captain Terence Stevenson, aka Jan Tartu aka The Adventures of Tartu
The New Lot Actor uncredited
1945 Perfect Strangers Robert Wilson
1947 Captain Boycott Charles Stewart Parnell
1948 The Winslow Boy Sir Robert Morton
1950 The Cure for Love Sergeant Jack Hardacre
1951 The Magic Box William Friese-Greene, "the forgotten inventor of movies"
1955 Lease of Life Rev. William Thorne Nominated - BAFTA Award for Best British Actor
1958 The Inn of the Sixth Happiness The Mandarin of Yang Cheng Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama


  1. David Shipman The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, 1989, London: Macdonald, p176
  2. Barrow, Kenneth. Mr Chips: The Life of Robert Donat. London: Methuen (1985).

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