Leo Genn

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Leo Genn
Leo Genn in The Miniver Story.JPG
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

Leopold John Genn (9 August 1905 – 26 January 1978) was an English actor and barrister. He played Petronius in the 1951 film Quo Vadis, which earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Early life and family[edit]

Genn was born at 144 Kyverdale Road, Stamford Hill, Hackney, London, the son of Woolfe (William) Genn, a successful jewellery merchant,[1] and Rachel Genn (née Asserson). His parents were both Jewish:[2] his father being from Lithuania;[3] his mother Belgian.[4]

Genn attended the City of London School, having gained scholarships in both classics and mathematics,[5] and studied law at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he became captain of both the football and tennis teams.[5] He went on to study at the Middle Temple, qualifying as a barrister in 1928.[6][2] He finally ceased practising as a lawyer after serving as an assistant prosecutor at the Belsen War Trials.[7] On 14 May 1933, Genn married Marguerite van Praag, a casting director at Ealing Studios. They had no children.


Theatre career[edit]

Genn originally entered acting, with the Berkley Players (attached to the West_London_Synagogue),[6] in order to increase his chances of finding prospective clients for his legal work.[5] Actor/manager Leon Lion saw Genn act and offered him a contract.[8] Genn's 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. 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, and Somerset Maugham's The Sacred Flame. In 1959 Genn gave a reading[9] in Chichester Cathedral. In 1974, a recording of The Jungle Book was released with Genn as narrator and Miklós Rózsa conducting the Frankenland Symphony Orchestra with the music from the film.

Film career[edit]

Genn's first film role was as Shylock in Immortal Gentleman (1935), a biography of Shakespeare. Douglas Fairbanks Jr hired Genn as a technical adviser on the film Accused (1936). He was subsequently given a small part in the film on the strength of a "splendid voice and presence".[1] 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.[1]

Screenshot of Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

War service[edit]

With war approaching, Genn joined the Officers' Emergency Reserve in 1938.[8] He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery on 6 July 1940[10] 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.[8] He was part of the British unit that investigated war crimes at Belsen concentration camp and later was an assistant prosecutor at the Belsen war crimes trials in Lüneburg, Germany.[7]


He was in Green for Danger (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948). He was one of the two leading actors in The Wooden Horse in 1950. After his Oscar-nominated success as Petronius in Quo Vadis (1951), he appeared in John Huston's Moby Dick (1956). Genn also appeared in some American films, such as The Girls of Pleasure Island, and Plymouth Adventure (1952), a fictionalised treatment of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. He later starred opposite Gene Tierney in the British film Personal Affair (1953).[1]

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,[11] the King George VI Memorial Programme in 1952, and the United Nations ceremonial opening (in the USA) in 1947.[1]

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.[1]


Genn died in London on 26 January 1978.[12] The immediate cause of death was a heart attack, brought on by complications of pneumonia.

He is buried in Etretat Churchyard, Seine-Maritime, France.[13]

Selected filmography[edit]

Genn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Petronius in Quo Vadis.[14]


  • 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
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth
  • Richard III
  • King Lear
  • Saint Helena by R.C. Sherriff
  • Peer Gynt
  • The School for Scandal
1936–37 Old Vic Season
  • Twelfth Night
  • Henry V
1937–69 Later Work




  1. ^ a b c d e f McPeak, William. "Leo Genn-Biography". Internet Movie Database. IMDb. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  2. ^ a b John Arthur Garraty; Mark Christopher Carnes (1999). American National Biography. Oxford University Press. p. 841. ISBN 978-0-19-512787-4.
  3. ^ "Woolfe Genn".
  4. ^ "Rachel Cecilia Genn".
  5. ^ a b c "Leo Genn, British Actor, Dies 72: Man with the black velvet voice". New York Times. 27 January 1978.
  6. ^ a b Genn, Leopold John. The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History. 27 January 2011. p. 317. ISBN 9780230304666.
  7. ^ a b "Forgotten trials: the other side of Nuremberg". HistoryExtra. Retrieved 4 January 2020.
  8. ^ a b c "Obituary: Leo Genn" The_Daily_Telegraph 27 January 1978
  9. ^ "Search Online". West Sussex Past. Archived from the original on 10 January 2016. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  10. ^ "No. 34926". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 August 1940. p. 5079.
  11. ^ "Elizabeth Is Queen (1953)". IMDb. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  12. ^ John A. Willis (1979). John Willis' Screen World. Crown. p. 234-5. ISBN 9780517538357.
  13. ^ "Leo John Genn (1905-1978) - Find a Grave Memorial". Find a Grave.
  14. ^ [1]. Retrieved 24 October 2017
  15. ^ BBC Genome: Ashenden – Secret Agent 1914-1918: The Hairless Mexican (1966)
  16. ^ BBC Genome: Ashenden – Secret Agent 1914-1918: Giulia Lazzari (1967)

External links[edit]