Lending his mellifluous voice and regal mien to more than 100 films, British actor James Mason built a long career playing assorted villains, military men, and rather dubious romantic leads.
Born the son of a wool merchant in the British mill town of Huddersfield, Mason excelled in school and earned a degree in architecture from Cambridge in 1931. Having acted in several school plays, however, he thought he had a better shot at earning a living as an actor rather than an architect during the Great Depression. Mason won his first professional role in The Rascal and made his debut in London's West End theater world in 1933 with Gallows Glorious. A year after he joined London's Old Vic theater, he made his screen debut in Late Extra in 1935. Mason became a regular British screen presence in late '30s "quota quickies," including The High Command (1937). The actor made a career and personal breakthrough, however, with I Met a Murderer (1939). Along with co-writing, co-producing, and starring in the film, he also wound up marrying his leading lady, Pamela Kellino, in 1940. Mason became Britain's biggest screen star a few years later with his performance as the sadistic title character in the Gainsborough Studios melodrama The Man in Grey (1943). He cemented his fame as the cruel romantic leads women loved in the critically weak, but highly popular, Gainsborough costume dramas Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and The Wicked Lady (1945), finally achieving international stardom for his charismatic performance as Ann Todd's cane-wielding mentor in the well-received The Seventh Veil (1946). Rather than immediately going to Hollywood, however, Mason remained in England. Revealing that he could be more than just brutal leading men in weepy potboilers, he added an artistic as well as popular triumph to his credits with Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947). Starring Mason as a doomed IRA leader hunted by the police, Odd Man Out garnered international raves, and he often cited it as his favorite among his many films.
After co-starring in the British drama The Upturned Glass (1947), the Masons headed to Hollywood in 1947. Spurning a long-term studio contract, Mason became one of Hollywood's busiest free agents. Anxious not to be typecast, he bucked his image as the irresistible sadist by playing trapped wife Barbara Bel Geddes' kind boss in Max Ophüls' Caught and appearing as Gustave Flaubert in Vincente Minnelli's version of Madame Bovary (both 1949). Mason returned to roguish form (albeit tempered by sympathy) with his second Ophüls film, The Reckless Moment. Along with two superb turns as wily, disillusioned German Field Marshal Rommel in The Desert Fox (1951) and The Desert Rats (1953), Mason also engaged in a glorious Technicolor romance with Ava Gardner in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) and played the villain in the swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda (1952). Calling on his suave intelligence, Mason starred as cool butler-turned-spy Cicero in what he considered his best Hollywood film, the espionage thriller 5 Fingers (1952). The actor played the treasonous Brutus in the director's excellent Shakespeare-adaptation Julius Caesar in 1953.
Mason stepped behind the camera as director for the first and only time with the subsequent short film The Child (1954), featuring his wife and daughter Portland Mason. Returning to Hollywood acting, Mason garnered numerous accolades for George Cukor's lavish 1954 remake of A Star Is Born. 1954 proved to be a banner year for the actor, as his artistic triumph in A Star Is Born was accompanied by the popular screen version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), featuring Mason as megalomaniac submarine skipper Captain Nemo. Bolstered by these successes, he used his clout to produce and star in Nicholas Ray's groundbreaking family drama Bigger Than Life (1956). Bigger Than Life was one of the first Hollywood movies to examine prescription drug abuse, but proved box-office poison. Soured on producing, Mason focused solely on acting for the latter half of the decade, working in Island in the Sun (1957), Cry Terror! (1958), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), and, most notably, North by Northwest (1959).
Edging away from Hollywood, Mason took a supporting role in the British drama The Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1960. Having retained his British citizenship during his years in America, he left Hollywood permanently two years later, relocating to Switzerland with his family. After the move, Mason took on the challenge of playing agonized pedophile Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. Whether duping clueless mother Shelley Winters into marriage, lusting after her teenage daughter Sue Lyon, or helplessly pursuing rival pervert Peter Sellers, Mason's Humbert was as much broken victim as scheming predator, injecting uneasy emotion into the difficult role.
Despite appearing in such dubious fare as Genghis Khan (1965) and The Yin and Yang of Dr. Go (1971), Mason continued to resist typecasting with his strong turn as a lecherous friend in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), and distinguished himself in such films as Anthony Mann's sword-and-sandal epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and the adaptation of Lord Jim in 1965. Showing his facility with lighter films, Mason earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as ugly duckling Lynn Redgrave's older sugar daddy in the romantic comedy Georgy Girl (1966). Beginning a collaboration that would last until the end of his career, Mason followed that film with his first for director Sidney Lumet, playing a George Smiley-esque British spy in the exemplary John Le Carré adaptation The Deadly Affair (1967).
Amid all this work, Mason met his second wife Clarissa Kaye on the set of Michael Powell's Australian romp Age of Consent (1969) and married her in 1971. With Kaye putting Mason ahead of her career, the actor maintained his prolific pace, starring in the skillful murder mystery The Last of Sheila (1973), playing Magwitch in a TV version of Great Expectations in 1974, appearing as an estate patriarch in the humid potboiler Mandingo (1975), a Cuban minister in the pre-Holocaust drama Voyage of the Damned (1976), and a weathered German colonel in Sam Peckinpah's only war film, Cross of Iron (1976). Mason's inimitable air of gravitas suited the role of Joseph of Arimathea in the made-for-TV film Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and enhanced the humor of his appearance as the God-like Mr. Jordan in Warren Beatty's highly popular romantic fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1978). Rarely turning down jobs even as he approached age 70, Mason joined fellow éminence grises Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck in the Nazi cloning thriller The Boys From Brazil (1978), was Dr. Watson to Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes in Murder by Decree (1979), and played a sinister antiquarian in the TV vampire yarn Salem's Lot the same year.
Mason managed to find the time to write and publish his autobiography Before I Forget in 1981. The following year, he earned some of the best reviews of his career -- and his final Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor -- for his subtle, nuanced performance as Paul Newman's harsh courtroom adversary in Lumet's sterling legal drama The Verdict. Mason suffered a fatal heart attack at his Swiss home in July 1984 at the age of 75. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi