John Neville was a Shakespearean matinee idol of the West End in the 1950s, and found international fame later in life as the star of the 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and a recurring role on The X-Files.
But it was in Canada, as an artistic director of three theatre companies, that Neville, who died in Toronto on Nov. 19 at the age of 86, hoped to leave his largest and most lasting legacy.
Neville ran the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton (1973 - 1978), the Neptune Theatre in Halifax (1978 - 1983), and then the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario (1985 - 1989).
In the wake of his death, stage actors, designers and technicians across the country – as well as his famous friends abroad – have been remembering Neville’s dedication to nurturing young talent, his love of the classics, and his uncanny knack for pulling theatres out of difficult financial situations.
“Without John Neville, it’s by no means certain that we’d have the festival today,” says Stratford Shakespeare Festival general director Antoni Cimolino, who was first brought into the company as an actor by Neville.
In the 1990s, Neville was frequently recognized on the street for his X-Files role as “The Well-Manicured Man,” a mysterious character who belonged to a world-controlling elite. But the handsome actor with a melodious voice came from humble origins.
Born in Willesden in northwest London on May 2, 1925, the son of a truck driver, Neville decided to pursue acting after winning a scholarship to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He took it up after several years in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.
His West End debut came quickly – a walk-on in Richard II – and by the 1950s, he had become a star at the Old Vic Theatre. He famously rotated with Richard Burton as Iago and Othello in one production, and played Romeo to Clair Bloom’s Juliet.
“He taught me everything I know about the theatre,” said Judi Dench, who played Ophelia to his Hamlet. “I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him so many times.”
In the 1960s, Neville removed himself from London and for six years was artistic director at the Nottingham Playhouse, where he oversaw completion of a new building. He resigned rather theatrically after a dispute over funding, a familiar scene that would soon repeat overseas.
In 1972, he was invited to direct Sheridan’s The Rivals at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. He simply “fell in love” with the country, according to daughter Emma Dinicol, even though the professional theatre here was still in its infancy. “Because it was a very young country culturally at that point, it was just so exciting to him,” she said. “New things to discover and things to pass on.”
With all but one of his six children out of the home, Neville and his wife, Caroline, immigrated to Canada and became citizens. (All his children eventually followed over the years.)
Neville first settled in Edmonton, where he had been invited by the Citadel Theatre’s colourful founder Joe Shoctor to run the regional theatre as it expanded from a small 250-seat house to a new multiple-theatre complex.
“He was quite exotic – British, somewhat grand, very confident,” recalls the Citadel’s current artistic director Bob Baker, who was a drama student at the University of Alberta at the time. “At the time, a man of middle age having an earring and wearing jeans to work was eyebrow-raising.”
Neville occasionally invited old friends like Peggy Ashcroft to the Citadel – where she reprised her Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – but his main focus was on Western Canadian performers and designers. He directed the first production in the new Shoctor Theatre, a Romeo and Juliet that showcased two emerging talents that would endure, Brent Carver as Romeo and Tom Wood as Mercutio.
From Edmonton, Neville moved on to Halifax, where his tenure at the Neptune Theatre is still regarded as a golden age. There, he developed a reputation for being down-to-earth, talking to passersby on the street and regularly inviting actors, costume shop workers and technicians to his home on Cherry Street.
True to his working-class roots, Neville instituted free performances for taxi drivers and their families, a move that proved a shrewd marketing technique, as well, as the cabbies would talk up shows that they liked to passengers. Soon, the accumulated deficit had been eliminated and subscriptions had doubled
On stage, Neville reprised the Othello he had once performed opposite Burton – in blackface, in the dying days of that theatrical tradition – and lured stars like Tony Randall to town, while also convincing local legend Denny Doherty of The Mama and the Papas fame to act in the plays of Shakespeare and Sean O’Casey.
“He embraced the whole region,” recalls Nicola Lipman, a theatre veteran who both performed with and was directed by Neville during his time there. “People would come from Sydney and Antigonish; they felt that this was their theatre.”
By 1982, Neville was clashing with the provincial government over funding for a proposed expansion of the theatre. “It’s the half-assed minds of politicians that get me,” he was quoted by one reporter; politician Edmund Morris called him “a pompous prig with a gold earring.”
Soon enough, Neville was on the move again – this time to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he first ran the Young Company and then took over the top job from John Hirsch.
When he became artistic director in 1986, Stratford was in financial trouble, having grown too big, too fast. Neville solved the problem by introducing musicals, a move still considered controversial.
But Cimolino also remembers Neville as an artistic director who took risks by putting The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Pericles, three of Shakespeare’s less-popular romances, on the festival’s biggest stage in his first season, and, later, the works of Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Dekker.
Neville’s ability for spotting talent was reaffirmed at Stratford. When actor Richard Monette stopped acting due to stage fright, he gave him his first big assignment as a director, a Taming of the Shrew that was a big hit. Monette would eventually be artistic director from 1994 to 2007. Neville brought future stars like Juan Chioran and Geraint Wyn Davies into the company, while fostering the careers of others, such as Colm Feore, the late Goldie Semple and Lucy Peacock.
Peacock, who played Eliza Doolittle to Neville’s Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, recalls the director as a man who viewed the company as an extension of his own, large family, to the extent that he advised her and her husband on financing when they bought their first farm. “There were so many husbands and wives working there at the time,” Peacock recalls. “He wanted actors happy – and if they’re happy, they do good work.”
After leaving Stratford, Neville’s acting career turned more toward film and television – his biggest role coming in 1988 as the title character in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
“John was the most elegant actor I have ever worked with,” Gilliam said. “Whether he was dealing with the young, inexperienced Uma Thurman, the even-younger Sarah Polley or the mercurial, brilliant Oliver Reed, he made them sparkle. … He was one of the unsung all-time greats.”
Neville’s career in the 1990s took him from London to New York, but his passion remained in Canada. As late as 2003, when Alzheimer’s disease was beginning to affect his ability to memorize lines, he was running readings of neglected classics at Hart House at the University of Toronto.
Dinicol tells the story of a British friend of Neville’s who once said to him that if he had stayed on in England, he would have been knighted. “He said that didn’t matter to him, but he would love to have the Order of Canada,” his daughter recalled.
Neville was named to the Order of Canada in 2006. He leaves his wife, three daughters, three sons and six grandchildren.