Remembering the unforgettable Michael Gough

Likely to exist as but a blip on the radar of the international news outlets in the wake of the rising death toll related to the Japanese tsunamis is the passing of British character actor Michael Gough, who died yesterday at the age of 94.  If he is remembered at all by the average moviegoer these days, it will be for his association with Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) and its sequels.  As Alfred Pennyworth, loyal family retainer of millionaire-superhero Bruce Wayne, Gough carried the character forward in BATMAN RETURNS (1992), in which he reteamed with Michael Keaton, in BATMAN FOREVER (1995) with Val Kilmer and BATMAN AND ROBIN (1995), in which George Clooney donned the cape and cowl of the Dark Knight.  Truth be told, I didn’t like Burton’s BATMAN or any of the sequels I saw, whole or in part, but Gough sure added value to the experience.  He was the consummate actor, the consummate trouper, taking the roles that were offered him and playing them to the hilt.  Oh, he could chew scenery, yessiree, and all that would be left in his wake was toothpicks and sawdust, but he also knew how to serve the narrative, to sit back and support the principal players.  In Peter Yates’ THE DRESSER (1985), Gough appears as one of the actors in Albert Finney’s traveling company, who wears his street clothes under his Shakespearean costume so that he can zip out to the pub between scenes and “trouserloony.”  Nearly thirty years later and I’m warmed by my memory of his delivery of that word, which as far as I know doesn’t really exist… yet coming from Michael Gough you knew exactly what he was talking about.

I grew up with Gough; his surname is pronounced “Goff” but for years I made it “go.”  Born in Kuala Lampur in Malaysia in 1917, Gough’s original career path (one likely chosen to appease his father, a rubber planter) took him through Wye Agricultural College, an academic hub for the study of business, management and biological and agricultural sciences in Kent.  All that went by the wayside, however, once acting got a hold of him.  As a student of London’s Old Vic, Gough made his stage debut in 1936 but it was only after World War II (during which he identified himself as a conscientious objector) that he began to attract notice.  Early roles of note were as a blackmailer in a 1946 staging of Frederick Lonsdale’s BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD in the West End and as Laertes in a 1951 production of HAMLET at the New Theatre, directed by and starring Alec Guinness.  Guinness was a long-time friend of Gough.  The pair appeared together in a number of plays, films and television programs; Gough called Guinness “McSir” and Guinness called Gough “Mike.”  I’ve heard that others in the British entertainment industry knew him as “Mick.”  If you’ve followed the career of Michael Gough for as long as I have — and I think 40 years is a conservative estimate — then you know how unthinkable it is to imagine calling Michael Gough Mick or Mike.  Anyway… he made his film debut in 1948 in ANNA KARENINA with Vivien Leigh and appeared with Alec Guinness THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1948) and was the swinish Duke of Montrose to Richard Todd’s ROB ROY, THE HIGHLAND ROGUE (1953) but if you’re like me it was his association with horror films, starting in 1958, that put him on your map.

Michael Gough was such a clever buggar that even when he played huge pains in the ass you were loving him at it.  In Hammer’s DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958), he appears as Arthur Holmwood, the stuffed shirt (and pinchy waistcoat) who keeps getting in the way of Peter Cushing’s righteous vampire smasher Van Helsing.  Mind you, Arthur has his reasons for being skeptical and I suppose we’d be a bit like him in real life but… well, going into HORROR OF DRACULA, we know all the angles, we know he’s wrong and Van H is right, and we just want him to stand down, blast it.  And he does, once he sees the undead in action!  These days, a character like his would be killed to elicit a laugh from the audience but in 1958 Holmwood is allowed to learn his lesson and get on the right side and our heart melts when he and Van Helsing make nice.  The role is fairly atypical for Gough’s genre output over the next twenty years or so, during which he played more villains than anything else.  And what villains!

