Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Walter Hampden

Walter Hampden has a great role in “Sabrina” (1954) as the exasperated father of the Larrabee brothers. The scene where he struggles to get an olive out of a jar is pure screwball comedy, and not something you’d expect from someone who played “Hamlet” three times on Broadway.

Mr. Hampden was in his 70s when “Sabrina” was shot, and he came to the movies late in his career, and played only character parts. He was the longwinded master of ceremonies at the beginning and end of “All about Eve” (1950), which poked fun at his own historic place in American theatre, and he played the Archdeacon in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939).

He took on a few television roles (nominated for an Emmy), but most of his career was spent on the boards where he played the classics, including heralded stints as Cyrano de Bergerac, Hamlet (once with Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia), and even founded the American Repertory Theatre. His last stage role was in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

Twenty-one years old at the turn of the 20th century, Mr. Hampden could not then have envisioned sound film let alone television, where he played Hamlet for the last time.

Capping off his film career as Louis XVI of France in “The Vagabond King,” Mr. Hampden was one of those superlative stage actors who proves, and evidently must have felt, that all the world’s a stage.

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