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What Makes a Great Actor?

Dateline: 15th October, 2000

This week we're asking visitors to nominate the UK's greatest living actors, so it seems pretty timely to look at those qualities which make a great actor.

First, I think, we have to make a distinction between those who are popular because of their looks and/or because of their appearance in a high profile film or TV series and those who are actually very skilled at their craft. It has to be said that popularity, in itself, is no guarantee that the actor concerned is actually particularly good - even if saying so may offend their fans!

There are a number of soap actors, for instance, who branch out into other work - usually television - and end up playing the same role over and over again. The name and the script may be different, but the character is exactly the same. Push me for a example, and I would instance Leslie Grantham. On the evidence of what I have seen - and I must admit that I haven't seen everything he's done - it seems to me that Grantham has played the same role every time I've seen him. He does it well, certainly, but it does suggest to me that he can best be described as a good actor within a limited range of parts.

In a way, one could say that actors such as Granthan occupy much the same place in the public's affections as the matinee idols of a previous generation. Of course, some matinee idols did grow in stature - after all, Olivier was just such a one in the 1930s - and TV-related fame can lead to better things. I remember, about twenty years ago, chatting to actor Paul Henry (who played Benny in that awful soap Crossroads) over a drink and asking him how he felt about being known for what everyone in the business recognised as the bottom end of the market.

"Don't knock it," he replied. "Because of that I've had the opportunity to do the kind of theatre at the sort of level that I might never have otherwise."

So I think we can say that one sign of a good actor is the ability to play very different roles. But that isn't to say that a good actor must be a chameleon-like figure, changing how he looks and sounds with every part. Some are, of course. For me the perfect example is Sir Alec Guinness: his ability to become the role he was playing was awesome in its totality.

A fine example of an actor who could play a multitude of roles whilst retaining his own personal characteristics was another of our great theatrical knights, Sir John Gielgud. That beautiful, melodious voice is unmistakable, whether he was playing the part he loved best, Prospero, or the Chancellor of Oxford University in Inspector Morse. And yet he was totally convincing in both parts, as he was in everything he played, including what many still consider to be the definitive Hamlet.

Any actor with any talent can convince us in the right part: for the great actor, every part is the right part. Think of Olivier: in his great classical roles, as Archie Rice or the dentist in Marathon Man, he convinced. We believed. The touchstone of greatness is versatility: that is what separates the competent from the great.

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©Peter Lathan 2001