The first thing I ever saw him in was, I’m fairly certain, THE CRUCIBLE OF HORROR (aka THE CORPSE, 1971), which played at my local drive-in on a triple bill with, I’m fairly certain, BLIND MAN’S BLUFF (aka CAULDRON OF BLOOD, 1967) starring Boris Karloff, and something else.  Or I could have this all wrong – I went to the drive-in a lot as a kid.  Anyway, in CRUCIBLE OF HORROR, Gough plays this very nasty piece of work, a British family man who lords over his manor, making life very difficult for wife Yvonne Mitchell and daughter Sharon Gurney (the actor’s real life daughter-in-law), reserving his affection for his son (Simon Gough, the actor’s real life son).  The upshot is that the ladies kill him and then can’t quite seem to get rid of him.  It’s all so much warmed-over DIABOLIQUE (1955) but I thought it was highly creepy as a little guy, due almost exclusively to Gough’s predatory sourpuss.  I saw him again in his cameo in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), in which he pops up in the last five minutes as a corpse preserved in an air-tight, lead-lined room.  At some point, and we’re talking between 1973 and 1975, I caught him in his great horror and sci-fi roles, the ones that really solidified his standing as a Super Creep: as a murderous archivist in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959), as a madder-than-mad scientist in KONGA (1961), as an asshole opera impresario in Hammer’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962), and as a crippled painter whose severed hand survives his suicide to torment art critic Christopher Lee in DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965).  He was such an effective thesp that he made a big impression even when he was given precious little to do: as an auctioneer in THE SKULL (1965), a moronic, unisyllablic butler in CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (aka THE CRIMSON CULT, 1967), the unwitting father of a Hitler clone in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1979) or as circus owner Joan Crawford’s business manager in BERSERK! (1967), where his reaction to having a spike driven into his head certainly does linger in the mind.  He reteamed with Crawford for TROG (1970), in which he played a real estate developer who gets on the wrong side of the thawed-out caveman.  I don’t want to spoil anything but, damn, Michael Gough screamed good in that one!

One of my favorite Gough roles was in HORROR HOSPITAL (aka COMPUTER KILLERS, 1973).  This ghoulish horror comedy concerns a rural clinic to which the youthful but neurotic flotsam and jetsam of 1970s England is drawn… and quartered!  Harvesting this fresh meat for the Continent’s aging aristocracy is Gough’s su-PREME-ly EEE-vil Dr. Christian Storm.  HORROR HOSPITAL was directed and written by Anthony Balch, a one-time associate of Beat novelist William S. Burroughs and I’ve long felt Dr. Storm was inspired in part by Burroughs’ immortal Dr. Benway, who seemed unable to walk out of an operating room that wasn’t ankle deep in blood.  Gough really tucks into this role, though I’d doubt it was anything but a paycheck to him. I guess we all thought Gough was a little over-the-top in  those days, a little arch, which is why so many of his genre film roles play as camp.  I’d like to reverse that decision now, to strike it down.  What Gough was… was memorable.  He was vivid.  And he never phoned it in. I could name a dozen “great” actors, still living, who seem to have it all over Michael Gough but who cannot claim to always being memorable, to never phoning it in.  I see people like Geoffrey Rush, Stephen Rea or Ian McKellen cast in genre roles into which Gough would have been plugged thirty years ago and I forget them just as soon as the celluloid goes slapping around the take-up reel.

A thumbnail biography of the actor in John Brosnan’s The Horror People (St. Martin’s Press, 1976) characterized Gough as “a melancholy man resigned to working in horror films.”  Boy, was that off the mark!  Though KONGA came back to haunt him (and his children, who were teased at school with cries of “Konga, put me down!”) for the rest of his career, Gough never seemed to have suffered professionally for all his work in the blood and thunder trade.  His credits through the 70s, 80s and 90s are rife with quality projects for screens big and small (to say nothing of his acclaimed work in theatre), not the least of which were roles in Mike Newell’s adaptation of John Osborne’s THE GIFT OF FRIENDSHIP (1974) with Alec Guinness, Joseph Losey’s THE GO-BETWEEN (1970) and GALILEO (1975), the acclaimed British miniseries BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (1981), with Guinness again in SMILEY’S PEOPLE (1982), in Sydney Pollack’s OUT OF AFRICA (1985), in Derek Jarman’s CARAVAGGIO (1986, at right), THE GARDEN (1990) and WITTGENSTEIN (1993), in Peter Medak’s fact-based LET HIM HAVE IT (1991), in Martin Scorsese’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993) and opposite Alan Bates and Charlotte Rampling in Mihalis Kakogiannis’ 1999 adaptation of Anton Chekov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD.  But just when it seemed that those of us who grew up on his old horror movies had lost him to classier productions he’d pop up in something good and gnarly, such as Wes Craven’s voodoo shocker THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) or Tim Burton’s SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999).

