Richard Johnson was never quite as famous as the likes of Laurence Olivier or Sean Connery, but he had a long and distinguished career in theatre, film and television that included such diverse credits as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Julius Caesar at one end of the artistic spectrum and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Zombie Flesh Eaters at the other.
At first glance it may look like Johnson would accept virtually anything – and he did admit that he did some films mainly for the money. But the whole history of cinema might have been a little different if he had not turned down one particular role in the early 1960s.
He was director Terence Young’s choice for James Bond in Dr No, and according to Johnson he was offered the role.
“The producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman asked me, at Terence Young’s instigation, and I turned the job down,” Johnson said in an interview with Cinema Retro magazine in 2008. Like so many others, Johnson was far from convinced the film was going to be a hit.
He went on: “Eventually they offered it to Sean [Connery], who was completely wrong for the part. But in getting the wrong man they got the right man, because it turned the thing on its head and he made it funny. And that’s what propelled it to success.”
A classically trained Shakespearean actor, Johnson said he would have played the character of James Bond very differently. He did not think the series would have been such a success if he had taken the role, and he maintained he had no regrets.
He went on to co-star with Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston in the 1966 historical epic Khartoum and with Raquel Welch in The Beloved (see picture) and much more recently he shared the screen with Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. But many of his greatest triumphs were in the theatre, and he was a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1960s.
One of his first big stage successes was The Lark, by the French writer Jean Anouilh, in 1955. It played both in the London West End and at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh. Dorothy Tutin played Joan of Arc and Johnson played Warwick. Three years later the pair played the title roles in Romeo and Juliet at Stratford.
Richard Keith Johnson was born in London in 1927, attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, began his career on stage and later played Mr Wickham in BBC’s 1952 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (with Peter Cushing as Darcy).
Returning to theatre, Johnson appeared in Dundee Rep’s The Miracle of San Pietro in 1954. In the late 1950s, he was signed by MGM and they cast him alongside Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra in the war film Never So Few. The studio saw him as a major star in the making and even ordered the rewriting of the Bible to create a new character just for him, in the 1961 film King of Kings, before having second thoughts, deleting his scenes and sticking to the more familiar storylines.
The phenomenal success of the early James Bond films led to a spate of imitations in the second half of the 1960s and Johnson got to play another British literary adventurer, Bulldog Drummond, with a contemporary makeover, in Deadlier than the Male and its sequel Some Girls Do.
Johnson was tall, dark and handsome and seemed to fit the film star archetype. In 1965 he became one half of a celebrity couple when he married Kim Novak. They co-starred in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders – but only after Sean Connery and the then Mrs Connery, Diane Cilento, had dropped out.
But the marriage was short-lived and so were the big starring roles in major films. They began to dry up in the 1970s, though there never seemed to be any shortage of supporting roles, especially in historical films, or work in horror films, of which he was a fan, or in television or theatre.
On TV he starred in The Camomile Lawn and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes in the early 1990s, and he has made guest appearances on numerous hit television shows, including more recently Rebus, Midsomer Murders, Spooks, Inspector Morse spin-off Lewis and Silent Witness. He also developed a loyal following through Radio 4’s Dickens spoof Bleak Expectations.
In an interview in 2008, Johnson reflected on his spell as a film star, saying: “I was probably making around £1 million a year in today’s money. I don’t have anything now, but I’m still working. It keeps you young, healthy and going. I can play the grandfather in any film now.”
He was married and divorced three times. He is survived by his fourth wife, Lynne, and by four children, including a son from his decade-long relationship with Françoise Pascal, star of the sitcom Mind Your Language. In a tabloid interview a few years ago she revealed that they continued to have affairs throughout their relationship.