Obituary: Alec McCowen, actor

British actor Alec McCowan.    (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
British actor Alec McCowan. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
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Alec McCowen, a West End and Broadway star who had global success with a one-man show about the life of Jesus, died on Monday. He was 91.

Born in Tunbridge Wells on 26 May 1925, McCowen trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and performed for troops with the Entertainment National Service Association.

He performed in London and New York throughout the 1950s before joining the Old Vic Company – alongside Judi Dench and Maggie Smith – and then the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He was a notable Mercutio in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960, and a witty Fool alongside Paul Scofield’s king in director Peter Brook’s King Lear.

In 1969, he gained the first of three Tony Award nominations as a failed priest who fantasises he is the pope in Hadrian the Seventh. He also played the psychiatrist in Peter Shaffer’s Equus; in 1973, he was Henry Higgins opposite Diana Rigg in Pygmalion.

A few years later he memorised a large chunk of the New Testament and turned it into an acclaimed one-man performance of St Mark’s Gospel. He performed it around the world, including at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. A one-man show about the writer Rudyard Kipling also went to Broadway in the 1980s.

Other major roles included an elderly missionary in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa in 1990 and a hostage in Lebanon in Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me in 1992.

For all his acclaim in classical and dramatic roles, McCowen once said: “I wanted to be an entertainer, not an actor, when I was young. I wanted to be Jack Benny.”

Though best known as a stage actor, McCowen appeared in more than two dozen films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy and Never Say Never Again.

He is survived by his sister and several nieces and nephews.