THE INDEPENDENT Saturday 29 April 1989
GEORGE COULOURIS, although best known for his range of sly or scary rascals in American films, was in fact a thoroughly British stage (and sometimes stagy) actor.
He liked nothing better than the chance to grapple in the theatre with Ibsen or Shaw, Strindberg, Molière or Shakespeare. His heavy frown and menacing manner were invaluable in Hollywood or Hammer horrors, and as the highly sceptical financial lawyer in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, or as the blackmailing Count in Watch on the Rhine, he made his presence felt. Although he spent much of his life before the cameras (he had a low opinion of television's value to the player), he could never quit the theatre for long; but he never stayed anywhere for long enough to build himself a proper stage reputation.
Coulouris was at heart a classical actor. He had no time for the frolics of the era into which he was born, though he found himself, after a spell at the Old Vic as a youth, being booed with the rest of the cast in Noel Coward's famous flop, Sirocco. He had made his first appearance on the stage in Sutton Vane's Outward Bound, a "difficult" play in its day, For the most advanced producing methods of that time, the company to join was the Cambridge Festival Theatre, which numbered among its talents Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Godfrey and Norman Marshall. Coulouris played Shakespeare there in modern dress, and, later, the Yank in O'Neill's The Hairy Ape.
He could not, however, resist the chance to go to New York, since every young ambitious London actor of the time was bound to dream of Broadway and of Hollywood. What he went without, however, was the experience which, for example, another Briton, Maurice Evans, had taken with him when he went from the Old Vic to conquer New York in Shakespeare. Evans had won his spurs in London, but Coulouris could not wait.
He found his repertory training in stock companies on the cast coast of the United States after playing Shakespeare and Shaw on Broadway: but it was not until he joined Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre for more Shaw and Shakespeare that he began to make headway, both on the screen and the stage. By 1943 he felt confident enough to produce and act the title role of Richard III in New York, but in 1950 he returned to Britain. It was as if he was doing what he should have done 20 years earlier - acting the classics in a first-class English repertory company, the Bristol Old Vic.
His Tartuffe was judged good enough to transfer to Hammersmith. Then, at the St Martin's, he gave a marvellous portrayal of the old tutor Ulric Brendel in Michael MacOwan's revival oil Ibsen's Rosmersholm. His King Lear at Glasgow and his Malvolio and Claudius at Swiss Cottage typified the way in which his talent never rose as high as his theatrical taste. He was better cast as Smiley Coy in Odets's The Big Knife, and, as Detective Hawkshaw in The Ticket Of Leave Man, he was superbly able not to overplay for cheap laughter Tom Taylor's Victorian melodrama.
In the 1950s and 1960s George Coulouris remained the stalwart stage actor in spite of his movie reputation. Whether he was as "good" on the screen as on the stage is a matter for argument, but there is no disputing that the stage gave him better roles such as John Pope senior in A Hatful of Rain, Doctor Stockmann in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, Peter Flynn in O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, the father in Sartre's Altona, Edgar in Strindberg's The Dance of Death the weary and heroic General Sikorski in Hochuth's Soldiers, Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Shylock all parts to swell a scene, and Coulouris had the flourish to fill them, sometimes to overflowing, always compellingly.
George Coulouris, actor, born Manchester I October 1903, died London 25 April 1989.