Robert Stephens

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This article is about the English actor. For other uses, see Robert Stephens (disambiguation).
Sir Robert Stephens
Robert Stephens.jpg
Born Robert Graham Stephens
14 July 1931
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England
Died 12 November 1995(1995-11-12) (aged 64)
London, England
Occupation Actor
Years active 1956–95
Spouse(s) Nora Ann Simmonds (1951-52)
Tarn Bassett (1956-67)
Maggie Smith (1967-74)
Patricia Quinn (1995) (his death)
Children Michael Stephens
Lucy Dillon (née Stephens)
Toby Stephens
Chris Larkin

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]

Early life and career[edit]

Stephens was born in Shirehampton, Bristol, Gloucestershire, in 1931. At age 18 he won a scholarship to Esme Church's Bradford Civic Theatre School, 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]

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. Stephens and Maggie 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.[3] However, following his departure from the National Theatre in 1970 and the breakup of their marriage in 1973 he suffered a career slump, not helped by heavy drinking and a breakdown.[4]

Although he continued to work on stage (notably in the National Theatre's The Mysteries in 1986), film (The Fruit Machine in 1988, aka Wonderland in the USA 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 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.[5] 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.

Personal life[edit]

Stephens was married four times:

  • 1951: to Nora Ann Simmons; they had one child, Michael Stephens, and divorced 1952.[2][3]
  • 1956: to Tara Bassett; they had a daughter Lucy Dillon[6] (née Stephens, Stephens-Gresser[7]) and divorced 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 (aka Lady Stephens; born 28 May 1944); they met in 1975, shortly after a brief relationship between Stephens and writer Antonia Fraser had ended, while acting together in Murderer in London.[8]


Following years of ill health, he died on 12 November 1995 at the age of 64 due to complications during surgery, eleven months after having been knighted. According to his last wife Patricia Quinn, the hard work and exhaustion of playing King Lear earlier that year hastened his death.[citation needed]



Year Title Role Notes
1960 A Circle of Deception Captain Stein
1961 A Taste of Honey Peter Smith
1961 Pirates of Tortuga Henry Morgan
1962 The Inspector Dickens Released as Lisa in USA
1963 Cleopatra Germanicus
1963 The Small World of Sammy Lee Gerry Sullivan
1966 Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment Charlies 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 Travels with My Aunt Ercole Visconti
1973 The Asphyx Sir Hugo Cunningham
1974 Luther Johan Von Eck
1977 The Duellists General Treillard
1977 At Night All Cats Are Crazy Charles Watson
1978 The Shout Chief Medical Officer
1981 The Games of Countess Dolingen The Professor
1986 Comrades Frampton
1987 High Season Konstantinis
1987 Empire of the Sun Mr Lockwood
1988 American Roulette Screech
1988 The Fruit Machine Vincent
1988 Testimony Vsevolod Meyerhold
1988 Ada in the Jungle Lord Gordon
1989 Henry V Auncient Pistol
1990 Wings of Fame Merrick
1990 The Children Azariah Dobree
1990 The Bonfire of the Vanities Sir Gerald Moore
1991 Afraid of the Dark Dan Burns
1991 Ferdydurke Prof. Pimco Alternative title: 30 Door Key
1992 Chaplin Ted the Drunk
1993 Searching for Bobby Fischer Poe's teacher
1993 The Secret Rapture Max Lopert
1993 Century Mr Reisner
1995 England, My England John Dryden


Year Title Role Notes
1956 Nom-de-Plume John 1 episode
1964 Channing Paddy Riordan 1 episode
1964 First Night Arnold Claybill 1 episode
1971 The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Max Carrados TV series
1974 QB VII Robert Highsmith TV miniseries
1978 Holocaust Uncle Kurt Dorf TV miniseries, 4 episodes
1982 Anyone for Denis? Schubert TV Movie
1984 The Box of Delights Abner Brown 6 episodes
1988-89 War and Remembrance SS Maj. Karl Rahn TV mini series


  1. ^ a b Benedick, Adam (14 November 1995). "Obituary: Sir Robert Stephens". The Independent. p. 18. Retrieved 14 June 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c Stephens, Robert; Coveney, Michael (1995). Knight Errant. London: Hodder and Stoughton. pp. 11–15. ISBN 0-340-64970-4. 
  3. ^ a b 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. 
  4. ^ Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 269. ISBN 1-84854-195-3. 
  5. ^ "RSC performance database". The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Archive Catalogue. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Retrieved 25 June 2012. 
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Stephens; Coveney (1995: 131)


  • 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

External links[edit]