James Donald

James Donald (18 May 1917 – 3 August 1993) was a Scottish actor.[1] Tall and thin, he specialised in playing authority figures.[2]

James Donald
James Robert MacGeorge Donald

(1917-05-18)18 May 1917
Died3 August 1993(1993-08-03) (aged 76)
Years active1938–1978
Spouse(s)Ann Donald (?–1993; his death; 1 child)

Early life

Donald was born in Aberdeen, the fourth son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. His mother died when he was 18 months old and his father remarried.

Donald grew up in Galashiels and was educated at Rossall School on Lancashire's Fylde coast. He briefly attended McGill University in Montreal, but his asthma meant he transferred to the University of Edinburgh.

Donald originally intended to be a teacher but seeing Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Dame Edith Evans in The Late Christopher Bean made him decide to be an actor.

He began seeing as many shows as possible and studied at the London Theatre Studio for two years. He made his stage debut in 1938 in The White Guard and he began to get work regularly on stage. He appeared in Twelfth Night with Michael Redgrave and understudied John Gielgud in King Lear. He toured the provinces in The Cherry Orchard.

War service

In 1939, Donald tried to enlist but a medical classified him as unfit for military service so he joined ENSA. He played minor roles in several war films, including Alibi (1942), In Which We Serve (1942), Went the Day Well? (1942), San Demetrio London (1943) and The Way Ahead (1944). He achieved fame on stage appearing in Present Laughter by Noël Coward. In 1943 he was signed by MGM.

After The Way Ahead in 1944, the British Army reversed its earlier decision and called up Donald. He joined the RASC before being assigned to British Army Intelligence where he typed up decoded enemy messages.[3]

Acting career

After the war he resumed his acting career. On stage he was in The Eagle with Two Heads (1947) and You Never Can Tell (1948) In films, MGM loaned him to Gainsborough Studios for Broken Journey (1948). He was also in The Small Voice (1948) and MGM's Edward, My Son (1949).

Donald had a big success on stage in The Heiress (1949) with Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Donald Sinden. It led to Laurence Olivier casting him in a production of Captain Caravallo (1950).[4]

For films, he was Jean Kent's love interest in Trottie True (1949) and supported Jean Simmons in Cage of Gold (1950) and Googie Withers in White Corridors (1951).

Donald had the lead in a comedy Brandy for the Parson (1952) and supported Trevor Howard and Richard Attenborough in Gift Horse (1952). He played Mr Winkle in the 1952 film version of The Pickwick Papers.

He had the lead in The Net (1953) and was cast in his first Hollywood film in MGM's Beau Brummell (1954). The same studio hired him to play Theo Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956).

International work

He portrayed Major Clipton, the doctor who expresses grave doubts about the sanity of Colonel Nicholson's (Alec Guinness) efforts to build the bridge in order to show up his Japanese captors, in the war film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He spoke the film's final words: "Madness!, Madness!"

Donald was in much demand to play supporting roles in action and prisoner-of-war films: The Vikings (1958); Third Man on the Mountain (1959); Group Captain Ramsey, the Senior British Officer in The Great Escape (1963); King Rat (1965), a doctor in a POW camp; and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). He played a colonel in a comedy The Jokers (1967) and had a part as a heroic scientist in Quatermass and the Pit (1967).[5]

Donald starred in a 1960 television adaptation of A. J. Cronin's The Citadel and appeared regularly in many other television dramas in the UK and US. He starred in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Hitchcock himself: "Poison" (from the story by Roald Dahl) and "The Crystal Trench" (based on the story by A.E.W. Mason). In 1961, he played Prince Albert opposite Julie Harris's Queen Victoria, in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Laurence Housman's play Victoria Regina, for which he received an Emmy nomination.[2]

He performed Write Me a Murder (1961) on Broadway.

Later life

Later film roles included Hannibal Brooks (1969), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), David Copperfield (1969), Conduct Unbecoming (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978).


Donald retired from acting in part because of a lifelong asthmatic condition. He grew grapes and made wine in his farm in Hampshire. He died of stomach cancer on 3 August 1993 in West Tytherley, Hampshire.[5] He was survived by his wife, Ann, and a stepson.[5][6]


Year Title Role Notes
1942The Missing Million
1942One of Our Aircraft Is MissingUncredited
1942In Which We ServeDoc
1942Went the Day Well?German CorporalUncredited
1943San Demetrio LondonGunnery Control Officer
1944The Way AheadPvt. Evan Lloyd
1948Broken JourneyBill Haverton
1948The Small VoiceMurray Byrne
1949Edward, My SonBronton
1949Trottie TrueLord Digby Landon
1950Cage of GoldAlan
1951White CorridorsNeil Marriner
1952Brandy for the ParsonBill Harper
1952Gift HorseLt. Richard Jennings, No. 1
1952The Pickwick PapersNathaniel Winkle
1953The NetProf. Michael Heathley
1954Beau BrummellLord Edwin Mercer
1956Lust for LifeTheo Van Gogh
1957The Bridge on the River KwaiMajor Clipton
1958The VikingsEgbert
1959Third Man on the MountainFranz Lerner
1961Victoria Regina[7]Prince Albert
1963The Great EscapeGp. Capt. Ramsey "The SBO"
1965King RatDr. Kennedy
1966Cast a Giant ShadowMaj. Safir
1967The JokersCol. Gurney-Simms
1967Quatermass and the PitDr. Mathew Roney(Released as Five Million Years to Earth in the US)
1969Hannibal BrooksPadre
1969The Royal Hunt of the SunKing Carlos
1970David CopperfieldMr. MurdstoneTV Movie
1975Conduct UnbecomingThe Doctor
1978The Big SleepInspector Gregory(final film role)

Theatre & stage

  • "White Guard" (1938)
  • "Swords About the Cross" (1938)
  • "Weep for the Spring" (1939)
  • "Twelfth Night" (1939)
  • "King Lear" (1940)
  • "Thunder Rock" (1943)
  • "The Time of Your Life" (1943)
  • "Present Laughter" (1943)
  • "This Happy Breed" (1943)
  • "The Brothers Karamazov" (`946)
  • "The Eagle Has Two Heads" (1947)
  • "The Cherry Orchard" (1948)
  • "You Never Can Tell" (1948)
  • "The Heriress" (1949)
  • "Captain Carvallo" (1950)
  • "Peter Pan" (1952)
  • "Slightly Soiled" (1953)
  • "The Dark is Light Enough" (1954)
  • "The Gates of Summer"(1956)
  • "Face of a Hero" (1960)
  • "Write Me a Murder" (1961)
  • The Wings of the Dove" (1963)
  • "The Doctor's Dilemma" (1963)
  • "School for Scandal" (1970)
  • "The Marquise" (1971)
  • "Emperor Henry IV" (1973)


  1. "James Donald". BFI.
  2. CliptonsWife. "Biography - Tribute to James Donald". james-donald.net.
  3. "James Donald". britmovie.co.uk. Archived from the original on 11 July 2015.
  4. "Obituary: James Donald". The Independent.
  5. Hal Erickson. "James Donald - Biography, Movie Highlights and Photos - AllMovie". AllMovie.
  6. Pace, Eric (16 August 1993). "James Donald, Actor, dies at 76; Often Portrayed Military Officers". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  7. Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Laurence Housman's play Victoria Regina
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