January 2, 2017


James Donald (1917-1993) b. Aberdeen, Scotland.

James Donald

James Robert MacGeorge Donald was born in Aberdeen on May 18, 1917, the fourth son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. His mother died when he was 18 months old. An unhealthy childhood in Galashiels was followed by schooling at Rossall and a brief period at McGill University in Montreal. The asthma that beset Donald most of his life necessitated his return to Scotland and a transfer to Edinburgh University. He enraged his family by abandoning his studies in moral philosophy and taking to the boards. He appeared at the Edinburgh Lyceum as Thomas in The Admirable Crichton and subsequently went to London to study at the London Theatre Studio; first appearing on stage in 1938. He rose to fame in wartime theatre of 1943 when he created the role of Roland Maule in Noel Coward‘s Present Laughter. With the onset of WWII, Donald joined the Army, decoding messages for the Intelligence Corps.

With the arrival of the war, Donald took to the screen in a number of bit part roles in propaganda films, including Noel Coward and David Lean‘s In Which We Serve (1942), Ealing�s Went the Day Well? (1942) and San Demetrio London (1943), and Carol Reed‘s The Way Ahead (1944). His acting ability hadn�t gone unnoticed and Donald was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM in 1943. After being demobbed he returned to the stage with great success in 1946 as Smerdyov in Peter Brook’s production of The Brothers Karamazov at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

A rather humourless and stiff character actor, Donald would become typecast as officers and upper-class gents. His first major post-war role came in the disaster survival picture Broken Journey (1948), as a stiff-upper lipped co-pilot aboard a crashed passenger plane. He was seriously miscast in the romantic musical Trottie True (1949), the role required a charming and zestful peer but Donald was reserved and dreary in the role. In White Corridors (1951) he was Googie Withers fianc� and attempting to balance a medical career and personal life. From the mid-1950s he moved into television and became a seasoned actor in plays on the BBC and ITV. Donald earned international recognition with a undistinguished performance as a Theo, Van Gogh’s long-suffering brother in Vincente Minnelli’s richly coloured biopic, Lust for Life (1956).

His most memorable role came with a fine performance in David Lean�s troublesome The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as the strained prison camp doctor, Major Clipton, vainly trying to mediate between the insanely self-righteous Japanese and British military commanders. This paved the way for further intelligent and honourable officer roles in the WWII PoW dramas The Great Escape (1963) and King Rat (1965). Work had began to dry up in the late 1960s and Donald was largely performing officious cameos in films including The Jokers (1967), Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and Hannibal Brooks (1969). Declining health forced him to take early retirement and devote the last but satisfying years of his life to growing grapes and making wine in the heart of Wiltshire.

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