Leo Genn

Leopold John "Leo" Genn (9 August 1905 – 26 January 1978) was an English actor and barrister. He is perhaps best known for his role as Petronius in the 1951 film Quo Vadis, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Leo Genn
Genn in The Miniver Story (1950)
Leopold John Genn

(1905-08-09)9 August 1905
London, England
Died26 January 1978(1978-01-26) (aged 72)
London, England
EducationCity of London School
Alma materSt Catharine's College, Cambridge
OccupationActor & Barrister
Years active1935–1975
Marguerite van Praag (m. 1933)
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
RankLieutenant Colonel
UnitRoyal Artillery
Battles/warsWorld War II

Early life and family

Genn was born at 144 Kyverdale Road, Stamford Hill, Hackney, London, the son of Woolfe (William) Genn, a jewellery salesman, and Rachel Genn (née Asserson). His parents were both Jewish.

Genn attended the City of London School and studied law at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, qualifying as a barrister in 1928. He ceased practising as a lawyer soon after World War II. On 14 May 1933, Genn married Marguerite van Praag, a casting director at Ealing Studios. They had no children.


Theatre career

Leon M. Lion saw Genn act and offered him a contract[1]. His theatrical debut was in 1930 in A Marriage has been Disarranged at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne and then at the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, London. Actor/manager Leon M. Lion had engaged him simultaneously as an actor and attorney. In 1933 he appeared in Ballerina by Rodney Ackland. Between September 1934 and March 1936, Leo Genn was a member of the Old Vic Company where he appeared in many productions of Shakespeare. in 1934 he featured in R.J. Minney's Clive of India. In 1937 he was Horatio in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, in Elsinore, Denmark. In 1938, Genn appeared in the theatrical hit, The Flashing Stream by Charles Langbridge Morgan and went with the show to America and Broadway. His many other stage performances included Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, 12 Angry Men, The Devil's Advocate, Maugham's The Sacred Flame. In 1959 Genn gave a reading[2] in Chichester Cathedral.

Film career

Genn's first film role was as Shylock in Immortal Gentleman (1935), a biography of Shakespeare. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. hired Genn as a technical advisor on the film Accused (1936). He was subsequently given a small part in the film on the strength of a "splendid voice and presence". Genn received another small role in Alexander Korda's The Drum (1938) and was the young man who danced with Eliza Doolittle at the duchess's ball in Pygmalion, a film made in the same year, although he was uncredited.

War service

With war approaching, Genn joined the Officers' Emergency Reserve in 1938[3]. He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery on 6 July 1940[4] and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1943. In 1944, the actor was given official leave to appear as the Constable of France in Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

Genn was awarded the Croix de guerre in 1945[5]. He was part of the British unit that investigated war crimes at Belsen concentration camp and later was an assistant prosecutor at the trial for Belsen in Lüneburg, Germany. [6]


He was in Green for Danger (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948). After his Academy Award-nominated success as Petronius in Quo Vadis (1951) he appeared in John Huston's Moby Dick (1956). Genn also appeared in some rather forgettable American films, such as The Girls of Pleasure Island, and Plymouth Adventure (1952), a fictionalised, but entertaining soap opera treatment of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. He fared far better in a British film, Personal Affair (1953), starring opposite Gene Tierney.

He played Major Michael Pemberton in Roberto Rossellini's Era Notte a Roma (Escape by Night, 1960). Leo Genn narrated the coronation programmes of both 1937 and 1953,[7] the King George VI Memorial Programme in 1952, and the United Nations ceremonial opening (in the USA) in 1947.

Genn was a governor of the Mermaid Theatre and trustee of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. He was also council member of the Arts Educational Trust. He was appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theatre Arts, Pennsylvania State University, 1968 and Visiting Professor of Drama, University of Utah, 1969.


Genn died in London on 26 January 1978. The immediate cause of death was a heart attack, brought on by complications of pneumonia.

Selected filmography

Genn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Petronius in Quo Vadis.[8]


  • 1930 A Marriage Has Been Disarranged, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Royalty Theatre
  • appearances in: No 17; Tiger Cats; Champion North; While Parents Sleep; Clive of India
  • 1931 O.H.M.S.
  • 1934–36 Old Vic Company:
1934–35 Old Vic Season
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Henry IV Part 2
  • Major Barbara
  • Hippolytus by Euripides
  • The Two Shepherds by Sierra
  • Othello
  • The Taming of the Shrew, Sadler's Wells
  • Saint Joan, Old Vic/Sadler's Wells
  • Richard II
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Hamlet
  • Shakespeare Birthday Festival- 23 April 1935
  • Last Night of Shakespeare Season: scenes from Hamlet, Richard II, Taming of The Shrew, 20 May 1935
1935–36 Old Vic Season
1936–37 Old Vic Season


  • 1955 Omnibus: "Herod"
  • 1955 Screen Director's Playhouse: "Titanic Incident"
  • 1960 Mrs Miniver with Maureen O'Hara as Mrs Miniver and Leo Genn as Clem Miniver, CBS
  • 1961 The Defenders
  • 1961 The Jack Paar Show, (himself)
  • 1961 The Life of Adolf Hitler written & directed by Paul Rotha, commentary by Leo Genn & Marius Goring
  • 1962 An Act of Faith, a BBC documentary on Coventry Cathedral, narrated by Leo Genn
  • 1963 Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre: "Commander Tony Gardiner"
  • 1963 The Merv Griffin Show, (himself)
  • 1964 "The Thirty Days of Gavin Heath", an episode of The Virginian, Leo Genn as Gavin Heath
  • 1965 The Cat's Cradle by Hugo Charteris, an instalment of The Wednesday Play, BBC Television
  • 1967 Saint Joan
  • 1969 Strange Report
  • 1969 The Expert
  • 1970 Howards End (with Glenda Jackson), an instalment of Play of the Month BBC Television
  • 1971 The Persuaders
  • 1973 The Movie Quiz
  • 1973 Jackanory, narrating on three episodes
  • 1974 The Zoo Gang



  1. The telegraph obituary 27 January 1978
  2. "Search Online". West Sussex Past. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  3. The telegraph obituary 27 January 1978
  4. "No. 34926". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 August 1940. p. 5079.
  5. The telegraph obituary 27 January 1978
  6. https://www.historyextra.com/period/second-world-war/forgotten-trials-the-other-side-of-nuremberg/
  7. "Elizabeth Is Queen (1953)". IMDb. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  8. . Retrieved 24 October 2017
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