Michael Gambon Was So Much More Than Just Dumbledore


  • Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore is his most famous, but his career spanned almost 60 years.
  • Michael Gambon excelled at playing villains in movies like The Insider and Sleepy Hollow.
  • While working with several notable directors, Michael Gambon often played smaller roles, but he always made his characters special.

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The late Michael Gambon will always be best remembered as Professor Dumbledore, taking over the role in the Harry Potter franchise after Richard Harris passed away, starting with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But like so many of the franchise’s cast, his credentials extend far beyond that to the roots of British theater. Dumbledore may be his crowning achievement as an actor, but it arrived atop a rich and diverse career stretching across almost 60 years and encompassing a variety of memorable roles.

Like many actors of his standing, the role always interested Gambon far more than the spotlight. And while he had his sharing of starring parts, more often than not, he would steal the show in what amounted to a cameo. He could deliver a good deal of character in a comparatively short amount of screen time, on top of an extraordinary range that let him play just about anything. He parlayed that into dozens of parts in fascinating projects, all of which became just a little bit better because of his presence.

RELATED: Daniel Radcliffe Joins Harry Potter Stars in Honoring Michael Gambon’s Acting Legacy

Michael Gambon Made a Splash as a Famous Mystery Writer

Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective

Like many actors of his generation, Gambon thrived on the stage in his early career. In 1962, Laurence Olivier hired him as one of the founding members of his National Theatre Company. He built a strong career onstage for the next three decades, only infrequently departing for film or television roles. That included a knack for comedy — most notably as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing — which contrasted with more expected works such as King Lear and Falstaff. His stage work also encompassed multiple starring roles in works by Harold Pinter, as well as the lead in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. He retired from the theater in 2015.

Outside of the theater, his best-known role arrived in 1986’s The Singing Detective, a six-part musical miniseries on the BBC. He played “Philip Marlowe,” a mystery writer struggling with a painful joint disease who hallucinates a fantasy world based on his own detective stories. Gambon proved a perfect fit for the unique mélange of genres, and the miniseries is considered one of the greatest pieces of television ever broadcast. Even more than Dumbledore, it may be the actor’s signature role, and fans who know him only from Harry Potter are urged to hunt down a copy.

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Michael Gambon Excelled at Playing Villains

Michael Gambon in The Insider

Gambon’s film career began in earnest with The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, playing the gangland owner of a restaurant who suffers a gruesome revenge for his crimes. It demonstrated a rare talent for antagonists, at which he excelled. Passive corruption was something of a specialty for Gambon, playing amoral landowners in the likes of Sleepy Hollow and Open Range, as well as another memorable gangland capo in Matthew Vaughn’s thriller Layer Cake. Oftentimes, the parts were little more than a cameo, consisting of just a few minutes of screen time. But he always left a big impression, along with the sense of something truly evil behind his passive façade.

Perhaps his best performance on that front comes in Michael Mann’s The Insider, where he plays tobacco executive Thomas Sandefur. The film shows us only his mask: a polite Southern businessman who just wants everyone to relax. Gambon reveals his soul through dead eyes and expressionless pleasantries, literally poisoning people in order to make money. The Insider focuses mainly on large and impersonal forces — such as business and the media — and the ways they can destroy vulnerable individuals. Gambon puts a human face on their vile modus operandi and becomes one of the movies’ most memorable elements in the process.

RELATED: Wes Anderson Speaks Out Against Censorship of Roald Dahl’s Books

Michael Gambon Worked Under an Amazing Number of Directors

Michael Gambon in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Perhaps the biggest feather in the actor’s cap is the sheer number of notable directors he worked with in his career. Their ranks include Mann, Tim Burton, Barry Levinson, Stephen Frears, Robert Altman, Matthew Vaughn and Paul King. As befitted his approach, he often played smaller roles and somehow made his characters all the more distinctive because of it. It also allowed him to play a wide array of characters while readily adapting to the distinct style of some noted auteurs. And because he rarely played the leads, he could look for particularly interesting roles further down the cast list and invariably find some way to make them special.

But he rarely seemed as joyful as he did with noted director Wes Anderson, who worked with him on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The latter is a solely vocal performance but finds Gambon in comfortable form as the villain. He plays Franklin Bean, the leader of the three farmers obsessed with catching the title character. His voice bleeds pure misanthropy as he orders his minions to increasingly ridiculous ends in search of their quarry. His part in The Life Aquatic is more overtly comic and just as funny. He plays the team’s dodgy producer, mostly hovering around in the background attempting to scare up money for Bill Murray’s gang of nitwit ichthyologists. He’s forced to flee midway through the film for seriously suspicious reasons hastily discussed over the phone. Gambon conveys all manner of chaotic circumstances taking place offscreen as his character tries to evade accountability. It adds immeasurable depth to the film’s absurd little world, as well as being terribly funny in its own right.

His choices reflect the hallmark of a true actor: someone interested in practicing his craft rather than seeing his name above the marquee. He deployed that in a dizzying number of ways, sometimes in movies that had little else to linger in the memory. In the process, he pushed his craft in every direction he possibly could and assembled a singular career in the process. His Dumbledore remains one of the best parts of the Harry Potter films and even works as a mixture of his other roles: equal parts humorous, tragic, compassionate and dark. Gambon played every one of them and more in his time, each one a testament to just what a talented performer we lost.

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