British character actor Charles Gray's silky voice and square-jawed visage made him ideal for playing icy, strong-willed men on both sides of the moral compass in such films as "Night of the Generals" (1967), "You Only Live Twice" (1967), "The Devil Rides Out" (1967), "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) and "The Seven Per-Cent Solution" (1975). Classically trained and a veteran of the English stage, Gray's rigid bearing and clipped, precise tones kept him active in dramas, thrillers and stage adaptations for nearly 40 years. Amusingly, his most famous role outside of the Bond series was undoubtedly "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975), the irreverent, gender-bending cult musical which allowed him a few song and dance numbers while trying to explain the hopelessly convoluted plot with a straight face. He later enjoyed popularity on both sides of the Atlantic in the PBS series "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (Granada TV, 1984-1994), which cast him as Mycroft, older brother and frequent advisor to Jeremy Brett's master detective. Though never a "star" in the traditional sense, Charles Gray remained a favorite among character watchers, who delighted in his obvious relish for delivering such larger-than-life roles.
Born Donald Marshall Gray in the coastal town of Bournemouth, England, he was the son of a surveyor, and initially worked as a clerk in a real estate office. But he felt the call to become an actor in his early twenties, and studied with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he received the training that would result in his most memorable attribute, his magnetic voice. A physically imposing man throughout his life, the 6'2" Gray made his acting debut as Charles the Wrestler in a 1952 production of "As You Like It," which led to steady work in the classics at the Old Vic. By 1956, he had changed his professional name to Charles Gray in order to avoid confusion with another actor named Donald Gray, and moved up to lead and supporting roles in Shakespearean productions opposite such esteemed players as Richard Burton and John Neville. He later toured North American in those productions before returning to Broadway in 1961 as the Prince of Wales in the musical "Kean." He subsequently crossed the Atlantic numerous times to appear in Jean Anouilh's "Poor Bitos" (1964, which earned Gray the Actors' Equity Association's Clarence Derwent Award for Best Supporting Actor, and "The Right Honourable Gentleman" (1965) in New York.
Gray's screen career began in 1957 with guest turns on various British episodic series, as well as arts showcases which allowed him to display his theatrical talents to a wider audience. Bit parts in features like "I Accuse" (1958) and "The Entertainer" (1960) with Laurence Olivier led to his breakout film role as a Nazi officer accused of murder in "Night of the Generals" (1967) with Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif and his "Poor Bitos co-star, Donald Pleasance. He soon settled into a string of character turns that utilized his iron-in-velvet voice and icy blue gaze to essay imperious men of authority, including British officers in "The Secret War of Harry Frigg" (1967) and "Mosquito Squadron" (1969), and the Earl of Essex in "Cromwell" (1970). On occasion, his characters could be malevolent, as evidenced in Hammer Films' supernatural thriller "The Devil Rides Out" (1967), which gave him a marvelous showcase in a scene where his devil-worshiping cult leader hypnotized a young woman simply through the power of his voice. Gray also played the occasional agreeable type, most notably as James Bond's British contact in "You Only Live Twice" (1967), but for the most part, he appeared happy to be typecast in chillier turns.
The 1970s saw Gray working more regularly on television, including a rare comic turn on the ITV series "The Upper Crusts" (1973) as an impoverished aristocrat forced to maintain a façade of his former wealthy lifestyle, though he continued to contribute memorable character turns in features. His turn as James Bond's nemesis, Ernst Blofeld, in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), made him one of the few actors to play both heroic and villainous parts in the long-running spy film franchise, and he gave his first turn as Mycroft Holmes, the older, more astute brother of Sherlock Holmes in Nicholas Meyer's "The Seven Per-Cent Solution" (1975). However, none of these appearances had the lasting power or cultural cache of the cult musical "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975), which allowed Gray to sing and dance as the wheelchair-bound Criminologist. The film's enduring popularity as a midnight movie screening introduced Gray to generations of new audiences with each passing year, many of whom had most likely never seen his bigger-budgeted, more dramatic turns. During this period, Gray also provided the speaking voice for actor Jack Hawkins, who had lost his larynx to cancer but continued to act in such films as "Theatre of Blood" (1973).
Gray worked almost exclusively in British television during the 1980s and 1990s, save for occasional features like the Agatha Christie mystery "The Mirror Crack'd" (1980) and the ill-fated "Rocky Horror" sequel, "Shock Treatment" (1981). He returned to the role of Mycroft Holmes on several occasions as part of the well-regarded Granada Television series "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1984-1994), and stepped in as the lead when actor Jeremy Brett was too ill to appear in two episodes. There were also frequent returns to Shakespeare as part of the BBC's "Complete Works of William Shakespeare" adaptations, and a turn opposite Coral Browne and Alan Bates in "An Englishman Abroad" (BBC, 1983), about Browne's real-life encounter with spy Guy Burgess. Gray remained active on television until his death from cancer on March 7, 2000.
By Paul Gaita