One of Gough’s last credits was providing the voice of the lovable bag o’bones Elder Gutkneckt in Burton’s THE CORPSE BRIDE (2005).  He was officially retired at this point in his life but he seemed to enjoy working with Burton and his participation in the film minimal … yet how wonderful it was to hear his voice again.  His acidic inflections mellowed with age to a port-like viscosity, Gough is plumby as all Hell in this amusing cameo, dispensing sage advice and fast-acting poisons to lovelorn dead’n Helena Bonham-Carter and intervening (as a neat twist on Romeo and Juliet‘s Friar Lawrence and the Apothecary rolled into one) on the side of the angels.  Gough pulls you into his characterization so effortlessly that I have to remind myself while watching that it’s not really him on the screen!  This was the first movie my daughter Vayda saw in the cinema and both of my children enjoy revisiting it on DVD; I get a kick out of the fact that my kids get a laugh and a chill out of Gough, just as I did forty years ago.  I hate to admit it but THE CORPSE BRIDE is probably the only Michael Gough movie I’ve sat down to watch for enjoyment in years.  I’ve really got to do something about that.

Recommending reading: David Del Valle’s 1984 encounter with Michael Gough.

26 Responses Remembering the unforgettable Michael Gough
Posted By Medusa Morlock : March 18, 2011 9:11 am

I very well remember his wordless and uncredited role as the preserved corpse of Emeric Belasco in “The Legend of Hell House”. What an impressive list of credits he has; many of his TV roles we might have see over here on “Masterpiece Theatre” — I know I saw him in the harrowing “Shoulder to Shoulder” from 1974 about women’s suffrage in Britain, which included the controversial and frighteningly realistic scenes of force-feeding when the ladies were jailed. He played the Pankhursts’ father.

A good consistently working actor — a good life on film! And a great profile of him!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : March 18, 2011 9:11 am

I very well remember his wordless and uncredited role as the preserved corpse of Emeric Belasco in “The Legend of Hell House”. What an impressive list of credits he has; many of his TV roles we might have see over here on “Masterpiece Theatre” — I know I saw him in the harrowing “Shoulder to Shoulder” from 1974 about women’s suffrage in Britain, which included the controversial and frighteningly realistic scenes of force-feeding when the ladies were jailed. He played the Pankhursts’ father.

A good consistently working actor — a good life on film! And a great profile of him!

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 18, 2011 9:57 am

94 is surely an advanced age at which to shuffle off the mortal coil, yet knowing that Mr. Gough is not in the world makes me feel as though I’d lost a distant uncle, one who enjoyed benignly frightening me as a child and then delighted in laughing with me when the joke was over. Thank you for your lovely piece on this consummate actor who could, when it was called for, raise the roof. I’ll always fondly think of him as Lord Ambrose D’Arcy, fobbing off the desperate-for-payment composer Petrie (Herbert Lom) in Hammer’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with a blithe “Tomorrow, tomorrow…”

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 18, 2011 9:57 am

94 is surely an advanced age at which to shuffle off the mortal coil, yet knowing that Mr. Gough is not in the world makes me feel as though I’d lost a distant uncle, one who enjoyed benignly frightening me as a child and then delighted in laughing with me when the joke was over. Thank you for your lovely piece on this consummate actor who could, when it was called for, raise the roof. I’ll always fondly think of him as Lord Ambrose D’Arcy, fobbing off the desperate-for-payment composer Petrie (Herbert Lom) in Hammer’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with a blithe “Tomorrow, tomorrow…”

