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Brian Bedford, the classically-trained British-born stage actor who spent four decades with the Stratford Festival, is shown in 2010. He gave his final performances on its stages in the 2009 season.

FRED R. CONRAD/NYT

It is the peculiar fate of great actors who devote most of their lives to the stage that they are often remembered by the general public for some pop-culture trifle that they did to pay the bills. So it was with Brian Bedford, one of the enduring stars of the Stratford Festival and the toast of Broadway on numerous occasions. To anyone not familiar with the theatre world, the quickest way of describing him was to say either that he was Martin Crane's gay "date" on a famous episode of Frasier, or better yet, that he was the voice of the foxy hero in Disney's animated all-animal Robin Hood.

Mr. Bedford, who died Jan. 13 in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the age of 80, had far more challenging roles on his résumé but, to his credit, he never dismissed his few forays into the mainstream. When I interviewed him in 2009, on the occasion of his directing and starring in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at Stratford, I couldn't help throwing in a question about Robin Hood – a firm favourite with my sons when they were little boys. At the mention, Mr. Bedford's eyes lit up, and he proceeded to talk about how much he'd enjoyed his experience with that 1973 film, leading a voice cast that included such comedy legends as Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas. "I often wish I'd done more of those," he concluded wistfully.

Disney's loss was the theatre's gain – most particularly Stratford's, where Mr. Bedford found a home for his prodigious talents as a classical actor and was able to fully explore them in everything from the comedies of Molière and Noel Coward to the tragedies of Shakespeare. He made his festival debut in the 1970s under the artistic directorship of Robin Phillips, where he was famously paired with fellow British star Maggie Smith, and gave his final performances on its stages in the 2009 season, most memorably as the formidable Lady Bracknell in Earnest – a role he repeated in New York to Tony Award-nominated acclaim.

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Over his six-decade career, Mr. Bedford became one of those rare actors whose name on a playbill was virtually a guarantee of high quality and superb entertainment. "It was like going to a really great restaurant where you know whatever is on the menu is going to be wonderful," said actress Sara Topham, who played Gwendolen Fairfax to his Lady B. "Audiences always felt with Brian that they could safely put themselves in his hands."

And if theatregoers loved him, the feeling was mutual. "You were always in a three-way relationship with him onstage," said Seana McKenna, his leading lady in the festival's 2001 revival of Mr. Coward's Private Lives and a frequent co-star. "It would be him, you and the audience. His rapport with them was extraordinary."

Where acting became Mr. Bedford's greatest pleasure, it began as a survival mechanism. The debonair actor-director was born Feb. 16, 1935, in the grimy West Yorkshire mill town of Morley to a working-class family blighted by ill health and ill feelings. The fourth son of Arthur Bedford, a postman, and Eleanor Bedford (née O'Donnell), a factory worker, as a small boy he would escape his parents' quarrels by hiding behind a chair and imagining he was a radio. He watched his two oldest brothers, Arthur and Francis, slowly die of tuberculosis and his father, who suffered from depression, would later commit suicide.

Yet despite those dark beginnings, Mr. Bedford didn't look back in anger. "He was very close to his family still in England," said Ms. McKenna, who became a good friend. "And his Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream was almost an ode to his humble roots. He played it with a Yorkshire accent."

Young Brian found a way out of the misery when, at 18, he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London. At RADA, he rubbed shoulders with future stars Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole and became part of that postwar generation of working-class actors who would transform British theatre and film. Unlike the virile Mr. Finney and flamboyant Mr. O'Toole, Mr. Bedford had a gentle demeanour that made him ideal for sensitive roles. His breakthrough came in 1958, when Sir John Gielgud, his mentor, cast him as the closeted gay son in the West End production of Peter Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise. The show was a hit and transferred to Broadway, marking Mr. Bedford's New York debut.

By the mid-1970s, Mr. Bedford was a successful stage and screen actor who had won a 1971 Tony Award for his performance as Arnolphe in Molière's School for Wives and starred alongside James Garner and Eva Marie Saint in the 1966 international racing movie Grand Prix. It was then that Mr. Phillips coaxed him to Stratford, where his mettle was tested as a classical actor and he found a perfect stage partner in the young Maggie Smith. In an interview with critic Keith Garebian, published in his 1991 collection A Well-Bred Muse, Mr. Bedford described their unusual chemistry: "Maggie did sort of frighten me, and I think I did sort of frighten her. We were both very demanding of each other," he said. "We were able to communicate great love for each other because we felt it. We were sort of in love, Maggie and I. Love-hate."

