Colin Tapley

Colin Tapley (7 May 1907 – 1 December 1995) was a New Zealand actor in both American and British films. Born in New Zealand, he served in the Royal Air Force and an expedition to Antarctica before winning a Paramount Pictures talent contest and moving to Hollywood. He acted in a number of films before moving to Britain during the Second World War as a flight controller with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Colin Tapley
Tapley as an army officer in the Technicolor film Becky Sharp (1935)
Born(1907-05-07)7 May 1907
Dunedin, New Zealand
Died1 December 1995(1995-12-01) (aged 88)
Years active1933–1983
Spouse(s)Patricia Hambro

He returned briefly to New Zealand before returning once again to Britain to renew his acting career. His most famous role is as William Glanville in The Dam Busters (1955), but he spent much of his later career typecast as a police inspector, a role he played in several films and TV series before retiring to Gloucestershire.

Early life

Tapley was born on 7 May 1907 at Dunedin, New Zealand. He took part in the first of Richard Byrd's expeditions to Antarctica before moving to the United Kingdom and joining the Royal Air Force.

Paramount Pictures and life in Hollywood

In 1933 he entered a talent contest organised by Paramount Pictures and was selected as one of thirty winners and one of only two from New Zealand. The talent quest was organised for English speaking countries and winners were given small parts in a film. The film was called The Search for Beauty. He was rewarded with a contract with Paramount as a bit part actor, was credited in If I Were King (1938) and appeared uncredited in several other films. Tapley had the debonair good looks, voice and talent of a star, but he found his niche in playing character roles, and appeared in American and British films for more than 30 years without any real desire for movie stardom.[1] Colins desire for character parts came early in his Hollywood career. He wrote home enthusiastically to one of his brothers about his small part in The Scarlet Empress (1934), describing the long black beard and wonderful uniform that transformed him into the captain of the queen's bodyguard. Although his performance went uncredited, Tapley is seen directing the firing of the guns from the palace battlements, and yelling, "It's a boy!" to the excited crowd after the future empress played by Marlene Dietrich gives birth to a son".[1] He continued to work in some of the biggest movies of the 1930s, starring the likes of Cary Grant, Loretta Young, Michael Redgrave and Gary Cooper. "The most wonderful experience of my life," is how he later recalled those years "I adored every bit of it."

During this time he shared a flat with Donald Gray and they would remain close friends until Gray's death in 1978. His best friend in Hollywood was Fred MacMurray, who with his first wife, Lillian Lamont visited Colin in New Zealand and England with his second wife, when Colin had moved back to be with his own wife and children. MacMurray and Tapley remained great friends up until MacMurray's death in 1991.[1] Colin was a keen horseman and an avid polo player; playing at the Riveria Polo Club, and on his ranch in the San Fernando Valley where his friends and neighbours would spend time, one of whom being Ginger Rogers. He recalled later, 'popping over to her place for tennis and what not', before the war broke out whereupon he left Hollywood and returned to England.[1]

Second World War & RAF career

In 1940 Tapley returned to Britain and to help the war effort but found that he could not find transport direct from the United States due to war restrictions and so enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He found employment as a flight instructor due to his past experience in the Royal Air Force and was later transferred to Britain as a flight controller. During his service he was forced to parachute from a crashing aircraft and so was awarded membership of the Caterpillar Club.

Post Second World War film career

After demobilisation in 1945 Colin married, Patricia Hambro Lyon, whom he had met during the war, and returned to his native New Zealand for the first time since 1933. He soon tired of life in New Zealand and returned to Hollywood to re-establish his film career. Legendary American film director and Academy Award-winning film producer Cecil B. DeMille personally gave him a role in his new film, Samson and Delilah, which Colin accepted, playing the part of a prince. Shortly after finishing Samson and Delilah Colin and Patsy, finding that Hollywood had changed for the worse, returned to Britain. Due to Colin's upper class accent he found no trouble finding work in the film industry; it was also the boom period of British war films in the '50s and '60s and he landed the role of a lifetime, the revered war epic The Dam Busters film of 1955 where alongside Michael Redgrave he played William Glanville who helped to develop the famous bouncing bomb. From 1954 to 1958, he appeared as a police inspector named Parker, working with his good friend Donald Gray, in the detective television series The Vise (later known as Saber of London). He was subsequently typecast and would play a police officer in many of his later films. His acting career ended in 1983, at the age of 74, and he retired to Coates, Gloucestershire with his wife Patsy.

