Robert Stephens

Sir Robert Graham Stephens (14 July 1931  12 November 1995) was a leading English actor in the early years of Britain's Royal National Theatre. He was one of the most respected actors of his generation and was at one time regarded as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier.[1]

Robert Stephens
Robert Graham Stephens

(1931-07-14)14 July 1931
Bristol, England
Died12 November 1995(1995-11-12) (aged 64)
London, England
Years active1956–1995
Nora Ann Simmonds
(m. 1951; div. 1952)

Tarn Bassett
(m. 1956; div. 1967)

Maggie Smith
(m. 1967; div. 1974)

Patricia Quinn (m. 1995)
Children4, including Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin

Early life and career

Stephens was born in Shirehampton, Bristol, in 1931. When aged 18, he won a scholarship to Esme Church's Bradford Civic Theatre School in Yorkshire, where he met his first wife Nora, a fellow student.[2] His first professional engagement was with the Caryl Jenner Mobile Theatre, which he followed in 1951 by a year of more challenging parts in repertory at the Royalty Theatre, Morecambe, followed by seasons of touring and at the Hippodrome, Preston. The London director Tony Richardson saw a performance at the Royalty and this led to an offer of a place in the "momentous" first season of English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1956. His success was assured.[2]

He appeared in two versions of Epitaph for George Dillon on Broadway during the 1958-59 season for which he received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play.[3]

His early films included A Taste of Honey (1961), Cleopatra (1963) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) with his then wife Maggie Smith. There was also a minor role as Prince Escalus in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), as well as a starring role in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and the science fiction film The Asphyx (1973).

Stephens played Atahuallpa in the original 1964 National Theatre production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun. He and Smith appeared together on stage and in film, notably in The Recruiting Officer at the Old Vic and the film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969.[4] However, following his departure from the National Theatre in 1970 and the break-up of their marriage in 1973, he suffered a career slump, not helped by heavy drinking and a breakdown.[5]

Although he continued to work on stage (notably in the National Theatre's The Mysteries in 1986), film (The Fruit Machine in 1988—titled Wonderland in the US—and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V), and television (notably in the role of Abner Brown in the 1984 BBC TV dramatisation of the children's classic The Box of Delights[6] and as the Master of an Oxford college in an episode of Inspector Morse), it was not until the 1990s that he re-established himself at the forefront of his profession, when the Royal Shakespeare Company invited him to play Falstaff in Henry IV for director Adrian Noble (opening April 1991), the title roles in Julius Caesar (director Stephen Pimlott) later in the year and then King Lear, again for Noble, in May 1993.[7] He was awarded the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1993 for Best Actor, for his performance as Falstaff.[1]

Stephens provided the voice of Aragorn in the 1981 BBC Radio serialisation of The Lord of the Rings. In 1985, he directed the British premiere production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea by John Patrick Shanley at the Gate Theatre, London.

Stephens was knighted in 1995.

Personal life

Stephens was married four times:

  • 1951: to Nora Ann Simmons; they had one child, Michael Stephens, and divorced in 1952.[2][4]
  • 1956: to Tarn Bassett; they had a daughter, Lucy, and divorced in 1967
  • 1967: to Maggie Smith; they had two sons, the actors Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin, and divorced in 1974.
  • 1995: to Belfast-born Patricia Quinn (Lady Stephens; born 28 May 1944).


Following years of ill health, he died on 12 November 1995 at the age of 64 due to complications during surgery,[8] eleven months after having been knighted.



