Donald Pleasence, Virtuoso Actor, Dies At 75

Donald Pleasence in the 1961 Broadway production of The Caretaker by Harold Pinter


Donald Pleasence, the intense, virtuosic actor who was acclaimed for his performance in the title role of Harold Pinter's play The Caretaker, died yesterday at his home in St. Paul de Vence in the south of France. He was 75 and also had a house in London.

His agent, Tessa Sutherland, said his death was unexpected, and came after he had recovered from surgery in December to replace a valve in his heart.

In his more than 50 years as an actor, Mr. Pleasence played a wide diversity of characters in classics as well as modern works. On Broadway he also starred as a relentless public prosecutor in Jean Anouilh's Poor Bitos and in the Eichmann-like title role in Robert Shaw's The Man in the Glass Booth.

In films, Mr. Pleasence had a reputation for playing villains. But it was as Davies, the derelict caretaker, that he gave his most indelible performance. It became the keystone of his career and began his long artistic association with Mr. Pinter. As Davies, Mr. Pleasence was the embodiment of a seedy, manipulative tramp scrambling for survival while clinging to his innate dignity.

He first played The Caretaker in 1960 in London, in a production co-starring Alan Bates and Peter Woodthorpe, then repeated his success on Broadway in 1961 (with Mr. Bates and Robert Shaw) and in the film version, which was retitled The Guest. In a review of the Broadway Caretaker, Harold Clurman wrote that Donald McWhinnie's production was "a true marriage of text and performance," and praised Mr. Pleasence as "funny, obnoxious, astonishing," with a manner ranging from the "fiercely vulgar to the apocalyptic."

For each of his broadway successes (in The Caretaker, Poor Bitos, and The Man in the Glass Booth) he was nominated for a Tony Award as best actor but lost to other performers. Perhaps most significantly, the year of The Caretaker, the Tony went to Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons. Among actors of their generation, Mr. Pleasence specialized in playing earthy, inelegant characters, a direct opposite of the roles undertaken by Mr. Scofield. His last Broadway appearance was in 1972, as a transvestite in Simon Gray's Wise Child.

Mr. Pleasence was born in Worksop, England, a town with a name that seemed to foreshadow his career portraying working-class men. He came from a railway family: his grandfather was a signalman and his father and older brother were stationmasters. His first stage appearance was as Caesar in a student production of Caesar and Cleopatra. Leaving school at 17, he worked briefly for the railroad while looking for an entry into the theater. Finally he was hired as an assistant stage manager at the Playhouse on the Channel Island of Jersey. In 1939 he made his professional debut there in an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and three years later opened in London as Valentine in Twelfth Night.

During World War II service with the Royal Air Force, he was shot down over France and spent a year in a German prison camp. After the war, he acted in London in Peter Brook's production of The Brothers Karamazov. In 1951, he came to Broadway with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, in their double bill of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Later he acted in London in his Hobson's Choice and in his own adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Ebb Tide. He also played various Shakespeare roles at Stratford-on-Avon.

In films, he was often cast in sinister roles (in Roman Polanski's Cul-de-Sac, as the evil Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and as Heinrich Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed, among others) but diversified his performances with such films as No Love for Johnnie, The Great Escape, and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, in which he played a priest battling the devil.

In Masterpiece Theater on public television, he shattered typecasting by playing the virtuous Septimus Harding in Anthony Trollope's The Barchester Chronicles. Several years later he portrayed a tyrannical lord in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. He also starred with Tom Conti in Dennis Potter's Blade on the Feather.

In 1991, Mr. Pleasence returned to the London stage with great success in a revival of The Caretaker directed by the author. By that time, he had aged into the role; for his first Davies, described in the play as "an old man," he was only 40. In the revival, although not softening the character, he added poignancy, stressing the displaced, homeless side of Davies's nature.

Mr. Pleasence is survived by his fourth wife, Linda, and by five daughters, one of whom, Angela, played one of his daughters in The Barchester Chronicles.

Obituary submitted by Robert Kunath

Obituary from the February 3, 1995 edition of THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Obituary © 1995 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

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