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Pryce, Jonathan (1947-)


Main image of Pryce, Jonathan (1947-)

Once described by a fellow actor as "like being on stage with a killer shark", the reticent Jonathan Pryce has been equally at home on stage and screen in a distinguished career that has encompassed everything from Shakespeare and fantasy to musicals and Bond villains.

orn in Holywell, North Wales to a miner turned grocer (Pryce drove the family van during school holidays), he enrolled on the teacher training course in art at Eden Hill College in Ormskirk. For his subsidiary subject he chose drama "because it was the easiest". Encouraged by a drama teacher, he won a scholarship to RADA, where he was informed that he'd only ever play villains on Z Cars (BBC, 1962-1978). Ironically, his first television appearance was as a policeman in Doomwatch (BBC, 1970-72).

During the early part of his career, he honed his craft at the Liverpool Everyman and the Nottingham Playhouse. His vibrant portrayal of skinhead comic Gethin Price in the Playhouse production of Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians, transferred to Broadway and won him a Best Actor Tony award and compelled one audience member to blowing his anti-mugging whistle. He reprised the role successfully on television (BBC, tx. 25/10/ 1979). On stage he tackled various Shakespearean roles, Petruchio, Macbeth and what British theatre critics called the decade's definitive Hamlet. On television he was a desperately vulnerable Timon of Athens in Jonathan Miller's production (BBC, tx. 16/4/1981). His next small-screen starring roles were very different, as soon to be divorced composer Roger Flower in the sitcom series Roger Doesn't Live Here Anymore (BBC, 1981), and as the German founder of Protestantism in Martin Luther - Heretic (BBC, tx. 8/11/1983). Later, he would play a doctor pursued by Theresa Russell's identical twins in Thicker Than Water (BBC. tx 29/7/1993), a charismatic 19th-century preacher in Mr Wroe's Virgins (BBC, 1993) and business financier Henry Kravis in Barbarians at the Gate (US, 1993), for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Supporting Actor.

Pryce made his cinema debut in Voyage of the Damned (d. Stuart Rosenberg, 1976) and was named Evening Standard Best Newcomer for his saxophone player in Breaking Glass (d. Brian Gibson, 1980). He excelled as the modern day Mephistophelian carnival owner Mr Dark in Disney's Something Wicked This Way Comes (US, 1983) and as an ambitious radio journalist in The Ploughman's Lunch (d. Richard Eyre, 1983). However, his most memorable screen performance was arguably the daydreaming clerk Sam Lowry in the totalitarian black comedy Brazil (d. Terry Gilliam, 1985). Pryce would later appear in Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Brothers Grimm (2005) and the abandoned The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2001).

Further celluloid exploits generally didn't do him justice: The Doctor and the Devils (d. Freddie Francis, 1985), Consuming Passions (d. Giles Foster, 1988) and The Rachel Papers (d. Damian Harris, 1989). He walked away from playing Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (US, 1988); though he later played a supporting role in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (US, 1993). An obsessive analyst of his own screen roles, he claimed that it wasn't until his performance as the self-absorbed, effete, writer Lytton Strachey in Carrington (d. Christopher Hampton, 1995) that he was totally satisfied. He based the voice on a combination of Malcolm Muggeridge and Ned Sherrin, and the result won him a Best Actor award at Cannes. Two years later he played the contrasting roles of multimedia mogul Elliot Carver, the Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies (d. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997), and Dr William Rivers, psychiatrist to shell-shocked WWI soldiers in Regeneration (d. Gillies Mackinnon, 1997). He also made appearances in Hollywood films including Glengarry Glen Ross (US, 1992), Ronin (US, 1998) and the Pirates of the Caribbean films (US, 2003/6/7).

On stage his versatility came to the fore with numerous singing parts. He created the lead role of the Engineer in Miss Saigon (1989),and went on to play Fagin in Oliver! (1994) and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (2001). His tenor voice was used to great effect on screen as Juan Peron in Evita (d. Alan Parker, 1996), a Welsh baker in Very Annie Mary (d. Sara Sugarman, 2001) and a crooner in Unconditional Love (US, 2001).

In recent years he has returned to the small screen in diverse roles such as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars (BBC, 2007), as a millionaire in a rare performance that "came out as I intended" in My Zinc Bed (BBC, 2008) and as Mr Buxton in Return to Cranford (BBC, 2009). After a gap of over twenty-five years he returned to situation comedy in Clone (BBC, 2008). In 2009 he was awarded a CBE for services to drama.

Graham Rinaldi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brazil (1985)Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam's pessimistic but dazzling vision of a future Britain

Thumbnail image of Ploughman's Lunch, The (1983)Ploughman's Lunch, The (1983)

Political drama about a ruthless journalist abandoning his principles

Thumbnail image of Comedians (1979)Comedians (1979)

Jonathan Pryce dazzles in Trevor Griffiths' intense Play for Today

Thumbnail image of Timon of Athens (1981)Timon of Athens (1981)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

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