Perhaps you’ve noticed it too. Britain has actors, whereas America has movie stars (see George Clooney, whom I would trade to the Brits for a six-pack of Bass Ale and a package of custard tarts).
Certainly the estimable and very American Robert Duval is a fine and versatile actor — if it turns out there are creatures on Mars, Duval could play one convincingly — and if you give me a week I might think of one or two more. But the list of fine actors in the UK is long indeed, too long to be reproduced here. One of the best of these, Robert Hardy, died of natural causes Wednesday at a home for retired actors in London. He was 91.
Those who spend much time with British TV are familiar with Hardy’s screen presence, even those who don’t know the name. He worked a lot. In the items I’ve read about him this morning rather a fuss is made over his role as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies. Some headlines even refer to the “Harry Potter actor.” But this is only because these movies enjoyed wide popularity. (I’m convinced that first rate actors like Hardy and the late Richard Griffiths, who played Harry’s cruel Uncle Vernon, took the Potter roles just for the payday.) Hardy brought much meatier characters to life in his long career, including playing Winston Churchill a dozen times on stage and screen.
I first saw and enjoyed Hardy as the eccentric, often irascible, but never less than entertaining Siegfried in All Creatures Great and Small, a television series about three rural Yorkshire vets (90 episodes from 1978 to 1990). In his later years Hardy was subject to popping up in popular British series. He was the country magistrate with the German wife in the first episode of Foyle’s War. He was in at least one episode of Midsomer Murders and also appeared in Inspector Lewis. But he had a long pedigree before these appearances. His acting career began in the late forties after he had earned a degree in English from Oxford and served in the RAF during World War II.
Hardy, the son of a college master, usually played upscale roles with a patrician, almost imperious manner. He was entertaining to watch, but hardly restful. He was edgy before we knew what that meant. He could do prickly and disdainful better than just about anyone. If there’s such a thing as the high horse, Hardy’s characters were usually riding it. Those who knew him testified there was often little difference between the off-screen Hardy and his on-screen character. “A fascinating man, he didn’t suffer fools I can tell you, but he was a good fellow,” said Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot in All Creatures.
When Robert Hardy was on the screen it was hard to watch anyone else. Few actors could successfully compete for viewers’ attention with the likes of Michael Kitchen or John Nettles. Hardy could. He will be missed. Happily his outstanding work is captured on DVD for those who appreciate fine acting to enjoy.
RIP Robert Hardy.
Photo: Robert Hardy at Hillsdale College (YouTube screenshot)