July 16, 2015
In 1957, the character actor Aubrey Morris, who has died aged 89, was praised by Kenneth Tynan for his “mimetic cunning … wreathed in cringing smiles”. Adept at the vaguely camp and suggestively sinister, Morris always left an unconventional stamp on even the smallest, and seemingly conventional, roles. Small and rotund, with gleaming eyes, and occasionally wearing round spectacles, he could convey obsessions and monstrosity at odds with his corporeality. His visual characteristics included a wide smile, which displayed a prominent upper row of teeth, and a sly, sideways glance. With his distinctive, precise speech pattern, he could draw out vowel sounds amusingly, or unnervingly.
A career that lasted for more than 60 years took him from the Old Vic through much British television to Broadway and then Hollywood. One of his best remembered appearances was as Mr Deltoid, Alex’s self-styled “post-corrective adviser” in A Clockwork Orange (1971); although brief, it was a signature role in that it combined his abilities in the comedic, the threatening and as he put it, the “kinky”. Unlike other actors, his memories of Stanley Kubrick were positive.
He was born Aubrey Steinberg, in Portsmouth, Hampshire. His father, Morry, had sustained injuries in the First World War which meant his family had to care for him for the rest of his life. His mother, Becky, fostered an appreciation of the arts in her nine children: Aubrey’s sisters Julia and Sonia became professional dancers, and his brother Wolfe a character actor.
While attending Portsmouth Municipal College, he regularly participated in the Portsmouth Guildhall annual festival of music and drama, and he won the Leverhulme scholarship to study at Rada in London. His professional debut was in The Winter’s Tale, in the junior role of Clown, at the Regent’s Park theatre in May 1944; the company then went on a national tour “to avoid the buzz bombs”.
Morris’s first West End role was as a son in Fly Away Peter, a family comedy at the King’s theatre, Hammersmith, in May 1947. When it was restaged at the BBC’s television studios at Alexandra Palace in 1948, it became Morris’s small-screen debut; the impresario Peter Saunders had expected him to do this for free, and resented paying Morris’s £25 fee.
Morris would recall his time at the Old Vic, from 1954 to 1956, then spearheaded by Tyrone Guthrie, as his happiest professionally. He played servants in Julius Caesar, Richard II and Romeo and Juliet, and was well cast as the effusive Le Beau in As You Like It. In December 1955, he was Bardolph to Richard Burton’s Henry V. There was also an American tour, culminating on Broadway, at the Winter Garden theatre, from 1956 into 1957. Although his desire to play Iago was never fulfilled, all his life Morris retained a deep feeling for and knowledge of Shakespeare’s language.
Tynan’s review praising him was for his part in The Public Prosecutor, at the Arts theatre in 1957; the critic felt that Morris and Alan Badel managed to “rescue the piece from boredom”. In Expresso Bongo at the Saville in 1958, Morris supported Paul Scofield; but, like most of the cast, was not in the subsequent film version.
His Old Vic colleague Jeremy Brett once introduced Morris to Noël Coward as “the finest small-part player in London” which, Coward replied, was a rather unfortunately phrased compliment. At the Gaiety theatre in Dublin in 1960, he played Justice Silence in Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Henry IV and V; he later recalled Welles was as generous to his actors offstage as he was demanding on.
In September 1960, initially at the Cort theatre, New York, he was the hypocritical, seedy and supposedly religious Mulleady in the Broadway production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, directed in characteristicically freewheeling manner by Joan Littlewood. Morris likened the playwright to “a Gaelic Tommy Cooper”, and Behan’s bawdy songs long remained among Morris’s party pieces.
Again in Behan’s work, he was an inmate in the film version of The Quare Fellow (1962), starring Patrick McGoohan, with whom Morris developed a lasting friendship; they regularly met for dinner during the last 20 years of McGoohan’s life, when both were living in California. After appearing in McGoohan’s series Danger Man (1964-66), Morris was retained by the star for one episode of The Prisoner (1967). McGoohan wrote a character for him, even named Aubrey, for a never-made Prisoner film planned in the 1990s, but the friends did collaborate on a Columbo episode in 1998.
Morris’ favourite roles on what he called “the hot cod’s eye of TV” included Jamie (1971), a children’s series in which his character, Mr Zed, appeared at different ages throughout. He was also proud of The Fight Against Slavery (1975). Other highlights included Shades of Greene (1975), with Sir John Gielgud, and playing Khrushchev in the reconstruction Suez 1956 (1979).
In films, he was a larcenous passenger in If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969), starring Ian McShane; later, he played McShane’s father in Disraeli (1978). He was among the gleefully gruesome locals in The Wicker Man (1973), and marched alongside Woody Allen in Love and Death (1975), but recalled much waiting on location while Allen worked on rewrites.
In 1980 he played Arthur Wicksteed in Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus, at the Watford Palace theatre, and two years later appeared (as did the author) in Bennett’s Intensive Care for the BBC.
On relocating to America, his first job was in Murder, She Wrote (1986). He was also active there within the Screen Actors Guild. Again with McShane, Morris had a touching late role in HBO’s western Deadwood (2006), as an ailing actor helped towards death by Brian Cox quoting from King Lear. He appeared earlier this year in an episode of the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as a retired psychiatrist, and was delighted still to be working.
His large family, centred in north London, always celebrated Morris’s visits to Britain.
MORRIS, Aubrey (Aubrey Steinberg)
Born: 5/13/1926, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, U.K.
Aubrey Morris’ westerns – actor:
Outlaws (TV) – 1987
Deadwood (TV) – 2006 (Chesterton)