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Tom Courtenay Biography


Home > Actors > C > Courtenay, Tom > Biography


Birth Name: Tom Courtenay
Born: 02/25/1937
Birth Place: Hull, Humberside, England, GB


Born on Feb. 25, 1937 in Hull, Yorkshire, England, Courtenay was raised by his father, Thomas, a boat painter, and his mother, Anne. Growing up in modest surroundings, he attended the Kingston High School in Hull and studied drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. A natural actor, Courtenay made an instant splash at the academy, where his stage work quickly led him to high-profile roles on stage and screen. His breakthrough occurred early on when he landed the lead role of rebellious teen Colin Smith in the acclaimed drama, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1962). The film helped usher in the British New Wave, a series of moody, realistic mid-1960s films that centered on angry young men from working class backgrounds. Alongside the likes of Richard Harris, Albert Finney and Richard Burton, the movement turned Courtenay into a star. For his performances in "Loneliness" and "Billy Liar" (1963), Courtenay was awarded two BAFTA awards in 1962 and 1963. They were the first of many awards for the journeyman actor.

In 1965, Courtenay appeared in the epic war film, "Doctor Zhivago," playing revolutionary leader Pasha Antipov, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Despite all his early success, however, Courtenay began tiring of film acting and spent the rest of the 1960s concentrating on his first love, the theater. He began a long and storied career at the Royal Exchange Theater in Manchester, England, essaying a wide variety of roles in plays ranging from "King Lear" to "Peer Gynt." He maintained a relationship with the Royal Exchange throughout his career and continued to perform there well into the next century. He did continue to make scattered film appearances during this period - "A Dandy in Aspic" (1968), "Catch Me a Spy" (1971), "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1971) - but quit film acting for well over a decade. Meanwhile, he made his Broadway debut when he appeared in "Otherwise Engaged" (1977), which earned Courtenay his first Tony Award nomination. He received his second Tony nod a few years later for his leading role in Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser" (1981).

When he was asked to recreate his role in "The Dresser" for a film adaptation, Courtenay lifted his self-imposed exile from Hollywood to co-star in the 1983 film adaptation opposite old mate Albert Finney, his former British New Wave contemporary. Courtenay played Norman, the backstage assistant to the mononymous Sir (Finney), a tyrannical manager and lead actor of a Shakespearean touring company who discovers his life parallels King Lear's while he defies the Nazi bombardment of London during World War II. Both men received Best Actor Oscar nominations for their performances, but lost to Robert Duvall in "Tender Mercies" (1983). Meanwhile, Courtenay continued to balance his stage work with smaller film and occasional television roles over the next two decades, though he most likely would rather forget his part in the awful Bill Cosby comedy, "Leonard Part 6" (1987). Not necessarily exiling himself from film, Courtenay limited his exposure by appearing in only a handful of projects throughout the 1990s, including the real-life crime drama, "Let Him Have It" (1991). As he appeared on Broadway in Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" (1995), Courtenay portrayed Daniel Quilp in a miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop" (Disney Channel, 1995).

Following roles in the children's drama "The Boy From Mercury" (1996) and the satirical coming-of-age dramedy "Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?" (1999), Courtenay stepped back even further from screens both large and small in an effort to concentrate on worthwhile projects. Moving on from actor to novelist, Courtenay published his critically acclaimed memoir, Dear Tom: Letters From Home (2000), which contained a series of letters between the actor and his mother, as well as a recollection of his life as a rising young actor in 1960s London. In 2001, Courtenay was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II for his distinguished work in British film and theater. Also that year, he starred alongside Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren in "Last Orders" (2001), a bittersweet drama about old mates coming to terms with the death of one of their own. After starring in his one-man show, "Pretending to Be Me" (2002), which was based on the letters and writings of poet Philip Larkin, Courtenay returned to Dickens to portray Newman Noggs in "Nicholas Nickleby" (2002). He followed with an appearance in the big budget children's fantasy, "The Golden Compass" (2007). Courtenay next starred as Mr. Dorrit in Masterpiece Theater's "Little Dorrit" (PBS, 2009). A surprise hit, "Little Dorrit" earned 11 Emmy Award nominations, including a best actor nod for Courtenay. He next joined Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins in "Quartet" (2012), a British-made dramedy about a foursome of retired opera singers who find their annual performance of Verdi on the composer's birthday in jeopardy when old conflicts are renewed.