This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
He was never considered a comedian. He was a dramatic actor, one who was celebrated for his work in serious drama-classic and contemporary-and yet for one Broadway season, each night he made an entire audience laugh for almost 10 straight minutes.
It was about a half-hour into the first act, the audience was usually getting a bit restless as the play-a recently dusted-off work by Turgenev-was still meandering about. The actors then gathered around the table for a proper 19th century Russian dinner at which point someone would ask Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin to explain his miserable fate.
This was Alan Bates- cue to bring down the house.
For the next ten minutes, Bates worked himself into a drunken frenzy, carefully describing all of the misfortune-none of it caused by himself, of course-that precipitated his character-s fall from the ranks of provincial Russian nobility.
It was never announced whether Bates was drinking actual alcohol during this extended monologue, but his carefully slurred diction, the gradual relaxation of his posture, and the complete loss of social inhibition culminating in him pouring more wine on his companions than down his own throat made him the most convincing stage drunk since the decline of the Barrymores.
This was but one scene in a long play, but it generated such laughter and was so memorable that it won Alan Bates the 2002 Tony award for Best Actor. Sadly, this play--FORTUNE-S FOOL--would prove to be his final stage performance as Sir Alan Bates died this past weekend at the age of 69.
The Ahmanson Theater had plans to bring FORTUNE-S FOOL to Los Angeles last season, but sadly it was not to be. No doubt Mr. Bates- health was one of the reasons the play could not be brought here to the Music Center-and now, tragically, Southern California theatergoers will not get a chance to see one of the great British actors of the past fifty years is his last, great role.
Bates made his stage debut in 1955 performing with a regional British troupe and he went on to perform in 58 other stage productions in his long, distinguished career. He often performed the classics, but was best known for the roles he created for John Osborne, Simon Gray, and Harold Pinter. Bates was in the original casts of Osborne-s LOOK BACK IN ANGER and Pinter-s THE CARETAKER, two of the most famous works of contemporary British Theater.
Outside of England, Bates is probably more famous for his work in motion pictures. He starred in over 50 films and television movies, including Zorba the Greek, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Fixer, Butley, An Unmarried Woman, and Gosford Park.
For those who did not get to see Mr. Bates perform on stage, it is this last film, Gosford Park, that provides a real glimpse of his incredible talent. His is a supporting part, but he brings such intense conviction to the role of Jennings the Butler, that like in FORTUNE-S FOOL, he almost steals the show.
When the film came out, Elvis Mitchell hosted a screening with the film-s director, Robert Altman. Altman recounted that even though Bates was only required to be on set for a few weeks, he showed up for every day of filming. He never said much but was always on set, watching and observing.
This type of devotion to a role came natural to Bates because of his work in the theater. Despite his success in film and television, Bates was never far from the dramatic stage. As his obituary in Monday-s Guardian put it: -Sir Alan Bates was an infinitely versatile actor at home in all media; but what one will remember, especially in modern drama, is his matchless ability to suggest a quicksilver intelligence imbued with mischievous irony.-
In a world of stars and personalities, Alan Bates was simply an actor-but an excellent actor, a professional one, and one with immense charm that will be missed.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.