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Day Lewis, Daniel (1957-)


Main image of Day Lewis, Daniel (1957-)

A major star of the '80s and '90s, who in 1999, temporarily, renounced acting to take up shoemaking. Born in London on 29 April 1957, the son of poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1978) and his second wife, actress Jill Balcon, and grandson of Ealing Studios head, Sir Michael Balcon, he dropped out of school (Sevenoaks, followed by Bedales) and got a bit part in Sunday Bloody Sunday (d. John Schlesinger, 1971). Deciding to take acting seriously, he trained at the Bristol Old Vic and joined the RSC in the later '70s.

After several small film roles, including one as a young thug in Gandhi (UK/India, d. Richard Attenborough, 1982), he made an indelible impression in 1985 with two roles so widely contrasted that it was hard to believe the same actor played them: the stuffy Cecil Vyse in Merchant-Ivory's A Room with a View and the gay punk in My Beautiful Laundrette (d. Stephen Frears).

This kind of versatility continued to mark his career, so that he remained primarily an actor rather than a film star, and the seal was set on it with his Oscar and BAFTA-award winning performance of cerebral palsy victim Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989), the first of three films for Irish director, Jim Sheridan. The other two were as one of the wrongly-gaoled 'Guildford Four' in In the Name of the Father (UK/Ireland/US, 1993, Oscar and BAFTA nominations)), and the title role in The Boxer (UK/Ireland/US, 1997).

In the meantime, he had established himself in US films: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (d. Philip Kaufman, 1988), erotic drama set against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968; the adventure The Last of the Mohicans (d. Michael Mann, 1992, another BAFTA nomination), for which he rebuilt his body to good box-office effect; Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, The Age of Innocence (1993), as the honourable, frustrated apex of a romantic triangle; and as the honourable, frustrated John Proctor in The Crucible (d. Nicholas Hytner, 1996).

Following the latter, he married Arthur Miller's daughter, Rebecca, having previously had a long relationship with French star, Isabelle Adjani. His stage career took a serious tumble when he withdrew from the National Theatre's Hamlet in 1989, claiming exhaustion; he was replaced by understudy Jeremy Northam. The tall, intense, darkly good-looking Day-Lewis was famous for his total immersion in a role, but this perhaps means that acting is for him more stressful than shoemaking. He returned to acting in Gangs of New York (US, d. Martin Scorsese, 2002).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Gandhi (1982)Gandhi (1982)

Large-scale Oscar-winning biopic of the great Indian spiritual leader

Thumbnail image of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Surprise box-office hit about a gay Pakistani/National Front romance

Thumbnail image of Room with a View, A (1985)Room with a View, A (1985)

Much-loved Merchant Ivory adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel

Thumbnail image of Insurance Man, The (1986)Insurance Man, The (1986)

Alan Bennett's parallel study of Kafka the man and a Kafkaesque situation

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