John Justin, actor
Born: 24 November, 1917, in London
Died: 29 November, 2002, in London, aged 85
JOHN Justin was an actor whose handsome appearance, engaging smile and gracious manner made him ideal for heroic and romantic roles. In his early career he experienced considerable success on both stage and film in prestigious productions, playing opposite a host of leading postwar actors. In the late Fifties, his flirtation with a career in Hollywood was not too successful and he returned to the UK. For many, however, he will be remembered as the swashbuckling and glamorous Prince Ahmad in Michael Powell’s The Thief of Baghdad.
Justin, born John Justinian de Ledesma, came of Argentinean parents but the family became British nationals when he was an infant. He attended Bryanston College in Dorset before joining the Plymouth and then the Liverpool repertory companies. He went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1937, to join John Gielgud’s company.
In 1939, he was cast in Powell’s remake of The Thief of Baghdad. It was an Alexander Korda film (Korda considered Justin his "star-in-the-making") and Powell’s intelligent direction, together with some magnificent trick photography, gave the film a novel and exciting feel. Because of the war, it had to be finished in Hollywood and Justin didn’t take up his posting with the RAF until 1940. He was badly injured in a crash and for the rest of the war he instructed pilots and flew military VIPs.
Justin was in demand immediately after the war at the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing several important roles (notably Horatio to Paul Scofield’s Hamlet) before, in 1950, playing Mr Darling and Captain Hook in a nationwide tour of Peter Pan.
In the late Fifties, he joined the Old Vic for various roles, including Mellemont in Congreve’s Double-Dealer. This acclaimed production (by Michael Benthall) came to the Edinburgh Festival in 1959 (with the young Maggie Smith and Judi Dench) and packed the Royal Lyceum nightly. Justin then returned to the Old Vic for an outstanding Richard in Richard II.
With the arrival of kitchen-sink drama, Justin’s relaxed style and stage elegance were somewhat overtaken. He became a regular at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, took over from Richard Attenborough (in 1963) in The Mousetrap and played Badger in the Christmas perennial, Toad of Toad Hall - indeed, he wrote himself into the script when at one matinee he picked up an hour glass and absent-mindedly commented: "It’s just after half past December." The line has been maintained ever since.
He was to do many more movies, but, in truth, the war had sorely interrupted his film career. He secured important supporting roles in numerous UK films such as The Sound Barrier, Seagulls Over Sorrento, Island in the Sun, Savage Messiah and Valentino. His most notable TV work included Churchill’s People and Supernatural.
In 1978, I got to know this genial and courteous man. I was bringing to the Edinburgh Fringe a somewhat startling new play called Pallor Game, which had had a considerable success in Paris. It was by a young Left Bank, avant-garde writer called Jean Bois, who was, I was assured, very "in". In some trepidation, I sent the script to John’s agent, wondering if he’d be interested in playing the austere and suave father figure. He immediately agreed, and I then whispered that we’d be playing in the far from smart St Columba-by-the-Castle. "It’s not so much a theatre," I added nervously, "more a church hall." "Wonderful ... wonderful!" came the reply.
He fitted in with relaxed ease - not even flinching when told his dressing-room doubled as the gents’ loo - and gave a performance of much guile and subtlety. We got excellent reviews, but audiences were poor until someone mentioned us on television. Then we were packed out and were considered, by some, the best new play that year on the Fringe.
John enjoyed himself hugely and was keen to take the play to London. Alas, that didn’t happen, but I preserve this very happy memory of him standing in full costume (riding boots, whip, etc) in the garden outside St Columba’s waiting to go on. Casting an eye over the roofs of the Grassmarket towards George Heriot’s and the Castle on the right, he said simply: "Now that is a grand sight!"
Justin was married first to Pola Nirenski, then the actress Barbara Murray and lastly to Alison McMurdo. He is survived by his third wife and three daughters of his second marriage.