Oscar-winning actor Robert Donat’s equally acclaimed stage career came to a suitably applauded end with his performance as Thomas A Becket in TS Eliot’s Murder In The Cathedral, which opened at the Old Vic on 31 March 1953.
Best known for his Academy Award-winning performance as the eponymous teacher in Goodbye Mr Chips, and as Edward Hannay in Hitchcock’s thriller The 39 Steps, Donat, like most actors of his time, learned his trade on the stage, in regional rep companies and in London.
Described by Charles Laughton as “the most graceful actor of our time”, Donat’s career was dogged by chronic asthma and bronchitis, so much so that by the 1950s he was forced to refuse parts due to ill health. For his performance in Murder In The Cathedral, oxygen machines were kept in the wings and an understudy was on standby to take over at any point.
Donat, who was born in Manchester in 1905, overcame a serious stammer to pursue is enthusiasm for performance. In fact, he left school at 15 to work for his elocution and stage teacher, James Bernard, making his stage debut a year later in Julius Caesar.
In the early 1930s Donat’s film career picked up pace when he took the role of Culpepper in The Private Life Of Henry VIII. Similarly on stage he played dual roles in A Sleeping Clergyman, first at Malvern before transferring to the London stage. He would reprise the performance 14 years later in his penultimate London appearance.
West End appearances that followed included Romeo And Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, The Devil’s Disciples and Heartbreak House. None of them, though, received the level of applause on the first night that resounded around the Old Vic’s auditorium for Murder In The Cathedral. It is impossible to tell whether this was solely for his performance or also out of recognition for a great actor battling the odds for his art.
Donat died of a stroke on 9 June 1958. He was only 53. The last words spoken by him on screen came in the Ingrid Bergman film The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness: “We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell.”