Robert Newton (1905-1956) b. Shaftsbury, Dorset, England.
Robert Newton was born June 1, 1905, in Shaftesbury, Dorset, into a very artistic family. His father, Algernon Newton was a renowned painter and member of the Royal Academy and his mother, Marjorie, was a writer. His great-grandfather, Henry Newton, was a co-founder of the Winsor & Newton art company.
He was educated in Lamorna Cove in Cornwall and then at St Bartholomew’s School in Newbury, after which, in 1920, at the age of 15 his acting career began when he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre as an assistant stage manager and he was shortly on stage making his début in Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversation. Keen to become totally immersed in the theatre he turned his hand to all manner of tasks, including scene painting and stage management and over the next couple of years appeared in over forty plays. In 1923 he toured South Africa and the following year he was cast in his first role in the West End, in London Life at Drury Lane.
Noel Coward took an interest in him in 1928 which gave the opportunity of performing in many more West End productions, including Hamlet and Bitter Sweet. He also appeared in Private Lives on Broadway but in 1931, with the Depression taking hold, he found himself out of work and penniless. He tried in vain to find employment in New York and Hollywood, settling eventually for a few months’ work as a cattle rancher in Canada.
He returned to England in 1932 and was soon back in the West End, with Ivor Novello, in The Secret Woman and he remained extremely busy over the next couple of years, notably performing Horatio with his great friend Laurence Olivier in Hamlet at the Old Vic. He was now more determined than ever to make a success of acting on the big screen and although he returned to the stage for a couple more starring roles in No Orchids for Miss Blandish and Gaslight, his future lay away from the West End. Undoubtedly, the huge amount of experience he had gained from working on the stage helped him develop his film acting style, in particular his celebrated sense of comic timing.
His first appearance on the big screen dates back to 1932, with a small bit-part in Reunion, but it wasn’t until five years later that he secured his first prominent role, playing Don Pedro in Fire over England. He went on to make a further four films during 1937 and continued to develop his repertoire over the next two years, when, at the outbreak of WWII he joined the Royal Navy, serving aboard minesweepers during the conflict. Interestingly, he was, on a couple of occasions, given official leave to work on films, the most celebrated of which were Henry V and This Happy Breed, both made in 1944.
At the end of the war, he returned to acting full-time and in 1948 and 1950 came what are probably his two most widely remembered roles, firstly as Bill Sykes in David Lean’s version of Oliver Twist, followed by Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Several more high profile roles followed, including those in productions of Jamaica Inn, Les Miserables, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and, on TV, an Australian production of The Adventures of Long John Silver.
Newton had by now become increasingly more unreliable and unpredictable, due to his dependency on alcohol and was finding it more and more difficult to secure good film roles, as many directors were unwilling to take a risk with him. However, in 1956, due to the intervention of the star of the Oscar winning film Around the World in Eighty Days, he appeared in what was to become his last film. David Niven, a long time friend of Newton’s had suggested him to director Mike Todd for the part of Inspector Fix and, despite his reservations, Todd gave Newton the part, on the condition he stayed ‘on-the-wagon’ for the duration of the filming. Newton later confided to Niven that it had been easy to do so because of his doctors warning that one more binge was likely to kill him. Sadly though, when filming was complete, he was unable to resist the temptation to return to the bottle and on March 25th 1956, his doctor’s warning came tragically true when Robert suffered a massive heart attack and died in the arms of his fourth wife, Vera. He was just 50 years old.
He had been married four times, to Petronella Walton (1929), Annie McLean (1936), Natalie Newhouse (1947) and Vera Budnik (1952) and had three children, Sally, Nicholas and Kim. After numerous unpleasant court battles, mainly due to his alcoholism, Nicholas was placed in the custody of his aunt and uncle.
Newton was originally interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California, however, some years later his son Nicholas collected his father’s ashes and, in a lovely gesture to his memory, returned them to England, finally scattering them in the sea at the picturesque Mounts Bay, Cornwall, just around the headland from Lamorna Cove where he had happily spent his childhood.
Compiled by Clive Saunders.