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Possessed with an unassuming manner that offset his intensity, British actor Donald Pleasence accrued over 200 film and television roles in an impressive career that spanned more than four decades. Getting his start in the theaters of England and Scotland after World War II, he began making a name for himself with small roles in film and TV projects such as "1984" (1956) and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (ITV, 1955-1960). His first role in a major Hollywood blockbuster came as a part of the ensemble cast of director John Sturges' "The Great Escape" (1963). It was, however, his iconic portrayal of James Bond's evil nemesis, Blofeld, in "You Only Live Twice" (1967) that most affected the trajectory of Pleasence's future output. Considered mostly for the parts of villains or madmen, he frequently played the heavy in films like "Will Penny" (1968) and "The Eagle Has Landed" (1976). Although he did manage to play the hero in his most recognizable role as Dr. Loomis in director John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978), it would, nonetheless, help solidify his growing reputation as a stock horror movie actor, resulting in appearances in "Dracula" (1979), "Phenomena" (1985) and "Prince of Darkness" (1987). Donald Pleasence would long be remembered for his always reliable performances in many of the most beloved films of the 20th century.
Born Donald Henry Pleasence on Oct. 5, 1919 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England, he was the younger of two boys born to Alice and Thomas Pleasence. Donald's father, a strict Methodist, worked as a railway stationmaster, and the family traditionally lived in an apartment above the station. With one year left before graduation, and tired of the lengthy train commute, he left Ecclesfield Grammar School in order to pursue an acting career. Although he had auditioned to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Pleasence was unable to enroll, due to a lack of funds and his failure to secure a scholarship. To make ends meet, he worked at a railway station for a time before working switching career gears by landing the job of assistant stage manager at a theater on a small island in the English Channel. Pleasence made his stage acting debut in 1939 in a production of "Wuthering Heights," and worked steadily in other productions over the next few years, including his debut on the London stage in a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in 1942. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II interrupted Pleasence's burgeoning acting career. Initially a conscientious objector, he eventually enlisted in the British Royal Air Force, where he served as a crewmember on a bomber before being shot down over France and incarcerated at a German POW camp for the remainder of the war. During this trying period, Pleasence and his fellow prisoners buoyed their spirits by mounting several stage shows. Upon his post-war return to England, he landed a role in a stage production of "The Brothers Karamazov," starring Alec Guiness. This led to a prolific period for Pleasence, as he worked with various productions and repertory companies throughout England and Scotland.
In 1951, Pleasence crossed the Atlantic and made his Broadway debut in a production of "Caesar and Cleopatra." Screen work also began to come his way, leading to several British TV guest starring roles and his feature film debut with a small part in "The Beachcomber" (1955). The following year saw Pleasence perform in the cinematic adaptation of George Orwell's "1984" (1956), having already appeared in a made-for-television version of the dystopian cautionary tale in 1954. By the mid-1950s he had become one of the most recognizable faces on British television, with a recurring role as Prince John on "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (ITV, 1955-1960) being just one of his multitude of small screen roles at the time. More film parts were coming Pleasence's way, such as a supporting role in the drama "Look Back in Anger" (1959), alongside British film icon Richard Burton. Remaining active in theater, he appeared with Alan Bates and Robert Shaw in a London production of Harold Pinter's "The Caretakers" in 1960. For his performance in the play, Pleasence won the British Critics Award for Best Performance of the Year, in addition to being nominated for a Tony Award after the production moved to Broadway. It would the first of four Tony nominations he would receive over the years. Around the same time, Pleasence's film career picked up considerable momentum in the type of projects that would - for better or worse - become a staple for the actor. He appeared as one-half of a pair of grave robbers in the Peter Cushing period thriller "Flesh and the Fiends" (1960), in addition to a turn in the horror movie "The Hands of Orlac" (1960), starring Christopher Lee.
On American television, Pleasence starred in a well-remembered episode of the classic anthology series "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964) in 1962, prior to joining the all-star cast of one of the decade's biggest blockbuster movies. That film was the World War II adventure epic "The Great Escape" (1963), starring Steve McQueen and James Garner, in which Pleasence gave a wonderfully understated performance as Lt. Blythe, "The Forger." From that moment onward, Pleasence worked relentlessly in film projects of all genres and budgetary scales. He embodied Satan in the religious epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), worked under director Roman Polanski in the comedy thriller "Cul-de-sac" (1966), and played the bad guy in the special effects spectacular "Fantastic Voyage" (1966). One of Pleasence's most iconic roles was as super villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice" (1967), the fifth entry in the James Bond franchise, starring Sean Connery. Thirty years later, comic actor Mike Myers would pay homage to Pleasence's performance with his Dr. Evil character; the bald, cat-loving, would-be world conqueror in the spy spoof "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (1997). Continuing to work with the best and brightest stars in Hollywood, Pleasence gave an unforgettable performance as Quint, a demented, vengeful preacher out to punish Charlton Heston in the Western adventure, "Will Penny" (1968).
In George Lucas' feature film directorial debut, the visually stunning "THX 1138" (1971), Pleasence played a man attempting to escape an underground totalitarian society along with Robert Duvall in the title role. Considering the staggering volume of work he took on, it was no surprise that not all of the projects Pleasence collaborated on would be as prestigious as his work with Heston and Lucas. Films like the subterranean horror tale "Raw Meat" (1973) were examples of material on the other end of the cinematic spectrum. He appeared alongside Michael Caine in the gritty crime tale "The Black Windmill" (1974), and shared screen time with Caine again as Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler in the taut WWII thriller "The Eagle Has Landed" (1976). Two years later, Pleasence began a fruitful professional relationship with director John Carpenter that would last throughout the remainder of his life. As Dr. Sam Loomis, a psychiatrist obsessed with stopping psychotic mass murderer Michael Myers, in Carpenter's seminal slasher film "Halloween" (1978), Pleasence effectively replaced Blofeld as his most memorable role. He would go on to reprise the character of Loomis three more times, with varying results. In a more refined entry in the horror genre, the actor enjoyed the added treat of performing with his personal idol of stage and screen, Sir Laurence Olivier, in "Dracula" (1979), starring Frank Langella as Bram Stoker's vampire count. In a bit of incongruous casting, English-born Pleasence reteamed with Carpenter to play the kidnapped President of the United States in the futuristic action-thriller "Escape from New York" (1981), in addition to making his second appearance as Dr. Loomis in the sequel "Halloween II" (1981).
Italian horror director Dario Argento tapped Pleasence to play a Loomis-like character opposite a young Jennifer Connelly in the gory, supernatural tale "Phenomena" (1985). Even in his later years, the actor worked relentlessly, perhaps at times to the detriment of his professional reputation. Subpar efforts like the Sybil Danning sword and sex fantasy "Warrior Queen" (1987) certainly did nothing to help break the increasing trend of accepting virtually any role that was offered - something he admitted regretting later in life. Pleasence was, however, always happy to work with Carpenter again, and lent his talents to the role of a priest who uncovers the gateway to the apocalypse in "Prince of Darkness" (1987). He took part in a made-for-TV sequel to his breakout film - the only member of the original cast to do so - in "The Great Escape II: The Untold Story" (NBC, 1988). When venerated actor-director Woody Allen cast his ode to the German expressionist films of the 1930s, he wisely cast Pleasence in the darkly hilarious "Shadows and Fog" (1991). Fittingly, Pleasence's final performance would be in the role he had become the most associated with, that of the indefatigable Dr. Loomis in "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers" (1995). Actor Donald Pleasence died in France while recovering from heart surgery on Feb. 2, 1995. He was 75 years old.
By Bryce P. Coleman
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Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II