Sir Michael Gambon, who has died aged eighty-two, played countless iconic and legendary roles over the course of a sixty-year career on stage and screen. Yet the part that he will always be best remembered for — and, in truth, not one that stretched this fine actor to his limits — was that of Professor Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. Gambon was offered the role after Richard Harris, who played the part in the first and second pictures, died (and after, rumor had it, Ian McKellen turned it down, not wanting to play another fictitious wizard after Gandalf). Gambon claimed neither to have read the books nor to know anything about the character, saying instead that he took on the role for his grandchildren.
Be that as it may, Gambon was one of the few memorable actors in a series that generally did not offer its cast much opportunity to make a lasting impression. Combining an almost outrageous feyness with, when called upon, a paternal and even awe-inspiring presence, Gambon was simultaneously a suitably reassuring figure and very amusing in a part that could simply have turned into an all-purpose mentor. Yet the actor remained suitably detached from his role, saying both, “I stick on a beard and play me,” and remarking, almost casually, “I’ve played quite a lot of crooks and killers, and that’s quite interesting. Then Dumbledore is the complete opposite, isn’t he? He’s a nice old man.”
During the course of his screen career, Gambon first came to public attention as the bedbound mystery writer Philip E. Marlow in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, in which his performance was alternately pathetic and charismatic in fantasy scenes imagining his alter ego, also named Marlow, as he acted out a life as a detective. This role briefly made him an unlikely sex symbol of sorts, and also won him a BAFTA for his performance. He then found another memorable part in Peter Greenaway’s violent and fantastical crime drama The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Playing the eponymous thief who holds court in a vulgar and expensive restaurant, Gambon was not required to appear naked, unlike his co-stars Helen Mirren and Alan Howard; he instead conveyed a powerful, at times amusing, sense of menace until the tables are turned on him at the end.
Gambon was predominantly a stage actor until middle age, working in a mixture of classical roles and with contemporary writers such as Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn — with whom he collaborated frequently. But then around the early Nineties, his inimitably craggy looks saw him cast in a range of parts in both television and film as everything from dissolute aristocrats to crime bosses. The parts were often beneath him, but Gambon, who was a keen collector of everything from antique weapons to complex timepieces, was indiscriminate about the work he took on, working for everyone from Tim Burton to Wes Anderson. He also voiced the character of Great Uncle Pastuzo in the Paddington films; his inimitably rich tones, which had hints of his Irish and working-class London ancestry, meant that he was always in demand for voiceover work.
Gambon was often an outrageously untruthful interviewee, making up absurd stories about everything from his past homosexuality (he claimed to give it up because “it made my eyes water”) to his former career as a ballet dancer: abandoned, in his telling, because one evening, during a particularly complicated move, he overbalanced and fell into the orchestra pit. Few took him over-seriously, but he was a remarkably successful actor who made a very consistent living in a difficult profession and whose death leaves us all considerably poorer as a result.