Richardson was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the third son and youngest child of Arthur Richardson and his wife Lydia (née Russell). The couple had met while both were in Paris, studying with the painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Arthur Richardson had been senior art master at Cheltenham Ladies' College from 1893.
In 1907 the family split up; there was no divorce or formal separation, but the two elder boys, Christopher and Ambrose, remained with their father and Lydia left them, taking Ralph with her. The ostensible cause of the couple's separation was a row over Lydia's choice of wallpaper for her husband's study. According to John Miller's biography, whatever underlying causes there may have been are unknown. An earlier biographer, Garry O'Connor, speculates that Arthur Richardson might have been having an extramarital affair. There does not seem to have been a religious element, although Arthur was a dedicated Quaker, whose first two sons were brought up in that faith, whereas Lydia was a devout convert to Roman Catholicism, in which she raised Ralph. Mother and son had a variety of homes, the first of which was a bungalow converted from two railway carriages in Shoreham-by-Sea on the south coast of England.
Lydia wanted Richardson to become a priest. In Brighton he served as an altar boy, which he enjoyed, but when sent at about fifteen to the nearby Xaverian College, a seminary for trainee priests, he ran away. As a pupil at a series of schools he was uninterested in most subjects and was an indifferent scholar. His Latin was poor, and during church services he would improvise parts of the Latin responses, developing a talent for invention when memory failed that proved useful in his later career.
The heyday of the touring actor-manager was nearing its end but some companies still flourished. As well as Benson's, there were those of Sir John Martin-Harvey, Ben Greet, and, only slightly less prestigious, Charles Doran.[n 4] Richardson wrote to all four managers: the first two did not reply; Greet saw him but had no vacancy; Doran engaged him, at a wage of £3 a week. Richardson made his first appearance as a professional actor at the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft, in August 1921, as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. He remained with Doran's company for most of the next two years, gradually gaining more important roles, including Banquo in Macbeth and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar.
Doran's company specialised in the classics, principally Shakespeare. After two years of period costumes Richardson felt the urge to act in a modern work. He left Doran in 1923 and toured in a new play, Outward Bound by Sutton Vane. He returned to the classics in August 1924, in Nigel Playfair's touring production of The Way of the World, playing Fainall. While on that tour he married Muriel Hewitt, a young member of Doran's company, known to him as "Kit". To his great happiness, the two were able to work together for most of 1925, both being engaged by Sir Barry Jackson of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for a touring production of The Farmer's Wife. From December of that year they were members of the main repertory company in Birmingham. Through Jackson's chief director, the veteran taskmaster H K Ayliff, Richardson "absorbed the influence of older contemporaries like Gerald du Maurier, Charles Hawtrey and Mrs Patrick Campbell." Hewitt was seen as a rising star but Richardson's talents were not yet so apparent; he was allotted supporting roles such as Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest and Albert Prossor in Hobson's Choice.
Richardson made his London debut in July 1926 as the stranger in Oedipus at Colonus in a Sunday-night performance at the Scala Theatre, with a cast including Percy Walsh, John Laurie and D A Clarke-Smith. He then toured for three months in Eden Phillpotts's comedy Devonshire Cream with Jackson's company led by Cedric Hardwicke.
When Phillpotts's next comedy, Yellow Sands, was to be mounted at the Haymarket Theatre in the West End, Richardson and his wife were both cast in good roles. The play opened in November 1926 and ran until September 1928; with 610 performances it was the longest London run of Richardson's entire career. During the run Muriel Hewitt began to show early symptoms of encephalitis lethargica, a progressive and ultimately fatal illness.
In 1930 Richardson, with some misgivings, accepted an invitation to join The Old Vic company. The theatre, in an unfashionable location south of the Thames, had offered inexpensive tickets for opera and drama under its proprietor Lilian Baylis since 1912. Its profile had been raised considerably by Baylis's producer, Harcourt Williams, who in 1929 persuaded the young West End star John Gielgud to lead the drama company. For the following season Williams wanted Richardson to join, with a view to succeeding Gielgud from 1931 to 1932. Richardson agreed, though he was not sure of his own suitability for a mainly Shakespearean repertoire, and was not enthusiastic about working with Gielgud: "I found his clothes extravagant, I found his conversation flippant. He was the New Young Man of his time and I didn't like him."
