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Newton, Robert Guyfree

(1905–1956)
  • Robert Sharp

Newton, Robert Guy (1905–1956), actor, was born in Shaftesbury, Dorset, on 1 June 1905, the only son among the three surviving children of Algernon Cecil Newton (1880–1968), a landscape painter and Royal Academician, and his first wife, Marjorie Emelia Balfour Rider, a writer. He was educated at Newbury grammar school and in Switzerland. His first stage appearance was in a walk-on part in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV in November 1920 at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where he worked variously as a scenery painter, stage hand, assistant stage manager, and actor. In 1923–4 he toured in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and the West Indies before returning to make his London début at Drury Lane in June 1924 in London Life. In late 1925 he appeared in The Ring o'Bells, but between 1926 and 1928 he toured the provinces, and worked in Canada as a lumberjack and on a cattle ranch.

Back in London, Newton played in My Lady's Mill, Her Cardboard Lover, and Byron (1928–9) before appearing, in July 1929, as Hugh Devon in Noël Coward's Bitter Sweet at His Majesty's. The play ran for over a year. In May 1931 he made his New York début at the Times Square Theatre when he succeeded Laurence Olivier as Victor Prynne in Coward's Private Lives. After playing in I Lived With You at the Prince of Wales and reprising at the Duchess an old Birmingham repertory role, Jesse Redvers in The Secret Woman, Newton assumed in 1932 the management of the Grand Theatre in Fulham, which he ran for two years as the Shilling. He sought to offer 'good plays at a price everyone could afford' (The Times, 21 April 1956), and appeared himself in most productions, but it was not a particularly successful venture. 1932 also saw his film début, a bit part in Reunion. He continued busily in a variety of stage roles through the 1930s, including Horatio—which, 'though a trifle lacking in solidity and too highly strung, is spoken well and with understanding' (The Times, 6 Jan 1937)—to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet at the Old Vic in early 1937. Thereafter the stage virtually lost him to films. Many of these were good: Fire over England, Dark Journey, Farewell Again, and The Squeaker, all released in 1937; Vessel of Wrath and Yellow Sands (both 1938), Jamaica Inn (directed by Hitchcock), Poison Pen, and Gaslight (all 1939), Busman's Honeymoon and Bulldog Drummond Sees it through (both 1940). But it was only when he appeared as Bill Walker, a 'slum ne'er do well', in Major Barbara, the 1941 film version of G. B. Shaw's play, that his film career really took off. Although now in the forces, he next played Jim Mollison to Anna Neagle's Amy Johnson in They Flew Alone, and the tyrannical Scottish hatter James Brodie in Hatter's Castle, both in 1941, before returning to the Prince of Wales as Slim Grisson in No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by J. H. Chase and R. Nesbitt, in July 1942.

During the Second World War, Newton was in the Royal Navy for four years, chiefly serving aboard a minesweeper, but he did appear on screen in 1944, as Frank Gibbons in This Happy Breed, a huge popular success directed by David Lean from Coward's play, and as Pistol in Olivier's Henry V. After the war he toured as Randy Jollifer in So Brief the Spring, a part he played also in a short run at the Wimbledon theatre early in 1946. This was his last stage performance, apart from his appearance in Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton at the Vaudeville in June 1950. His first post-war films of note were Night Boat to Dublin (1946) and Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) in which he played the crazy artist Lukey. In this year he was the number three attraction at the British box office. These films were followed by Snowbound, Lean's Oliver Twist, in which he memorably portrayed Bill Sikes, and his first American film, Kiss the Blood off my Hands (all 1948), and Obsession (1949). Newton's first American film might have been Wuthering Heights (1939) after its director, William Wyler, had wired producer Sam Goldwyn: 'Have found Heathcliff … amazing young English actor … much better than Olivier' (Berg, 322), but he was overridden.

In 1950 Newton was cast in the role for which he is best remembered: Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island. His colourful, swaggering characterization has been an inspiration to many actors seeking to portray a pirate and contributed unfairly to his being generally considered a ham actor. He did, though, reprise the role in the Australian film Long John Silver (1954), and in a 1955 television series of the same name, as well as appearing as Blackbeard the Pirate (1952). One notable reference book called him a 'star character actor with a rolling eye and a voice to match; a ham, but a succulent one' (Halliwell, 525). He gave, though, a most restrained performance as Dr Arnold in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951). Films in his American period included Soldiers Three, for which he 'arrived practically every morning incoherent with booze' (Granger, 214), Les misérables (as Javert) and Androcles and the Lion (both 1952), The Desert Rats (1953), and The High and the Mighty (1954). In England he took over Charles Laughton's role in Vessel of Wrath, now called The Beachcomber (1954). His last film role was as the detective Inspector Fix in the all-star extravaganza Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).

Shortly after receiving a bankruptcy notice in March 1954, Newton left England; he did not return. Early in 1956 he was sued for breach of contract over his leaving the production of Trilby and Svengali during filming. Newton's drinking caused many problems, and gave him a reputation for unreliability. David Niven wrote:

With just the right amount on board he could be fascinating, for he was a highly intelligent, erudite, kindly and knowledgeable man, but once he had taken the extra one … he changed gear and became anything from unpredictable to a downright menace.

Niven, Empty Horses, 322

Niven added that, sadly, 'his charm was so great and when he took only a couple of drinks, his entertainment value was so spectacular that there was always some idiot who would press him to take the fatal third and fourth' (ibid., 327). Newton's contract for This Happy Breed stipulated that his fee would be docked by £500 each time he was drunk on the set. So great a threat to health had his drinking become that he managed to keep his promise to producer Mike Todd not to drink throughout the shooting of Around the World in Eighty Days. But a few weeks after its completion he was called back to reshoot a scene; it was clear that he had ‘fallen off the wagon’, and very shortly afterwards he was dead.

Although often rebellious and nonconformist, Newton's real persona was more often honest, gentle, sensitive, and warm-hearted, most unlike some of the dastardly characters he created on the screen. In his spare time he enjoyed reading and walking, shooting and fishing, and particularly cooking. He was married four times, first on 7 November 1929 to Margaret Petronella Millicent Walton (b. 1904/5), with whom he had two daughters, thirdly to Natalie Newhouse, with whom he had a son, and lastly to Vera Budnick (d. 2000), with whom he also had a son. The name of his second wife is not known. He died of a heart attack on 25 March 1956 in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California. He was buried at Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles.

Sources

  • Who was who in the theatre, 1912–1976, 4 vols. (1978)
  • The Times (23 Jan 1956)
  • The Times (27 March 1956)
  • D. Niven, The moon's a balloon (1972), 281–2
  • D. Niven, Bring on the empty horses (1976), 320–28
  • E. Katz, The international film encyclopedia (1982), 857
  • L. Halliwell, Halliwell's filmgoer's companion (1977)
  • S. Granger, Sparks fly upward (1981)
  • A. S. Berg, Goldwyn (1989)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1936–76, Hult. Arch.
  • R. S. Sherriffs, ink drawing, NPG