The pair shone in comedies like the 1978 box-office hit Private Lives, but Mr. Bedford proved he could chill as well as charm in dramatic roles such as Angelo opposite Martha Henry's Isabella in Mr. Phillips's legendary 1975 production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. "He was a great Angelo," Mr. Garebian recalled. "He looked icy, and one felt that his very urine was ice."

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While some of Mr. Phillips's imported stars moved on after his tenure, Mr. Bedford remained. "He just adored the festival," said Antoni Cimolino, its current artistic director, who first met Mr. Bedford in 1988. "He loved the fact that he could play one part in the afternoon and a very different one that evening."

Mr. Bedford settled in Stratford, buying and refurbishing an old Ontario cottage, while taking on some of the most challenging roles in the Shakespeare canon. He didn't always succeed. He played the misanthropic title role in the lesser-known Timon of Athens in 1991 to great acclaim – later tackling it again at New York's Shakespeare in the Park and on Broadway. But his Macbeth (1990) and his King Lear (2007) were disappointments. The latter was a truly heroic, if not foolhardy, feat, in which he not only played the monumental role of the mad king but directed the play as well.

"He was attempting to climb two mountains at once," said Ms. Topham, who was his Cordelia in the production. "It was not without its complications, but I think he wore those two hats with more grace than most people could manage."

But it was his work in comedy that is most fondly remembered. He was one of the greatest English interpreters of Molière, brilliant at playing (and directing) Coward, and a master of tricky Restoration comedies. His expertise extended to his direction; he was meticulous in his staging and insisted on realism from his actors over style, Ms. McKenna recalled. "And he was very particular about props – these little details. He knew exactly what he wanted. He gave the designers a run for their money."

For younger people at the festival, working with Mr. Bedford was both a master class and entertaining in itself. "He had known Noel Coward personally," said Michael Hart, the stage manager on several of his later productions, "and he had all these amazing theatre stories. You wanted to just spend the rehearsal listening to him talk."

Mr. Bedford was also an icon who inspired awe and occasionally some good-natured teasing. "There was a place at centre stage that was called the Brian Bedford spot," said Mr. Cimolino, recalling the time he directed Mr. Bedford in Love's Labour's Lost. "He would inevitably stand there and everyone would have to go around him. So I asked him cheekily if, for one speech, he might come downstage and deliver it on one of the steps. He looked at me in mock horror and slowly moved down in exaggerated trepidation, putting his toe on the step as if he was putting it into shark-infested waters. 'Do you mean there?' he asked me in a tone of shocked disbelief," Mr. Cimolino recalled, laughing. "He knew how to take the piss out of himself."

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Offstage, Mr. Bedford enjoyed swimming, reading and collecting antiques. "He loved to travel," added Ms. McKenna, "but he travelled in high style. No backpacks for Brian." He met his life partner, actor Tim MacDonald, in 1986 and the two were married in a private ceremony in California in 2013. They shared a home in Carpinteria, in Santa Barbara County, as well as the Stratford cottage, which they sold last year.

Mr. Bedford was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 during the New York run of The Importance of Being Earnest. He spent a period in remission and was back at Stratford to direct Mr. Coward's Blithe Spirit in 2013, but the cancer returned, forcing him to bow out of that year's production of The Merchant of Venice, in which he was to play Shylock, as well as the North American tour of the Vatican drama The Last Confession. A party of Stratford colleagues, including Ms. McKenna, Ms. Topham and Mr. Hart, flew down to his Santa Barbara home last February to help celebrate his 80th birthday. Mr. Bedford made his final trip to Stratford late last summer. The festival will hold a memorial for him at a date yet to be announced.

Mr. Bedford enjoyed his life in the past year, Ms. McKenna said, and no longer felt a desire to tread the boards. "He said to me, 'It's funny, my life was the theatre, but I don't miss it.' I think that was because he'd given his all to it."

For Mr. Cimolino, Mr. Bedford will forever represent the onstage quintessence of wit, brilliance and charm: "He became an avatar for all of us when we think we're at our brightest and best."

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