Year Title Role Notes
1956 War and Peace Officer Talking with Natasha Uncredited
1960 A Circle of Deception Captain Stein
1961 A Taste of Honey Peter Smith
Pirates of Tortuga Henry Morgan
The Queen's Guards Henry Wynne-Walton
Lunch Hour The Man
1962 The Inspector Dickens Released as Lisa in USA
1963 The Small World of Sammy Lee Gerry Sullivan
Cleopatra Germanicus
1966 Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment Charles Napier
1968 Romeo and Juliet The Prince of Verona
1969 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Teddy Lloyd
1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes Sherlock Holmes
1972 The Asphyx Sir Hugo Cunningham
Travels with My Aunt Ercole Visconti
1974 Luther Johan Von Eck
1977 The Duellists General Treillard
At Night All Cats Are Crazy Charles Watson
1978 The Shout Chief Medical Officer
1981 The Games of Countess Dolingen The Professor
1983 Ill Fares the Land
1986 Comrades Frampton
1987 High Season Konstantinis
Empire of the Sun Mr Lockwood
1988 American Roulette Screech
The Fruit Machine Vincent
Ada in the Jungle Lord Gordon
Testimony Vsevolod Meyerhold
1989 Henry V Auncient Pistol
1990 Wings of Fame Merrick
The Bonfire of the Vanities Sir Gerald Moore
The Children Azariah Dobree
1991 The Pope Must Die The Camarlengo
Ferdydurke Prof. Pimco Alternative title: 30 Door Key
Afraid of the Dark Dan Burns
1992 Chaplin Ted the Drunk
1993 Searching for Bobby Fischer Poe's teacher
The Secret Rapture Max Lopert
Century Mr Reisner
1995 England, My England John Dryden (final film role)


Year Title Role Notes
1956 Nom-de-Plume John Episode: The Counting House Clerk
1964 Channing Paddy Riordan Episode: A Bang and a Whimper
First Night Arnold Claybill Episode: The Improbable Mr Claybill
1971 The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Max Carrados Episode: The Missing Witness Sensation
1974 QB VII Robert Highsmith TV miniseries, 3 episodes
1978 Holocaust Uncle Kurt Dorf TV miniseries, 4 episodes
1982 Anyone for Denis? Schubert TV Movie
1983 Studio Lyndsay 7 episodes
1984 The Box of Delights Abner Brown 6 episodes, recurring role
Fortunes of War Bill Castlebar 3 episodes
1985 By the Sword Divided Sir Ralph Winter
1986 Hell's Bells Bishop Godfrey Hethercote 6 episodes
1987 Inspector Morse Sir Wilfred Mulryne Episode: The Settling of the Sun
1988-1989 War and Remembrance SS Maj. Karl Rahn TV mini series, 3 episode
1989 South Bank Show[9] Raymond Chandler TV arts series, 1 episode, dramatised readings
1990 The Storyteller: Greek Myths Minos 1 episode
1994-1995 99-1 Commander Oakwood 7 episode


  1. Benedick, Adam (14 November 1995). "Obituary: Sir Robert Stephens". The Independent. p. 18. Retrieved 14 June 2012.
  2. Stephens, Robert; Coveney, Michael (1995). Knight Errant. London: Hodder and Stoughton. pp. 11–15. ISBN 978-0-340-64970-1.
  3. "Epitaph for George Dillon – Broadway Play – Original - IBDB". Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  4. Coveney, Michael (2004). "Stephens, Sir Robert Graham (1931–1995)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/60387.
  5. Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 269. ISBN 978-1-84854-195-5.
  6. Piers Torday (30 November 2017). "Long before Harry Potter, The Box of Delights remade children's fantasy". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
  7. "RSC performance database". The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive Catalogue. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Archived from the original on 1 September 2014. Retrieved 25 June 2012.
  8. Benedict Nightingalenov (14 November 1995). "Sir Robert Stephens, British Actor, Dies at 64". The New York Times.
  9. Champlin, Charles (16 November 1989). "TV REVIEW : Clues to Chandler's Troubled Life". Los Angeles Times.


  • Stephens, Robert; Coveney, Michael. (1995). Knight Errant. Hodder and Stoughton
  • Stevens, Christopher. (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams. John Murray
  • McFarlane, Brian. (2005). The Encyclopaedia of British Film. Methuen, 2nd edition
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