November 1, 1903– Max Adrian
He was an acclaimed, eccentric, nimble comic actor and singer born in Northern Ireland as simply Max Bor. When he was still a youth he changed his name to the more theatrical sounding Max Cavendish.
Like so many of us, Adrian began his career as a chorus boy. He first worked at a silent moving-picture house, as part of the live entertainment while the reels were being changed. He was really digging the applause and he decided to become an actor. In 1930, he joined the Northampton Repertory Company where he played 20 roles a year. He soon moved to London and found work on the West End in an early comedy by gay playwright Terence Rattigan, First Episode (1934), later going with the play when it transferred to Broadway. On both sides of the Atlantic, Adrian played roles in productions of Sophocles, William Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw.
In 1960, he joined Peter Hall‘s newly-formed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at Stratford-upon-Avon. Adrian also became one of the original company members of Laurence Olivier‘s new National Theatre at the Old Vic beginning in 1963, where he appeared as Polonius in the opening production of Hamlet with Peter O’Toole in the title role. He went on to appear in Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, Shaw’s Saint Joan, and Henrik Ibsen‘s The Master Builder.
In the late 1960s, Adrian toured as George Bernard Shaw in his one-man presentation By George. Most importantly for Musical Theatre fans like me, Adrian originated the role of Doctor Pangloss in gay legend Leonard Bernstein‘s brilliant, sparkling, tuneful operetta Candide (1956). His terrifically funny performance is captured on the fabulous Original Broadway Cast Recording.
He appeared in films also, starting in 1934 with The Primrose Path, but most notably in the Ken Russell films The Boy Friend (1971), The Devils (1971), The Music Lovers (1970). One of his best film roles was as The Dauphin in Olivier’s Henry V (1944).
My favorite Adrian performance is in Russell’s excellent homoerotic black and white film for television Song Of Summer (1968), about the final years in the life of experimental music composer Frederick Delius, who was blind and paralyzed. He was cared for by young musician Eric Fenby who lived with the composer and his wife, working as Delius’s amanuensis (a fancy-ass word for music transcriber).
Adrian also found work in television series and films including a celebrated Fagin in the BBC’s Oliver Twist (1966) and guest spots on Doctor Who (313 BC- present)
Adrian’s style of acting was highly theatrical, bordering on camp, something rare in the early days of film and television. He was also known to appear in drag at London and Paris clubs at a time when that sort of thing could get you arrested. Indeed it did. In 1940 Adrian was arrested for importuning at a Victoria Station loo and sentenced to three months in prison. Few of his gay friends visited him; not surprising for an era when even the whisper of being gay could ruin a career. Michael Redgrave, whose son, Corin Redgrave, was Adrian’s godson, was the one person who stood by him through it all. Redgrave visited him frequently in prison and tried unsuccessfully to find a way to have the sentence reduced. When Adrian was released from prison he found it hard to get work, until Redgrave used his influence to get him a part in his 1941 film version of the terrific H.G Wells novel Kipps, in which Adrian plays Chester Coote, the main characters guide to high society after he has come into money. Redgrave also got him a small part in his next film, Jeannie (1941), whose gay director Frith Banbury wrote:
“Redgrave was wonderful in this crisis, visiting in prison and helping him financially on his release. For a man who was himself vulnerable… his actions must be seen as courageous.“
Adrian’s partner, or as they would have written in his day, his “longtime companion”, was theatre producer/director Laurier Lister, famous for his clever intimate musical revues in the 1940s and 1950s, often starring Adrian. They were a couple for more than 30 years.
Adrian took his final bow in 1973 at 69 years old, taken by a heart attack, at his and Lister’s home in Surrey after returning from the television studios where he had been recording Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the BBC.. At his memorial service, the greatest names of British theatre paid tribute to Adrian’s style and professionalism, with tributes read by noted bisexuals Alec Guinness and Olivier.