Many of us growing up in southeastern Michigan have looked forward to an annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival in Ontario. If you include yourself among this number, you too were saddened to learn yesterday of the passing of the wonderful Brian Bedford at the age of 80, of cancer.
We can personally attest to his pin-up-boy status in the theater department of a certain Rochester university, where in the late ‘70s he beamed down from a dedicated bulletin board over the predominantly female costume shop. His appeal, however, and his influence on his craft, spanned continents. Over the years, many, many patrons (international patrons) have made their Stratford theatre selection simply by defaulting to “whatever Bedford is playing in.”
Bedford’s death comes as a double blow to the Stratford Festival community, which saw the passing of theatrical pioneer William Needles on the previous day. In a prepared statement, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino said, “Brian Bedford was the prime reason I went into the theatre. I saw him in Molière’s “Misanthrope” and it made me feel that he embodied the spirit of comedy itself. And yet he was entirely himself. Here was an actor who knew who he was and we loved him for it. He was brilliantly witty, completely relaxed, and made us all adore him. But to see him in tragedy was another revelation. He was absolutely in the moment, with a strongly personal point of view, a vital intelligence keyed to a modern sensibility. When I had the great privilege of working with and eventually directing Brian, I was overwhelmed by his generosity. He became a mentor, a role model and an inspiration.”
Fans may argue about which role was his greatest, but among a long list of personal favorites, we include: Salieri in “Amadeus,” Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Charles in “Blithe Spirit,” and Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Bedford was so closely associated with the suave, sophisticated Noël Coward persona he perfected that few suspected his humble background. In 1936, he was born in Yorkshire to a poor family and lost two brothers to tuberculosis; his father committed suicide. Bedford escaped by performing in amateur theatricals and then, at the age of 18, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. There he studied alongside Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates, and Albert Finney and became a protégé of the late John Gielgud. His career in the UK secured, he eventually transferred to Broadway, where he quickly scored a Best-Actor Tony. (Over the course of his career, he earned an impressive seven Tony Award nominations.) He joined the Stratford Festival in 1975, where he delighted audiences by appearing in over fifty Stratford productions and directing another twenty. His 2013 production of “Blithe Spirit” was his last. Mr. Bedford leaves behind his partner of 30 years, another Stratford favorite, Tim MacDonald.
Stratford continues to train up many fine young performers, but we feel we will not see the like of Brian Bedford again. The Festival is dedicating its 2016 production of “Macbeth” in his memory. For fans wanting to pay a final tribute, it will have to do.