July 13, 1901 – Eric Portman:
“Acting is like masturbation, one either does it or one doesn’t, but one never talks about it. “
In the 1940s, Eric Portman was one of the biggest British film stars. With his clipped delivery, somewhat ominous manner, and suave, urbane demeanor, he was so good at playing Germans and/or Nazis that many believed he was German, or at least Austrian. The fact is that he was British through and through.
He began his acting career on the stage in 1923, specializing in works by William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. He was 40 before he experienced his first big break as a film star, and what a break! His performance as a fanatical Nazi leading a rag-tag U-boat crew across land to hoped-for sanctuary in the neutral USA in the propagandist 49th Parallel (1941) is so powerful it overshadows his costars Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier.
Not conventionally handsome, Portman still acquired a reputation for impactful performances. He was a flexible actor, good at playing heroes and villains. It is puzzling why Portman does not carry the same weight as his contemporaries Michael Redgrave, James Mason, or John Mills. Maybe it was because he preferred working on stage.
Portman made 44 film appearances over 35 years. Many of his films are worthy of looking at again, reminding film fans of the power and importance of this actor who shone so brightly so briefly.
Born in Yorkshire, Portman was expected to follow his father, a wool merchant, into the family firm. He managed a few monotonous weeks as a shop assistant before following his dream of becoming an actor.
He had been an enthusiastic member of Halifax Opera Society before auditioning at 18 years old for a regional Shakespeare company, playing his first speaking part in 1924. For the next two decades he slogged through scores of stage roles.
In 1927, Portman joined the Old Vic Company. His was a sturdy, solid persona and polished warm voice made him particularly strong at ruminating, truculent, heavyweight roles. Portman:
“I learnt the acting thing by joining a touring company, playing parts, and learning by my mistakes. Thank goodness I didn’t have to go to a drama school – tiresome things.”
He acquired the nickname “Long-Run Eric”. His stamina had taken him through lengthy periods on stage: Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch Of The Poet (284), Graham Greene’s The Living Room (307), and Terence Rattigan‘s The Browning Version (244 performances) and Separate Tables (726), the latter a record-breaker that took him to Broadway where he gave an additional 322 performances.
He was offered a five-year Hollywood contract by Warner Bros. after he was spotted by an American talent scout. He moved to California in 1936 to play a minor role opposite Errol Flynn in The Prince And The Pauper. He didn’t make much of an impression.
That all changed when he was cast as the lead role of a ruthless and calculating Nazi commander in Michael Powell‘s and Emeric Pressburger‘s 49th Parallel, a performance that made Portman a star overnight. Portman:
“When I first took the part I asked [director] Michael Powell if I could play it absolutely straight, that is seriously and sincerely without making it a caricature of a Nazi. Nazism has ceased to be funny. It is no longer a joke; indeed, it is extremely dangerous.”
A month before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the film had not yet been released in the USA, when Portman told the press:
“When it is released, it is going to have a great influence on American public opinion concerning the war. When we were in Hudson Bay making the film, I couldn’t help thinking that there was nothing in the story which could not actually happen.”
He was hired again by Powell and Pressburger to play the leader of downed bomber crew in occupied Holland in One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). His versatility was obvious. It was a strapping character study that led directly to other straight-talking roles: a factory foreman in Millions Like Us (1943); an obsessed killer in the noir Wanted For Murder (1947); a Belgian resistance leader in Uncensored (1942); a German pilot in Squadron Leader X (1943); then was back with Powell and Pressburger as a sage in A Canterbury Tale (1944). Portman had the lead in Great Day (1945), and in the expensive colonial epic Men Of Two Worlds (1946). In 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1946, exhibitors voted him on of the 10 most popular stars at the British box-office. By 1950, he was one of the highest paid movie idols in the country.
The 1950s saw him working increasingly in films and on television. His return to the stage in 1964 was accompanied by much fanfare but play was weak, and reviews pointed out that Portman had lost some of his once inflexible precision. Maybe he had been away from the stage too long away.
In 1968, Portman began suffering dizzy spells. He consulted his doctors, who prescribed rest and retirement:
“All three told me to slow down because I was taxing my heart. I found on matinee days that with only a quarter of an hour between shows I was just completely exhausted. It really was getting too much for me. I suppose I could have carried on. But one hears such wretched things about one’s friends popping off suddenly because they didn’t heed their doctors. In a week I had left my flat and was installed in Cornwall in a lovely Wuthering Heights-type of cottage.“
His cottage was on 10 rugged acres. He lived there quietly; radio was the one concession his doctors allowed.
There were two final jobs. He appeared in the television series Strange Report (1969-71), and on film he played an ageing gay safecracker, opposite cat burglar Michael Caine, in Bryan Forbes‘s Deadfall (1968) Portman called it “my best part since 49th Parallel” and said it could do “great things” for his career. Forbes believed Portman’s alcoholism greatly undermined his career.
Portman was gay and rather open about it, although newspapers never reported this during the mid-1950s. Like Noël Coward and John Gielgud, Portman was gay during a period when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. Coward’s sexuality was an open secret. Gielgud fell foul of the obscenity laws when he was arrested in 1953 for soliciting in a public toilet. He survived the scandal. The press refrained from outing Portman throughout the 1960s when it could still have damaged his career. His longtime partner was actor Knox Laing. The two were regulars at local spots in their Cornwall village. Described as quiet, cultured, charming and reserved, Portman must have brought a touch of glamour by wearing a silk dressing gown with white silk scarf.
Portman’s final credits rolled in late 1969, gone because of a weak heart. His passing was mourned but not in the way that Redgrave, Gielgud, or Olivier would later cause film fan lamentations when they checked out.
Portman is all but forgotten, a footnote in theatre and film history. Yet he was an actor of individuality and integrity. He was a star of British cinema for a twinkling moment. Portman and Laing are buried in the St. Veep Churchyard in St. Veep, Cornwall.