Born September 29, 1913, Trevor Howard was born in Kent, England, the only child of a Lloyd’s of London executive, who was later the company’s representative in Ceylon and his Canadian born wife. Partially raised in Ceylon, Howard was educated in Bristol and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
On stage from 1934, he garnered strong notices for his performance in Terrence Rattigan’s French Without Tears in 1936. At the outbreak of World War II, he volunteered for the RAF but was turned down. Later inducted into service, stories of his heroism during the war circulated for years, but official records show he was discharged for mental instability and having a psychopathic personality.
Back in the theatre in 1943, he met and married actress Helen Cherry in 1944. The couple remained together until his death in 1988.
On screen in two minor roles, he became an overnight sensation opposite Celia Johnson in David Lean’s 1945 romance, Brief Encounter. Cast opposite Deborah Kerr in 1946’s The Adventuress AKA I See a Dark Stranger, he seemed to be on his way to playing unconventional romantic leads, but 1948’s They Made Me a Fugitive AKA I Became a Criminal showed a darker, grittier side of the actor that became closer to the style that became his trademark.
His portrayal of the dry, slightly crusty Army major in Carol Reed’s 1949 masterwork, The Third Man firmly established his screen persona. Subsequent performances in The Clouded Yellow; Outcast of the Islands and The Heart of the Matter for which he received a BAFTA nomination added to his reputation as one of the finest British actors of his generation. His role in Reed’s 1958 film, The Key in support of William Holden and Sophia Loren won him a BAFTA for Best British Actor. He also received wide acclaim for his lead role in the same year’s The Roots of Heaven in which he replaced Holden under John Huston’s direction.
Top billing over Dean Stockwell, the film’s actual star, resulted in his only Best Actor Oscar nomination for 1960’s Sons and Lovers.
He received another BAFTA nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Lord Cardigan in 1968’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. A superb performance in David Lean’s 1970 film, Ryan’s Daughter brought him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor but he was ruled eligible for lead actor by AMPAS and thus failed to receive an Oscar nomination for the role.
His subsequent career was split between TV roles in such works as 1973’s superb Catholics opposite Martin Sheen and 1986’s Christmas Eve opposite Loretta Young and supporting roles in such films as 1982’s The Missionary and Gandhi and 1987’s White Mischief.
Trevor Howard died January 7, 1988 at 74 from a combination of bronchitis, influenza and jaundice.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945), directed by David Lean
After an un-credited role in his first film and a minor role in his second, Howard shot to stardom in this expanded version of Noel Coward’s one-act 1936 play, Still Life opposite genteel Celia Johnson as the middle-class housewife Howard’s very proper doctor is attracted to. Their affair is never consummated and Johnson returns to her dull husband either out of love or convention leaving Howard the better for having known her. This very British film was a huge hit, resulting in Oscar nominations for Johnson, Lean and the screenplay co-written by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame. Howard was not nominated, but his future screen career was assured.
THE THIRD MAN (1949), directed by Carol Reed
Often cited at or near the top of polls of the greatest British films, this classic thriller from Graham Greene’s novel was originally released in two versions. Howard as a well-meaning British Army major narrates the film for the 1949 U.K. release version while co-star Joseph Cotten handles the narration for the 1950 U.S. release version.
This dandy film noir set in post-war Vienna features stunning cinematography, brilliant dialogue and haunting zither music as well as fine performances form Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Howard. Howard’s portrayal of the craggy British Army major set the standard for most of his subsequent performances.
SONS AND LOVERS (1960), directed by Jack Cardiff
Howard and Wendy Hiller claimed they directed themselves in legendary cinematographer Cardiff’s first outing as a director. Whether that’s true or not, Howard and Hiller are unforgettable in this superb Oscar nominated film version of D.H. Lawrence’s masterful novel which also features Dean Stockwell in arguably his best performance as the film’s central character and Oscar nominated Mary Ure also scoring as Stockwell’s married lover.
Howard as Stockwell’s loutish drunken coal-miner father and Hiller as his possessive mother easily delivered the year’s best supporting performances but were considered leads in the then studio controlled submissions for Oscar consideration, leaving them to compete in the lead categories. Hiller failed to be nominated in a strong filed of leading actresses while Howard actually scored a nomination for Best Actor despite impressive competition. He lost to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry.
RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), directed by David Lean
Howard delivered another Oscar caliber performance as the local priest in Lean’s romantic Irish epic, but the studio listed him, along with the film’s actual star, Robert Mitchum as a lead in the film and he was unable to compete in the supporting category where once again he could have been a winner. John Mills playing a deaf mute won the Oscar in support, while Sarah Miles received the film’s only other acting nomination in the title role.
The film is beautifully photographed with a magnificent score and is finely acted by Mitchum playing against type as a schoolteacher whose wife is seduced by a British Army officer played by Christopher Jones. Miles, Mills and especially Howard in a fiery performance are superb, but the film’s three hour length weighed against its success and a despondent Lean did not make another film for fourteen years.
CATHOLICS (1973), directed by Jack Gold
Howard delivers perhaps his finest performance as the Father Abbot in this TV film set in a remote Irish Abbey sometime in the near future. Based on the novel by Brian Moore (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), Howard and his fellow abbots including Cyril Cusack are in disobedience of the Church’s edict to say the Mass in their country’s native language (English) and continue to say it in the traditional Latin, drawing the enmity of Rome. Martin Sheen is the young priest who comes to their island to dissuade them of their ways under threat of ex-communication.
Howard and Cusack heartrending in their pleas for talking to God instead of the person sitting next to them in the pew, and Howard’s emotionally devastating final scene is the finest thing he’s ever done on film.
TREVOR HOWARD AND OSCAR
- Sons and Lovers (1960) – nominated Best Actor