The friendship and professional association lasted until the end of Richardson's life. Gielgud wrote in 1983, "Besides cherishing our long years of work together in the theatre, where he was such an inspiring and generous partner, I grew to love him in private life as a great gentleman, a rare spirit, fair and balanced, devotedly loyal and tolerant and, as a companion, bursting with vitality, curiosity and humour." Among Richardson's other parts in his first Old Vic season, Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra gained particularly good notices. The Morning Post commented that it placed him in the first rank of Shakespearean actors. At the beginning of 1931 Baylis re-opened Sadler's Wells Theatre with a production of Twelfth Night starring Gielgud as Malvolio and Richardson as Sir Toby Belch. W. A. Darlington in The Daily Telegraph wrote of Richardson's "ripe, rich and mellow Sir Toby, [which] I would go many miles to see again."
Richardson returned to the Malvern Festival in August 1932. He was in four plays, the last of which, Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good, transferred to the New Theatre in London the following month. The play was not liked by audiences and ran for only forty-seven performances, but Richardson, in Agate's phrase, "ran away with the piece", and established himself as a West End star. In 1933 he had his first speaking part in a film, playing the villain, Nigel Hartley, in The Ghoul, which starred Cedric Hardwicke and Boris Karloff. The following year he was cast in his first starring role in a film, as the hero in The Return of Bulldog Drummond. The Times commented, "Mr Ralph Richardson makes Drummond as brave and stupid on the screen as he is in print."
Over the next two years Richardson appeared in six plays in London ranging from Peter Pan (as Mr Darling and Captain Hook) to Cornelius, an allegorical play written for and dedicated to him by J B Priestley. Cornelius ran for two months; this was less than expected, and left Richardson with a gap in engagements in the second half of 1935. He filled it by accepting an invitation from Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic to play Mercutio in their production of Romeo and Juliet on a US tour and on Broadway. Romeo was played by Maurice Evans and Juliet by Cornell. Richardson's performance greatly impressed American critics, and Cornell invited him to return to New York to co-star with her in Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, though nothing came of this.
At the outbreak of war Richardson joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant pilot. He had taken flying lessons during the 1930s and had logged 200 hours of flying time, but, though a notoriously reckless driver, he admitted to being a timid pilot. He counted himself lucky to have been accepted, but the Fleet Air Arm was short of pilots. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-commander. His work was mostly routine administration, probably because of "the large number of planes which seemed to fall to pieces under his control", through which he acquired the nickname "Pranger" Richardson. He served at several bases in the south of England, and in April 1941, at the Royal Naval Air Station, Lee-on-Solent, he was able to welcome Olivier, newly commissioned as a temporary sub-lieutenant. Olivier rapidly eclipsed Richardson's record for pranging.
In 1942, on his way to visit his wife at the cottage where she was cared for by a devoted couple, Richardson crashed his motor-bike and was in hospital for several weeks. Kit was at that point mobile enough to visit him, but later in the year her condition worsened and in October she died. He was intensely lonely, though the comradeship of naval life was some comfort. In 1944 he married again. His second wife was the actress Meriel Forbes, a member of the Forbes-Robertson theatrical family. The marriage brought him lifelong happiness and a son, Charles (1945–98), who became a television stage manager.
The triumvirate secured the New Theatre for their first season and recruited a company. Thorndike was joined by, among others, Harcourt Williams, Joyce Redman and Margaret Leighton. It was agreed to open with a repertory of four plays: Peer Gynt, Arms and the Man, Richard III and Uncle Vanya. Richardson's roles were Peer, Bluntschli, Richmond and Vanya; Olivier played the Button Moulder, Sergius, Richard and Astrov. The first three productions met with acclaim from reviewers and audiences; Uncle Vanya had a mixed reception. The Times thought Olivier's Astrov "a most distinguished portrait" and Richardson's Vanya "the perfect compound of absurdity and pathos". Agate, on the other hand, commented, "'Floored for life, sir, and jolly miserable' is what Uncle Vanya takes three acts to say. And I just cannot believe in Mr Richardson wallowing in misery: his voice is the wrong colour." In 1945 the company toured Germany, where they were seen by many thousands of Allied servicemen; they also appeared at the Comédie-Française theatre in Paris, the first foreign company to be given that honour. The critic Harold Hobson wrote that Richardson and Olivier quickly "made the Old Vic the most famous theatre in the Anglo-Saxon world."
