Richard Johnson was born in Upminster, Essex, the son of Frances Louisa Olive (née Tweed) and Keith Holcombe Johnson. Johnson went to Felsted School, then trained at RADA and made his first professional appearances on stage in Manchester with John Gielgud’s company in a production of Hamlet in 1944. He served in the Royal Navy from 1945 to 1948, and made his film debut in 1959, when he appeared in a major co-star role in the MGM film Never So Few, starring Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida. Subsequently he was contracted by MGM to appear in 1 film per year over 6 years. His biggest successes as a film actor came with The Haunting (1963) also featuring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris, Khartoum (1966) with Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, and the spy film Danger Route (1967). Johnson was director Terence Young’s preferred choice for the role of James Bond in the first film in the series, but Johnson turned the role down. A few years later, Bulldog Drummond was reimagined as a 007-type hero in Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and its sequel Some Girls Do (1969). He also appeared in several Italian films, including Lucio Fulci’s cult classic, Zombi 2 and Sergio Martino’s L’isola degli uomini pesce (aka Island of the Fishmen). At the same time, he was a stage actor, appearing in the title role in Tony Richardson’s production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre in 1958. His stage career was extensive and distinguished. His early work in the London theatre attracted the attention of the director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. He appeared in many important productions at that theatre in the late 1950s and early 1960s, making notable successes as Romeo, Orlando in As You Like It, Pericles and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.
In 1958 he appeared in Peter Hall’s first production at the theatre, Cymbeline, and the following year in Twelfth Night (as Sir Andrew Aguecheek). Hall took over the direction of the company in 1959 – it was renamed the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and he invited Johnson to be part of the first group of actors to be named an Associate Artist of the RSC, a position he retained until he died. He continued to act with the RSC from time to time, including as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, which he played on two occasions (in 1971–72, with Janet Suzman, and in 1991–92). He played the role in ITV’s production in 1974. He continued to appear on film and television in the first decade of the 21st century. His films during this period included Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He also appeared in several TV films: in 2005 he appeared as Stanley Baldwin in Wallis & Edward, in 2007 as Earl Mountbatten in Whatever Love Means, and in 2009 in Lewis. He contributed to British episodic TV, including Spooks, Waking the Dead, twice in Midsomer Murders, and twice in Doc Martin (as Colonel Gilbert Spencer). From 2007, he led the cast of the BBC’s radio comedy series Bleak Expectations which ran until 2012.
Throughout his career Johnson continued to teach young actors and students. He toured American universities and taught summer schools at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). He was appointed to the Council of RADA in 2000, and served as a Council Member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in the 1970s. Johnson wrote the original story for the 1975 thriller, Hennessy. Johnson founded the British production company United British Artists (UBA) in 1981, and served as the company’s CEO until 1990, when he resigned in order to resume his acting career. During his tenure at UBA he produced the films Turtle Diary (starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley, with a screenplay commissioned from Harold Pinter), and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. In London, he produced Pinter’s Old Times, a revival of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (Old Vic), and for theatre and television, the docudrama Biko, about the death of Steven Biko. Johnson wrote travel articles regularly for the London mass-circulation newspaper The Mail on Sunday. He kept a blog and teaching website called The Shakespeare Masterclass. Johnson died on 5 June 2015, aged 87, at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea, London.
- July, 30, 1927
- United Kingdom
- Upminster, Essex, England
- June, 05, 2015
- United Kingdom
- Chelsea, London, England