Versatile British character actor Ronald Pickup has died. He was 80. His agent said Pickup died peacefully Wednesday after a long illness with his family and wife of 56 years, Lans Traverse, on hand. No cause of death was given.
Ronald Pickup is a name many might not recognize, even though he worked steadily on stage, the silver screen, and television since the 1960s. But when his photograph pops up, the likely response is, “Oh yeah, I know that guy.” And why not? It would be hard to miss an actor with as long and varied a filmography as Pickup’s. He played characters good and bad, high and low, always with consummate skill, always adding value to whatever production he was in, even though rarely as the leading man. In the tributes to him and his acting that I’ve read today, the nouns I encounter most frequently are “intelligence” and “luminosity.” These writers will get no argument from me, a long-time appreciator of Pickup’s work.
After graduating from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he picked up skills and a wife for life, Pickup’s first acting work was on stage. Here he trod the boards with the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, and Simon Callow. He was a regular at both the Old Vic and the National Theater in London. His roles ranged from Shakespeare — where the lean Pickup was a lean and hungry Cassius — to postmodern stuff like Waiting for Godot. (I’ll skip this last.)
Pickup’s television break was as a physician in an episode of Dr. Who in 1964. (For which role, by the way, he was paid 30 pounds. His financial arrangements — pardon the expression — picked up.) After this he put together a truly impressive movie and television list. Masterpiece Theater regulars will have seen his work in Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill, and The Life of Verdi. He appeared in an episode of Downton Abbey. He was subject to popping up on just about any of Britain’s long-running and popular TV series, including but not limited to Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, Coronation Street, Lovejoy, New Tricks, Waking the Dead, Sherlock Holmes, and Doc Martin.
Pickup played the Archbishop of Canterbury in The Crown and Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour. He also played George Orwell, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Giuseppe Verdi. His specialty, though, was not high-ranking historical figures but the smaller roles. Characters that enhance a movie or television episode without being the center of it. His big-screen career is studded with these jewels.
Pickup played the double-dealing forger in 1973’s The Day of the Jackal, which remains the gold standard for chase movies. He was a government bureaucrat in the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again. He appeared in a series of cameos in movies better known in Britain than in America.
Probably my favorite of Pickup’s many roles, and the one that brought him the most attention on both sides of the Atlantic, is as the smooth but usually unsuccessful hustler and ladies’ man Norman Cousins in 2011’s delightful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Not blessed with matinee idol looks, Pickup almost never gets the girl onscreen, but he always captures our attention. In Marigold the girl Pickup’s hopeless Lothario doesn’t get is the stately and always watchable Celia Emrie. Looking for love, the 70-plus-and-looks-every-year-of-it Norman’s unforgettable lament is, “I’ve still got it — I just can’t find anyone who wants it.”
When someone as accomplished as Pickup moves on, it’s a cliché to say that “He/She will be missed.” Britain continues to bless the world with fine character actors, many of whom are also popular stateside. But the death of Ronald Pickup leaves a giant hole in this distinguished lineup. He will indeed be missed.
Britain’s Guardian begins its obituary of Pickup in this wise:
The art of transformation is one of the great mysteries of acting, for the best actor is both recognisable as himself and convincing as someone else. Ronald Pickup, who has died aged 80, was an actor so luminous, so transparent, that you saw straight through him to the character he played, and out the other side.
I couldn’t agree more.
RIP Ronald Pickup.