Robert Donat

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Robert Donat
Robert Donat.jpg
Born Friedrich Robert Donat
(1905-03-18)18 March 1905
Withington, Manchester, Lancashire, England, UK
Died 9 June 1958(1958-06-09) (aged 53)
London, England, UK
Cause of death
Cerebral thrombosis
Occupation Actor
Years active 1932–1958
Spouse(s) Ella Annesley Voysey (1929–1946)
Renée Asherson (1953–1958)

Friedrich Robert Donat (18 March 1905 – 9 June 1958) was an English film and stage actor.[1] He is best known for his roles in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and in Goodbye, Mr. Chips for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Early life[edit]

Donat was born in Withington, Manchester, Lancashire, to Ernst Emil Donat and his wife Rose Alice (née Green) who were married at Withington's St Paul's Church, in 1895. He was of English, Polish, German and French descent and was educated at Manchester's Central High School for Boys.


Donat made his first stage appearance in 1921, at the age of 16, with Henry Baynton's company at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham, playing Lucius in Julius Caesar. His real break came in 1924 when he joined the company of Shakespearean actor Sir Frank Benson, where he stayed for four years.[2] Donat made his film debut in 1932 in Men of Tomorrow. His first great screen success came with The Private Life of Henry VIII, playing Thomas Culpeper.[3]

He had a successful screen image as an English gentleman who was neither haughty nor common. That made him something of a novelty in British films at the time. His most successful films included: "The Count of Monte Cristo" (1934), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), The Citadel (1938), for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). The last saw him win the Academy Award for Best Actor, over Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, James Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mickey Rooney for Babes in Arms. He was a major theatre star, noted for his performances on the British stage in Shaw's The Devil's Disciple (1938) and Heartbreak House (1942), Much Ado About Nothing (1946) and especially as Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral at the Old Vic Theatre (1952).

Donat lobbied hard to be cast in two film roles, neither of which he gained. He wanted to play the Chorus in Olivier's Henry V, but the role went to Leslie Banks, and he longed desperately to be cast against type as Bill Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist, but Lean thought him wrong for the part and cast Robert Newton instead.

Personal life and death[edit]

Donat suffered from chronic asthma, which affected his career and limited him to appearing in only twenty films.[4] For instance, it caused him to drop out of the lead role in Hobson's Choice (1954).[4] Author David Shipman speculates that Donat's asthma may have been psychosomatic: "His tragedy was that the promise of his early years was never fulfilled and that he was haunted by agonies of doubt and disappointment (which probably were the cause of his chronic asthma)".[5] David Thomson has also suggested this explanation,[6] while Ella Annesley Voysey, his first wife, said in a 1980 interview with Barry Norman that Donat's asthma was a psychosomatic response to the birth of their daughter, "Robert was full of fear", she said.[7]

Donat's final role was the mandarin Yang Cheng in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). His last spoken words in this film were prophetic, "We shall not see each other again. I think. Farewell."

He died on 9 June 1958 aged 53 in London. His biographer Kenneth Barrow writes on the cause of his death: "Perhaps the asthma had weakened him but, in fact, it was discovered he had a brain tumour the size of a duck egg and cerebral thrombosis was certified as the primary cause of death."[8]

Donat was twice married, first to Ella Annesley Voysey (1929–1946), with whom he had three children, and subsequently to British actress Renée Asherson (1953–1958). The actors Peter Donat and Richard Donat are his nephews.

Donat has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for motion pictures at 6420 Hollywood Blvd. A blue plaque commemorates Donat at 8 Meadway in Hampstead Garden Suburb.[9] His place of birth at 42 Everett Road in Withington, Manchester is also commemorated by a similar plaque.[10]


Year Title Role Notes
1932 Men of Tomorrow Julian Angell
1932 That Night in London Dick Warren
1933 Cash Paul Martin
1933 Private Life of Henry VIII, TheThe Private Life of Henry VIII Thomas Culpeper
1934 Count of Monte Cristo, TheThe Count of Monte Cristo Edmond Dantès, the eponymous Count
1935 39 Steps, TheThe 39 Steps Richard Hannay
1936 Ghost Goes West, TheThe Ghost Goes West Murdoch Glourie/Donald Glourie
1937 Knight Without Armour A. J. Fothergill
1938 Citadel, TheThe Citadel Dr. Andrew Manson Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips Mr. Chips Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
1942 Young Mr Pitt, TheThe Young Mr Pitt William Pitt / The Earl of Chatham
1943 Adventures of Tartu, TheThe Adventures of Tartu Captain Terence Stevenson / Jan Tartu released in the United States as Sabotage Agent
1943 New Lot, TheThe New Lot Actor uncredited
1945 Perfect Strangers Robert Wilson
1947 Captain Boycott Charles Stewart Parnell
1948 Winslow Boy, TheThe Winslow Boy Sir Robert Morton
1950 Cure for Love, TheThe Cure for Love Sergeant Jack Hardacre
1951 Magic Box, TheThe Magic Box William Friese-Greene, "the forgotten inventor of movies"
1954 Lease of Life Rev. William Thorne Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1958 Inn of the Sixth Happiness, TheThe Inn of the Sixth Happiness Mandarin of Yang Cheng, TheThe Mandarin of Yang Cheng Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama

Box office ranking[edit]

For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted him among the top ten British stars at the box office in an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, 11 June 1958.
  2. ^ [1] Donat Family Letters - John Rylands University Library
  3. ^ "NOTES ON FILMS.". The Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW : 1949–1953) (Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia). 23 July 1950. p. 6 Supplement: Features. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  4. ^ a b "illness May Silence Donat's Golden Voice.". The Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW : 1949–1953) (Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia). 2 August 1953. p. 14. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  5. ^ David Shipman The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, London: Macdonald, 1989, p.176
  6. ^ David Thomson The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: Little, Brown, 2002, p.241
  7. ^ reprinted in The Listener, vol.104, p.241
  8. ^ Barrow, Kenneth. Mr Chips: The Life of Robert Donat. London: Methuen (1985).
  9. ^ "DONAT, ROBERT (1905–1958)". English Heritage. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  10. ^ "Hello Mr Chips - plaque marks home of Oscar winner Robert Donat". MEN Media. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  11. ^ "PICTURES and PERSONALITIES.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860–1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 10 April 1937. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
  12. ^ 'MISCELLANY: FILM FAVOURITES', Edited by Lucio. The Manchester Guardian (1901–1959) [Manchester (UK)] 29 December 1941: 3.
  13. ^ "FILM WORLD.". The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879–1954) (Perth, WA: National Library of Australia). 28 February 1947. p. 20 Edition: SECOND EDITION. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 

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