- John Wood, CBE
July 05, 1930
- Date of Death
- August 06, 2011 (age 81)
- Gillian Neason
John Wood, CBE (5 July 1930 – 6 August 2011) was an English actor noted for his performances in Shakespeare and for his long association with Tom Stoppard.
John Wood was born 5 July 1930, and educated at Bedford School (where he remembered being beaten regularly by the future writer John Fowles). He did his national service as a lieutenant with the Royal Artillery, where he was invalided out after being accidentally shot in the back and later almost killed in a near-fatal jeep accident, before attending Oxford.
He attended Jesus College, Oxford where he read law. He was president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS). He had seen John Gielgud as Angelo in Peter Brook's 1950 Stratford-upon-Avon production of Measure for Measure, "and suddenly knew what I wanted to do". He played Malvolio - "looking as lean, lanky and statuesque as Don Quixote," said the Oxford Mail - in a Mansfield College gardens production of Twelfth Night with Maggie Smith as Viola. He directed and starred in a student production of “Richard III” and invited one of the leading critics of the day, Harold Hobson, to the performance, telling Hobson that he would be "wanting in his duties" to ignore a Richard III that was "finer than Olivier's". Hobson went out of curiosity, and reported that he had seen "something not to be missed"; the young actor had a "sardonic, amused condescension and visible superiority complex", and the critic foresaw "a considerable future". Wood graduated in 1953.
In 1954 he joined the Old Vic company (where the young Richard Burton was the star), playing a string of small roles over two years as the company staged the complete First Folio of Shakespeare plays. Wood dismissively described these roles as "the cheapest way of getting a Shakespearean costume on stage”, although Kenneth Tynan thought his Lennox to Paul Rogers's Macbeth "cut like a razor through the stubble of fustian". Other roles included Bushy and Exton in Richard II, Sir Oliver Martext in As You Like It, Pistol in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Helenus in Troilus and Cressida in a company that also included many future famous actors.
Wood made his West End debut as Don Quixote in Peter Hall's staging of Tennessee Williams's Camino Real (Phoenix, 1957). He then joined George Devine's English Stage Company, which was about to change the course of new British drama at the Royal Court. Wood read scripts (and thought that John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was inferior to the work of Pinero), codirected a Sunday production and appeared in Nigel Dennis's The Making of Moo (1957). Wood returned to the West End in Peter Hall's production of The Brouhaha (Aldwych, 1958), in which he had only a small part; but as Peter Sellers’s understudy he played a leading role 15 times, which warranted (in Wood's view) a backstage party.
Despairing of a successful career, he rejected several offers from Hall in the early 1960s to join the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company, electing instead to appear on television, in A Tale of Two Cities and Barnaby Rudge, among other productions. He returned to the West End in 1961 as Henry Albertson in the whimsical off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks, at the Apollo. Most of the next 6 years were spent in a variety of films and TV programmes. Two of his last TV performances were in short plays written by Tom Stoppard for “Thirty Minute Theatre”: "Teeth, (February 1967) and “Another Moon Called Earth” (28 Jun. 1967).
His association with Stoppard brought Wood back to the stage in his New York debut. Wood played Guildenstern in the Broadway premiere of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Wood’s performance earned a Tony nomination as Guildenstern. While in America he starred in two Jerry Lewis films, “One More Time” and “Which Way to the Front”. Wood recalled of Lewis: "He taught me never to be afraid to take a risk. There was only one response, laughter, to the most horrific, cruel thing you can imagine,"