John Fraser obituary
The actor John Fraser, who has died aged 89, received his first review while still a teenager, playing a page to Herodias in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Despite receiving harsh criticism, which noted that his performance had been “undermined by an accent from the worst Glasgow slums”, Fraser harboured few doubts as to his future profession. His response was to take elocution lessons.
Some 20 years later, after a bright career on stage, screen and television, he landed his best role, as Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry) in the film The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960). The Irish playwright had indirectly come to his rescue after the disappointment – shared by many actors at the time – of losing out to Peter O’Toole for the coveted role of Lawrence of Arabia.
His portrayal of Bosie, the self-centred love of Wilde’s life, gained Fraser a Bafta nomination as best actor, although the award went to his co-star in Ken Hughes’s fine film, Peter Finch as Wilde. However, Fraser’s performance set the seal on his career, during a decade in which British cinema enjoyed a renaissance.
Fraser’s success in upper-class, even princely, roles was in contrast to his own early life. He had grown up on a council estate in Glasgow, in poverty. His father, John, was an alcoholic, whose early death, followed soon after by that of his mother, Christina (nee MacDonald) left Fraser and his two older sisters, Chris and Jean, dependent upon a hard-working aunt. Following his stage debut at the Glasgow Park theatre, he found work with BBC Radio Scotland and then joined the army, before being pressed into national service.
He left the forces as a junior officer and returned to the Glasgow Park, by now relocated and renamed the Pitlochry Festival theatre, where he became an assistant stage manager and bit-part actor. By 20, he had found an agent and in 1952 debuted on television, as David Balfour in a dramatisation of the RL Stevenson adventure novel Kidnapped.
In the same year, he won a film contract with the Associated British Picture Corporation, and worked in a string of productions including The Good Beginning (1953), Valley of Song (1953) and two films shot in Italy. He liked the country so much he would spend months there each year and eventually made Italy his home.
Alongside screen work, he returned to the theatre, at the Old Vic, making his debut as Octavius in Julius Caesar. His most important role in the 1950s was as the composer Inigo Jollifant in a widescreen, colour updating of JB Priestley’s The Good Companions (1957). The role of Inigo, originally played by John Gielgud in a 1933 version, gave Fraser the chance to sing opposite Janette Scott.
They recorded the title song together, and this led to Fraser’s stint as a pop singer, with a fan club and appearances on Six-Five Special and other TV shows.
But Fraser returned to full-time acting and, thanks to a fairly buoyant film and emergent television industry, he worked steadily. In The Wind Cannot Read (1958) he was on location with Dirk Bogarde. In The Dam Busters (1955) he had joined the forces and he stayed there for his first screen role as a Scot, a corporal in love with Susannah York, in Tunes of Glory (1960). He had six months on location as Prince Alfonso in the epic El Cid (1961) and in the same year was the lead in an engaging swashbuckler, Fury at Smugglers’ Bay, shot in Cornwall.
He was in Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors (1962), with Peter Sellers. On TV, in The Lady of the Camellias (1964), he and Billie Whitelaw followed in the illustrious footsteps of Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo, who 30 years earlier had graced the cinema in Camille.
In Roman Polanski’s English language debut, Repulsion (1965), Fraser was the murder victim of the central character, Carol (Catherine Deneuve), submerged for the duration in bathwater. He had a good part in Operation Crossbow (1965) and played third lead as Lord Carfax in the grimly effective Sherlock Holmes’ movie A Study in Terror (also 1965), before Isadora (1968), about the life of Isadora Duncan, in which he was the dancer’s biographer.
At the end of the 60s, British film production sank into a characteristic cyclical crisis. Fraser’s last movie was Schizo (1976), in which he played a murdered psychiatrist. He kept busy with stage work, including a one-man show about JM Barrie, a long West End run in the comedy Any Wednesday and tours of modern classics such as Sleuth and Equus.
In a happy coda to his career he co-founded the London Shakespeare Group with some friends. Sponsored by the British Council and Japanese business, they toured the world for more than 15 years, taking extracts of the playwright’s work to cities and regions throughout Africa, China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka and Europe. He interspersed this with television work in series such as Doctor Who, Columbo, The Practice and Thundercloud.
Fraser published books about his travels, plus a novel and a play. When he decided to retire from acting, he added his autobiography, Close Up (2004), which covered his career but also contained vivid, often scabrous, portraits of acquaintances including Bette Davis, co-stars including Bogarde and Hedy Lamarr, and lovers, notably the dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
Fraser settled in Tuscany with his long-time companion, Rod Pienaar, whom he had met while working in South Africa during the 70s. They returned to live in London a decade ago.
His sisters both predeceased him. He is survived by Rod.
• John Fraser, actor, born 18 March 1931; died 6 November 2020