Donald Pleasence (1919-1995) b. Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England
Pleasence was a mournful looking character actor with a sinister piercing stare and a voice that rarely rose above a cultured purr. Pleasence was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, the son of a railway clerk, and later station master. Due to his father’s roving occupation, the family moved round the north of England from one railway station to the next with Pleasence attending many schools. His extrovert personality made performing a natural outlet and from when aged eight he decided to be an actor. When he left Ecclesfield grammar school in Yorkshire, he applied unsuccessfully for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He became a railway booking clerk, but in 1939 he found a job as assistant stage manager at the Playhouse, Jersey, where as he made his first professional stage appearance in Wuthering Heights. As a pacifist, Pleasence was sent to the Lake District as a forester, but joined the RAF In 1942 as a wireless operator. He spent the final years of WWII in a PoW camp.
Resuming his stage career after the war, he toured widely and from the early 1950s appeared onscreen in a succession of small but highly charged, predominantly villain roles that were difficult to ignore. He found fame on television in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four but was best-known as Prince John in the ITC television series The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1955-1958. Pleasence began earning higher-profile roles and appeared as a vicious rabble-rouser in A Tale of Two Cities (1958), a 19th century grave-robber in The Flesh and the Fiends (1959) and an embittered headmaster whose preference for antiquated whack ‘em techniques in Spare the Rod (1961).
He made a couple of arty films around the mid 1960s, both heavy going. In Pinter’s The Caretaker (1963) he was a menacing old tramp and in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac (1966) he played a sexual deviant whose bizarre hideaway is invaded by a couple of malevolent gangsters. In The Great Escape (1963), he was James Garner’s cell-mate, a timid fussy civil servant shot down during a reconnaissance flight. In Fantastic Voyage (1966), a sci-fi adventure about pumping a miniaturised team of medics into a VIP’s bloodstream to repair brain damage, Pleasence was a baddie, implanted to sabotage the job.
In the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) he was Blofeld, the arch-villain with a liking for cuddly white cats and a giant pool of piranha fish to deal with those that displeased him. He played a nasty gun-runner in Soldier Blue (1970) and was sly royal toady Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972), a big screen adaptation of Keith Michell’s TV success. During the early 1970s, Pleasence made two engaging films with Michael Caine. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1970), he was the young hero David Balfour’s niggardly Uncle Ebenezer, and in The Black Windmill (1974), an above-average spy thriller whose opening credits defy anyone to read them, he was Caine’s tetchy boss, director of subversive warfare.
Pleasence gradually eased into horror films such as the psychiatrist haunted by evil in Halloween (1978), The Devonsville Terror (1979), and Buried Alive (1990). His fear of unemployment ensured he never allowed his film career to lapse, making over 200 film appearances. Pleasence was married four times. Appointed OBE for his services to theatre and film in 1994, he died in St Paul de Vence on 2 February 1995.