Alec McCowen, actor who played saint, fool and James Bond's outfitter Q, dies at 91

Screengrab of Alec McCowen playing James Bond's ever-inventive outfitter, Q. McCowen died on Monday (Feb 6) at his home in London.
Screengrab of Alec McCowen playing James Bond's ever-inventive outfitter, Q. McCowen died on Monday (Feb 6) at his home in London.PHOTO: YOUTUBE/JOHN - 007 FILES

(NYTimes) - Alec McCowen, the acclaimed British character actor whose gallery of roles on both sides of the Atlantic ranged from St. Mark to the Fool in King Lear, and from Rudyard Kipling to James Bond's ever-inventive outfitter, Q, died on Monday (Feb 6) at his home in London. He was 91.

A nephew, the Rev. Nigel Mumford, confirmed the death.

Over the course of a protean half-century career in film, television and theater, McCowen's greatest triumphs were on the stage, often in classical roles. But movie audiences knew him as well.

He was a young house master in Tony Richardson's schoolboy drama The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962). In Travels With My Aunt (1972), directed by George Cukor and based on the novel by Graham Greene, he had a lead role as a bank manager with a highly eccentric aunt (Maggie Smith).

Then there was Never Say Never Again (1983), in which Sean Connery returned to the role of James Bond after a long hiatus and McCowen played Q, always ready with new weaponry for Agent 007.

In Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), probably his most famous film role, he was a police inspector tracking a serial killer - an "assiduous sleuth whose features crumple into dismay at his wife's reckless experiments with haute cuisine", as critic Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian.

Two milestones stand out in McCowen's rich theatrical career. The first was Hadrian VII, by Peter Luke, in which he portrayed the fictional Pope Hadrian. He first played the role in London in 1968 and earned a Tony Award nomination when he played it on Broadway the next year.

Even more significant was St. Mark's Gospel, a one-man show that proved to be successful both in London and on Broadway. As he told The New York Times in 1984, he found the prospect of a solo performance daunting but irresistible.

"I wanted to be an entertainer, not an actor, when I was young," McCowen said. "I wanted to be Jack Benny, and I'm still dazzled, still fascinated, by the audacity of a Judy Garland or a Lena Horne or a Frank Sinatra going out there all by themselves and holding an audience's attention."

He had turned to the Bible as a possible source of theatre in 1976, when he was searching for a challenging new stage vehicle. He found it when he began reading the Gospel According to Mark.

"I started learning little passages to see if it would come alive, and instantly realized it was absolutely right," he told The Times in 1990. "The style had a blunt, astringent quality which suited me. And it was a Gospel of action, not teaching, one which had plenty of episodes and dwelt on none for too long." He began a daily routine of memorising the Gospel's verses, a few every day, for nearly a year and a half, and gave his first public performance in 1978. On a bare stage, in casual clothes, he brought the Gospel to life, embodying multiple characters, including Mark himself, Pontius Pilate and Jesus.

In his 1980 memoir, A Double Bill, McCowen noted that Mark had "constructed his Gospel with the skill of a great dramatist". He performed the show in London and then in New York in 1978, where he received his second Tony nomination. He also took St. Mark's Gospel to the White House, where the audience included President Jimmy Carter. He returned the show to New York for a limited off-Broadway run in 1990.

Writing in The New Yorker in 2010, Adam Gopnik recalled McCowen's Jesus as "a familiar human type - the Gandhi-Malcolm-Martin kind of charismatic leader of an oppressed people, with a character that clicks into focus as you begin to dramatise it". "He's verbally spry and even a little shifty," Gopnik wrote. "He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design."

Alexander Duncan McCowen was born on May 26, 1925, in Tunbridge Wells, England. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and worked with several repertory theatres before making his London debut in 1950 in Chekhov's Ivanov. His first movie role was in The Cruel Sea (1953), a British war film starring Jack Hawkins.

In 1959, McCowen became a member of the Old Vic Company. Maggie Smith joined at the same time, and Judi Dench was also a member. He appeared in Richard II and Twelfth Night, among other plays, all the while feeling overshadowed by the stage pillars of an earlier generation, notably John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.

"They were like giants to me," he told the British newspaper The Independent in the early 1990s, "not just gigantic performances, but they appeared to be actually physically larger than life. I think they cast a wicked spell on my generation, the big three, because most of us just assumed we couldn't do it too."

He left the Old Vic in 1961 and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962. A hallmark of his early years with the troupe was Peter Brooks' celebrated production of King Lear, in which McCowen played the Fool alongside Paul Scofield in the title role. (Thirty years, after a long absence from Shakespeare, he returned to play Prospero at Stratford-upon-Avon in a Shakespeare company production of The Tempest directed by Sam Mendes.)

After his success with Hadrian VII - he gave more than 500 performances - McCowen went on to star in Christopher Hampton's play The Philanthropist, which became a runaway hit in London in 1970 but was less successful on Broadway, where it ran for only 64 performances. Nevertheless, he received another Tony nomination and won a Drama Desk Award.

His theatre credits also included the 1973 London premiere of Peter Shaffer's Equus, in which he played a psychiatrist who tries to treat a pathological young man who blinds horses, and Molière's The Misanthrope, in which he co-starred with Diana Rigg.

In 1984, McCowen undertook another one-man show, Kipling, a collaboration with playwright Brian Clark, which had its premiere in London and moved to Broadway later that year. He had long been fascinated with Rudyard Kipling, and in a Times interview shortly before the show's Broadway opening, he called him "the greatest English literary entertainer since Dickens". "What I have tried to do," McCowen said, "is peel away all those layers of respectability to get back to the violent, self-opinionated little boy that was always bursting out." London theatregoers also saw McCowen in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot and Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, among other plays. He returned to Broadway in 1992 in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, Frank McGuinness' play about three hostages in Beirut (McCowen, Stephen Rea and James McDaniel) who go to extreme lengths to try to keep their sanity in close confinement.

In addition to Mumford, his nephew, McCowen's survivors include a sister, Jean, as well as two nieces and another nephew. His partner, actor Geoffrey Burridge, died from complications of Aids in 1987. McCowen had homes in London and in Sandgate, Kent, England.

As much as an earlier generation of great actors haunted him, McCowen told The Independent, so did his father, a shopkeeper who had never gone to college and who felt intimidated by the theatre.

"I think I've made a journey in my life, both in private and professionally," McCowen said. "Certainly I started as a young actor using the fact of being an actor to get into disguise. I was clever at disguising my voice, putting on heavy makeups and shrinking into another character.

"But I was very overawed by my father, and I think I was in disguise from him," he went on. "I adored him, but I didn't think I was the son he wanted.

"He towered in my private life, rather like the image I had of the giants of the stage. I look at his photograph now and I see he was quite a little man, and I wonder what on earth all that was about."