British actor Michael Gough died at the age of 94 this week in London. Most newspaper obituaries I have seen describe him as a “character actor,” but this appellation misses the main points of his career—its longevity, variety and distinction.
Gough was of the old school. He was born to British parents in what is today Malaysia in 1916. It was a time when British actors could emerge from the far reaches of the British Empire. Vivien Leigh was born just four years earlier in Darjeling, India. Gough was a concientious objector during World War II, something that must have carried some stigma in Britain at the time. He came into acting comparatively late. He earned his first screen credit at the age of 32, playing alongside Vivien Leigh in the 1948 version of Anna Karenina.
While Gough was not a Shakespearean actor of the stature of Ian McKellan or Derek Jacobi, he did play Shakespeare, appearing in a small role in Laurence Olivier’s Richard III in 1958. Although he was often relegated to smaller roles, he brought a certain dignity to these parts. I lit up when I spotted him in the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol. Not just because he was one of the British actors in a production made for American television, but because his traditional mannerisms brought a touch of authenticity to a small role as one of the bankers who asks Scrooge for a contribution to charity on Christmas Eve.
In the 1950s, Gough began appearing in Hammer Horror films and this gradually led him to roles that allowed him to poke fun at his own screen persona. In 1961, for example, he appeared in a horror comedy called What a Carve Up! (retitled No Place Like Homicide for American release). One of my personal favorites amongst his roles is in 198４’s Top Secret!, in which he plays Dr. Flammond, a scientist forced by the East Germans to develop super weapons. It is a patently silly movie. When Val Kilmer arrives at Fleurgendorf Prison with French Resistance members Deja Vu and Chocolat Mousse, the doctor notes the irony, as he was just one day away from finishing the tunnel he is digging with a teaspoon. Kilmer peers into the wall to see the Holland Tunnel, complete with a sign pointing the way to New Jersey. Gough was able to pul of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker silliness with a straight face and composure that even the late, great Leslie Nielsen couldn’t have pulled off.
In 1988, he got the role that has been mentioned at the top of all the obituaries coming out this week, playing Alfred Pennyworth, butler to Michael Keaton’s Batman. Gough reprised the role several times, while other actors donned the Batman suit. But the role was perhaps more important for beginning his association with director Tim Burton. Along with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Gough was one of the veteran actors to be idolized by the much younger Burton, and enjoying a career renaissance through appearances in his big budget films
Already in his 80s, Gough returned to work with Burton in 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, playing the paranoid public notary of the village who is drawn into a supernatural conspiracy against his will. As his age progressed, he stopped appearing on the screen, but his sagely voice retained its power. In 2005, he came out of retirement for Burton to voice the character of Elder Gutknech, a netherworld wiseman who is the parallel of a priest “upstairs” voiced by Christopher Lee. Last year, he came out of retirement once again for Burton, voicing the Dodo Bird in Alice in Wonderland. Gough had previously played the March Hare in another production—a full 42 years earlier, yet another indication of the longevity of his career.