I’m not sure how I missed this news, but it is very sad, indeed. Ian Richardson, the British actor who’s probably best known for his starring role as a conniving, backstabbing, and thoroughly corrupt politician in BBC-TV’s popular 1990 series House of Cards, died last Friday in London at age 72. His agent says he had not previously been ill, and passed away quietly in his sleep.
According to Wikipedia, Richardson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, was a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was nominated for a Tony Award for playing Professor Henry Higgins in a 1976 revival of My Fair Lady, and first gained attention in the United States through a series of televised Dijon mustard commercials. He was apparently the gentleman in the Rolls-Royce who leaned out to ask others, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”
However, it was Richardson’s role as Francis Urquhart, the polished but thoroughly Machiavellian chief whip for Britain’s Conservative Party, that brought him the greatest recognition on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The success of House of Cards, based on a 1989 political thriller of the same name by Michael Dobbs, led to two sequels, To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995), in both of which Urquart served as the UK’s prime minister. In addition to his sinister suavity, Urquart was most familiar for the line he regularly delivered when he wanted to signal his agreement with a statement made to him but could not do so on the record: “You might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.” (That phrase has apparently become common among British politicians since.)
Following his performances in the House of Cards trilogy, Richardson became intimately associated with quite another part, that of Doctor Joseph Bell, a 19th-century medical school mentor of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom he portrayed in a series of BBC dramas called Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, based on books by British screenwriter and novelist David Pirie. Richardson won a Sherlock Award in 1991 for his portrayal of Bell, who in Pirie’s novels (the most recent of which is 2004’s The Dark Water) acts as a Holmesian investigator, with Doyle taking up a second-fiddle status not unlike that of Doctor John H. Watson.
Earlier in his career, Richardson appeared in the TV miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), Ike (1979), and The Woman in White (1982). He also played Soviet spy Anthony Blunt in TV’s Blunt (1985) and had a role in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). In addition, Richardson was featured in some films that, well, didn’t quite seem up to his usual standards, such as B*A*P*S (1997), 102 Dalmatians (2000), and The Booze Cruise II: The Treasure Hunt, a 2005 teleflick.
In 1989, Richardson was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
The London Times yesterday carried a brief obituary of the actor, in which it said that “To meet, Richardson was articulate, outgoing, even effusive. But behind that was a fastidious and somewhat private Scot. The contrast fed into his acting a powerful tension. Alongside this was always a vein of glinting irony and, if needed, a wonderful ability to make audiences laugh--without which, [Laurence] Olivier once said, no actor can effectively play tragedy.”
If I don’t answer the phone or e-mail tonight, you’ll know that I am too busy watching House of Cards again, this time in tribute to a great actor gone.
READ MORE: “The Night Ian Richardson Died in My Arms,” by Leslie Middlehurst (The Daily Mail).