Richardson began the 1960s with a failure. Enid Bagnold's play The Last Joke was savaged by the critics ("a meaningless jumble of pretentious whimsy" was one description). His only reason for playing in the piece was the chance of acting with Gielgud, but both men quickly regretted their involvement. Richardson then went to the US to appear in Sidney Lumet's film adaptation of Long Day's Journey into Night, alongside Katharine Hepburn. Lumet later recalled how little guidance Richardson needed. Once, the director went into lengthy detail about the playing of a scene, and when he had finished, Richardson said, "Ah, I think I know what you want – a little more flute and a little less cello". After that, Lumet was sparing with suggestions. Richardson was jointly awarded the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actor prize with his co-stars Jason Robards Jr and Dean Stockwell.
State Bar of Texas; American Bar Association. (Senior Attorney).
As a man, Richardson was on the one hand deeply private and on the other flamboyantly unconventional. Frank Muir said of him, "It's the Ralphdom of Ralph that one has to cling to; he wasn't really quite like other people." In Coveney's phrase, "His oddness was ever startling and never hardened into mere eccentricity." Richardson would introduce colleagues to his ferrets by name, ride at high speed on his powerful motor-bike in his seventies, have a parrot flying round his study eating his pencils, or take a pet mouse out for a stroll, but behind such unorthodox behaviour there was a closely guarded self who remained an enigma to even his closest colleagues. Tynan wrote in The New Yorker that Richardson "made me feel that I have known this man all my life and that I have never met anyone who more adroitly buttonholed me while keeping me firmly at arm's length."
Richardson was not known for his political views. He reportedly voted for Winston Churchill's Conservative party in 1945, but there is little other mention of party politics in the biographies. Having been a devoted Roman Catholic as a boy, he became disillusioned with religion as a young man, but drifted back to faith: "I came to a kind of feeling I could touch a live wire through prayer". He retained his early love of painting, and listed it and tennis in his Who's Who entry as his recreations.
Peter Hall said of Richardson, "I think he was the greatest actor I have ever worked with." The director David Ayliff, son of Richardson's and Olivier's mentor, said, "Ralph was a natural actor, he couldn't stop being a perfect actor; Olivier did it through sheer hard work and determination."Comparing the two, Hobson said that Olivier always made the audience feel inferior, and Richardson always made them feel superior. The actor Edward Hardwicke agreed, saying that audiences were in awe of Olivier, "whereas Ralph would always make you feel sympathy ... you wanted to give him a big hug. But they were both giants."
Richardson thought himself temperamentally unsuited to the great tragic roles, and most reviewers agreed, but to critics of several generations he was peerless in classic comedies. Kenneth Tynan judged any Falstaff against Richardson's, which he considered "matchless", and Gielgud judged "definitive". Richardson, though hardly ever satisfied with his own performances, evidently believed he had done well as Falstaff. Hall and others tried hard to get him to play the part again, but referring to it he said, "Those things I've done in which I've succeeded a little bit, I'd hate to do again."
A leading actor of a younger generation, Albert Finney, has said that Richardson was not really an actor at all, but a magician. Miller, who interviewed a large number of Richardson's colleagues for his 1995 biography, notes that when talking about Richardson's acting, "magical" was a word many of them used. The Guardian judged Richardson "indisputably our most poetic actor". For The Times, he "was ideally equipped to make an ordinary character seem extraordinary or an extraordinary one seem ordinary". He himself touched on this dichotomy in his variously reported comments that acting was "merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing" or, alternatively, "dreaming to order".