Acclaimed stage actor Brian Bedford, who won a Tony Award on his first of seven nominations, has died at age 80.
Bedford died today of cancer in Santa Barbara, Calif., one of his agents, Richard Schmenner, told The New York Times.
Bedford performed in 18 plays on Broadway, making his last appearance, in drag, as Lady Bracknell in a 2011 production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which he also directed. His partner, actor Tim MacDonald, appeared in Earnest as well, playing a servant named Merriman.
Bedford and MacDonald, who survives him, were together for 30 years and married in 2013, the Times reports.
Bedford received his final Tony nomination for Earnest, losing to Jerusalem star Mark Rylance in the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play. He won on his first nomination, in 1971, for Moliére’s The School for Wives. His character, Arnolphe, was a “desperately jealous and insecure spouse-seeker,” the Times notes. Bedford’s competition that year included John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. The actor also won several Drama Desk Awards and was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame.
In a 2011 profile, Times critic Ben Brantley called Bedford “perhaps the finest English-language interpreter of classical comedy of his generation” and an “actor of uncommon emotional transparency and hair-trigger timing, particularly in plays by Shakespeare and Molière.”
Bedford grew up in a working-class family in the small town of Morley, England. It was not a happy situation, he noted in interviews; two of his brothers died of tuberculosis, and his father, a postal worker, committed suicide.
The young actor escaped his home by winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and he began his theater career in that city. He made his first Broadway appearance in 1959, in Five Finger Exercise, and after doing more plays in New York in the 1960s, he decided to move there.
“I found England dreary,” he once said, according to the Times obit. “I suppose it’s understandable if your childhood was as mean as mine.”
Bedford made a few film appearances, notably as Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover’s reputed lover, in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, released in 1995, and as the voice of Robin Hood in Disney’s animated 1973 version of the story. He had guest roles on several TV series, including Cheers, The Equalizer, and Murder, She Wrote, and acted in miniseries, among them Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City.
He was also noted for performing solo shows, often about writers such as Shakespeare and Wilde, and he had been a fixture of the Stratford Festival in Canada, both as an actor and director, since the 1970s.
“Onstage he was luminous,” Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino told the Times Wednesday. “You could feel he was a theater animal — he had such a sense of ease. He was like a fish in water on that stage.”