Personal life and death

During his time in England while in the RAF, Tapley met Patricia "Patsy" Lyon, the widowed daughter of Major-General Sir Percival Otway and Lady Hambro of the Hambro banking dynasty.[2] Despite being from one of England's most prestigious aristocratic-banking families, with close family ties to the Royal family, Patsy encouraged that they marry quietly being as it was very much war time in England and London lay in ruin as an aftermath of "the Blitz". And so they did with her parents, twin brother, Everard Hambro and other family members present at St Martin-in-the-Fields in August 1943.[3] Colin and Patsy lived in New Zealand and Hollywood before settling down in Coates, Gloucestershire. Colin lived in New Romney, Kent working for the first time in a regular job not as a Thespian. He was employed by the CEGB in 1964 as a meter reader in the control room at Dungeness 'A' nuclear power station. On night shifts he would regale his fellow workers with tales of Hollywood actors, their life and loves and he was amazed that he could not claim anything as taxable expenses, unlike his whole film career. He remained in Coates until his death in December 1995, aged 88. Tapley was buried in his old city of Dunedin, New Zealand next to his first son Martin, who had died at the age of 3 of leukemia in 1947. Patsy remained at their house in Coates until her death on 18 January 2000 survived by their second son Nigel Tapley, two granddaughters, and stepdaughter, Charlotte Ann Lyon, wife of the late shipping mogul Sir Kerry St. Johnston.[4]


YearTitleRoleDirectorOther cast membersNotes
1934Murder at the VanitiesStage ManagerMitchell LeisenVictor McLaglen, Carl Brisson, Bela Lugosi, Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Gertrude Michael
1934Wagon WheelsMountaineerCharles BartonRandolph Scott. Gail Patrick
1934The Scarlet EmpressGeneralJosef von SternbergMarlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, Sir C. Aubrey Smith
1935Becky SharpCaptain William DobbinRouben MamoulianMiriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke, Alison Skipworth, Nigel Bruce
1935The Black RoomPaul Hassel as a young lieutenantRoy William NeillBoris Karloff, Marian Marsh
1935The Lives of a Bengal LancerLieutenant BarrettHenry HathawayGary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell, Sir Guy Standing
1937The Crime Nobody SawDr. Randolph BrooksCharles BartonLew Ayres, Ruth Coleman, Eugene Pallette
1938BoolooCaptain Robert RogersClyde E. ElliottJayne Regan, Mamo Clark
1938Storm Over BengalFlight Lt. HallettSidney Salkow
1939The Light That FailedGardnerWilliam A. WellmanRonald Colman, Walter Huston, Muriel Angelus, Ida Lupino
1951CloudburstInspector DavisFrancis SearleRobert Preston, Elizabeth Sellars, Sheila Burrell, Harold Lang
1952Wide BoyManneringKen HughesSydney Tafler, Susan Shaw, Ronald Howard
1953The Steel KeyDoctor CrabtreeRobert S. BakerTerence Morgan, Joan Rice, Raymond Lovell
1955The Dam BustersDr. William GlanvilleMichael AndersonRichard Todd, Michael Redgrave, Ursula Jeans, Basil Sydney, Derek Farr
1955Barbados QuestLord ValchristBernard KnowlesTom Conway, Delphi Lawrence, Brian Worth
1962EmergencyDoctor LloydFrancis SearleGlyn Houston, Zena Walker, Dermot Walsh
1962StrongroomHaynesVernon SewellDerren Nesbitt, Colin Gordon, Ann Lynn
1962The Lamp in Assassin MewsInspectorGodfrey GraysonFrancis Matthews, Lisa Daniely, Ian Fleming
1969Fräulein DoktorGeneral MetzlerAlberto LattuadaSuzy Kendall, Kenneth More, Nigel Green, Alexander Knox


  1. Moor, Christopher (17 March 2001). "Colin Tapley - Our unassuming matinee idol". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 25 September 2011.
  2. "Person Page".
  3. "Person Page".
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