Born in London, the younger brother of Edward Fox, he began as a child actor (William Fox), playing the son in The Miniver Story (d. H.C.Potter, 1950) and starring as the mendacious owner of The Magnet (d. Charles Frend, 1950).
As an adult, he changed his name from William (to avoid confusion with character actor William Fox) to James, made a vivid impression as the public-school competitor for Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (d. Tony Richardson, 1962) and was a brilliant foil to Dirk Bogarde in The Servant (d. Joseph Losey, 1963) in which his blond good looks were subsumed into an overriding vacuity, a supine need to be waited on. He won a British Academy Award as Best Newcomer, and thirty years later he gave a resonant reworking of this character in The Remains of the Day (d. James Ivory, 1993), a well-meaning fascist now nannied by a devoted butler.
In between, he gave a string of excellent performances in such diverse fare as Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (d. Ken Annakin, 1965), as an engaging young flyer, and Performance (d. Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg, 1970), as a vicious thug with an increasing problem of identity; took over a decade off to work with a religious group; and returned in the 1980s to become, like his brother, a major character star.
He seems natural casting for patrician types, as in Bill Douglas's wonderful Comrades (1986), but his Fielding in A Passage to India (d. David Lean, 1984) is a deeply felt liberal, his chilling Karenin is the only thing worth attention in Anna Karenina (US, d. Bernard Rose, 1997), and, in TV's The Choir (1995), he is persuasively mean-minded. Other US films include Thoroughly Modern Millie (d. George Roy Hill, 1967) and The Russia House (d. Fred Schepisi, 1990).
His autobiography, Comeback, was published by Hodder in 1983.
Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film