Posted By rhsmith : March 18, 2011 11:13 am

Gough’s cameo in The Legend of Hell House is interesting because he’s as good as a ventriloquist’s dummy there… we hear his voice early on and then we discover him tucked up in that chamber behind the Belasco chapel, staring ahead, as if waiting to be picked up. You expect his mouth to start working like a dummy’s. One of his ex-wives, and I’m thinking it was Diana Graves, worked with Michael Redgrave on his ventriloquism for the dummy episode of Ealing’s Dead of Night, feeding him the dummy lines while he did his own ventriloquist dialogue. So it’s kind of neat in a circular way that Gough had that connection buried in his background.

Posted By rhsmith : March 18, 2011 11:13 am

Gough’s cameo in The Legend of Hell House is interesting because he’s as good as a ventriloquist’s dummy there… we hear his voice early on and then we discover him tucked up in that chamber behind the Belasco chapel, staring ahead, as if waiting to be picked up. You expect his mouth to start working like a dummy’s. One of his ex-wives, and I’m thinking it was Diana Graves, worked with Michael Redgrave on his ventriloquism for the dummy episode of Ealing’s Dead of Night, feeding him the dummy lines while he did his own ventriloquist dialogue. So it’s kind of neat in a circular way that Gough had that connection buried in his background.

Posted By SeeingI : March 18, 2011 11:54 am

Michael Gough was also in two different episodes of the BBC’s “Doctor Who.” In 1966 he played an iconic villain in “The Celestial Toymaker.” The titular Toymaker was cruel demi-god in Mandarin’s robes, who forced his captives to play macabre children’s games for all eternity. Years later, in 1983, he played a corrupt Time Lord in the episode “Arc of Infinity.”

Posted By SeeingI : March 18, 2011 11:54 am

Michael Gough was also in two different episodes of the BBC’s “Doctor Who.” In 1966 he played an iconic villain in “The Celestial Toymaker.” The titular Toymaker was cruel demi-god in Mandarin’s robes, who forced his captives to play macabre children’s games for all eternity. Years later, in 1983, he played a corrupt Time Lord in the episode “Arc of Infinity.”

Posted By Tim Lucas : March 18, 2011 1:08 pm

I don’t know much about Gough’s early life but I always imagined he must have gone hungry as an actor for an unendurable stretch because he made such a meal of his roles. As your photo selection shows, he even made a meal of his stills! I always enjoyed him and I enjoyed reading your reminiscence, which evoked him superbly.

Posted By Tim Lucas : March 18, 2011 1:08 pm

I don’t know much about Gough’s early life but I always imagined he must have gone hungry as an actor for an unendurable stretch because he made such a meal of his roles. As your photo selection shows, he even made a meal of his stills! I always enjoyed him and I enjoyed reading your reminiscence, which evoked him superbly.

Posted By morlockjeff : March 18, 2011 4:25 pm

He is quite young in THE HORSE’S MOUTH. I’d never seen him play a role like this before and he’s quite the bohemian rake. He’s got a devilish feral quality and almost steals the movie from Alec Guinness in their scenes together.

Posted By morlockjeff : March 18, 2011 4:25 pm

He is quite young in THE HORSE’S MOUTH. I’d never seen him play a role like this before and he’s quite the bohemian rake. He’s got a devilish feral quality and almost steals the movie from Alec Guinness in their scenes together.

Posted By Campy Extraterrestrials – Michael Gough vs. Dudley Manlove : March 18, 2011 4:29 pm

[...] more on the great Gough, check out these pieces by Erich Kuersten and Richard Harland Smith. Posted by C. Jerry Kutner Tagged with: Ed Wood, Freddie Francis, horror, Michael Gough, sci-fi, [...]

Posted By Campy Extraterrestrials – Michael Gough vs. Dudley Manlove : March 18, 2011 4:29 pm

[...] more on the great Gough, check out these pieces by Erich Kuersten and Richard Harland Smith. Posted by C. Jerry Kutner Tagged with: Ed Wood, Freddie Francis, horror, Michael Gough, sci-fi, [...]

Posted By David Del Valle : March 19, 2011 3:32 pm

This is all wonderful stuff celebrating the great Gough now that we have lost him. What I remember best about being with him that long ago afternoon was his love of all things show biz….along with his humor of course.

He especially admired Joe Losey as a director and sighted THE GO-BETWEEN as a one of his personal favorite’s. He loved working with Maggie Leighton commenting that her performance was so fantastic especially in the sceme where she takes the boy to confront the lovers during a thunderstorm…

Ken Russell was also touched upon that day and his admiration was heartfelt although he did regret Ken’s descent into self parody. “He’s too bloody good for that!”

I think he understood that we all loved him for his horror films as well and I did speak for us all when I looked at him and said KONGA PUT ME DOWN…..his reply was “my poor children had to hear that on the playground for months after the film came out….” He was a such good sport inspite of it all….

Posted By David Del Valle : March 19, 2011 3:32 pm

This is all wonderful stuff celebrating the great Gough now that we have lost him. What I remember best about being with him that long ago afternoon was his love of all things show biz….along with his humor of course.

He especially admired Joe Losey as a director and sighted THE GO-BETWEEN as a one of his personal favorite’s. He loved working with Maggie Leighton commenting that her performance was so fantastic especially in the sceme where she takes the boy to confront the lovers during a thunderstorm…

Ken Russell was also touched upon that day and his admiration was heartfelt although he did regret Ken’s descent into self parody. “He’s too bloody good for that!”

I think he understood that we all loved him for his horror films as well and I did speak for us all when I looked at him and said KONGA PUT ME DOWN…..his reply was “my poor children had to hear that on the playground for months after the film came out….” He was a such good sport inspite of it all….

Posted By dukeroberts : March 20, 2011 11:47 am

I first saw him in Batman. I LOVE Batman! Alfred Pennyworth will be missed.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 20, 2011 11:47 am

I first saw him in Batman. I LOVE Batman! Alfred Pennyworth will be missed.

Posted By Sam F. Park : March 21, 2011 3:03 am

I’ll never forget how freaked out I and some other kids were watching a trailer for THE BLACK ZOO in a station wagon filled with kids (older brothers and sisters drove us over so the parents could get rid of us) at a drive-in theater at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee when I was around second grade. That was how I first remember seeing Michael Gough and hearing that unique voice of his in the lurid snippets of scenes flashing on the screen. I can see it as clear as then right now. Man, it was great!

Posted By Sam F. Park : March 21, 2011 3:03 am

I’ll never forget how freaked out I and some other kids were watching a trailer for THE BLACK ZOO in a station wagon filled with kids (older brothers and sisters drove us over so the parents could get rid of us) at a drive-in theater at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee when I was around second grade. That was how I first remember seeing Michael Gough and hearing that unique voice of his in the lurid snippets of scenes flashing on the screen. I can see it as clear as then right now. Man, it was great!

Posted By dar : March 21, 2011 5:36 pm

The Small Back Room (1949) by the British producer-writer-director team Powell and Pressburger illustrates MG’s effortless skill of conveying military bearing with a humanity& a twinkle in the eye.
[ when will TCM run this absolute gem of a film?]

Posted By dar : March 21, 2011 5:36 pm

The Small Back Room (1949) by the British producer-writer-director team Powell and Pressburger illustrates MG’s effortless skill of conveying military bearing with a humanity& a twinkle in the eye.
[ when will TCM run this absolute gem of a film?]

Posted By ptsbobby : April 5, 2011 11:29 am

How do you pronounce his name ? Is it “GOFF” as in cough ?

Posted By ptsbobby : April 5, 2011 11:29 am

How do you pronounce his name ? Is it “GOFF” as in cough ?

Posted By rhsmith : April 5, 2011 11:35 am

Yes, “Goff,” as stated above.

Posted By rhsmith : April 5, 2011 11:35 am

Yes, “Goff,” as stated above.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.