Sir Thomas Daniel Courtenay is a veteran English actor known for his memorable roles in the 1960s films like ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, ‘Billy Liar’, and ‘Doctor Zhivago’. From the mid-1960s, he started focusing more on his theatre work. However, he continued to earn numerous accolades for his celluloid performances, including his second Oscar nomination for the 1983 cinematic rendition of ‘The Dresser’. A native of the port city of Hull, Courtenay learned his craft as a drama student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. He began his professional career on stage in 1960 with the Old Vic theatre company at the Lyceum, Edinburgh. His first screen appearance was in the 1956 TV movie ‘Without Love’. In 1962, Courtenay made his cinematic debut in the war-drama ‘Private Potter’. Over the course of his six-decade-long career, he has accumulated about sixty film and TV credits. In February 2001, Courtenay was made a Knight Bachelor for his contribution to cinema and theatre.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on February 25, 1937, in Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, England, Tom Courtenay is the son of Annie Eliza (née Quest) and Thomas Henry Courtenay. His father worked as a boat painter. After graduating from Kingston High School, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London to pursue a degree in drama.
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In 1960, Tom Courtenay started his career as an actor with the Old Vic theatre company at the Lyceum, Edinburgh. A year later, he substituted Albert Finney in the title role of ‘Billy Liar’ at the Cambridge Theatre. He would later reprise the role in the 1963 cinematic adaptation of the same name.
Despite the international fame he garnered for his film appearances, Courtenay was not much fond of the medium and began putting more focus on his theatre work from the mid-1960s. However, he would state in a 2005 interview with ‘The Telegraph’ that he had slightly overdone “the anti-film thing”.
In 1968, he came to Manchester to perform in Manchester University’s Century Theatre production of ‘The Playboy of the Western World’. This set off his long association with the city.
In 1969, he appeared as the titular character in a 69 Theatre Company’s production of ‘Hamlet’, which was staged at University Theatre, the primary professional theatre in Manchester prior to the foundation of Royal Exchange Theatre in 1976.
At Royal Exchange Theatre, he performed in the productions of plays like Richard Brinsley Sheridan's ‘The Rivals’ (1976), Heinrich von Kleist's ‘The Prince of Homburg’ (1976), ‘King Lear’ (1999), and ‘Uncle Vanya’ (2000).
Outside of Manchester, he has portrayed Norman in Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘The Norman Conquests’ at London’s Greenwich and Globe Theatres (1974); Owen in Michael Fryan’s ‘Cloud’ at the Duke of York's Theatre, London (1978); and Uncle Vanya in ‘Uncle Vanya’ at the Circle in the Square Theatre, New York (1995).
In 2003, he staged a one-man show titled ‘Pretending to be Me’ at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds before taking it on a tour.
After making his film debut as the titular character in the war-drama ‘Private Potter’ in 1962, Tom Courtenay also appeared in the coming-of-age film ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ that year. His performance as the lead protagonist garnered him much recognition, including a BAFTA accolade.
He gave a sublime performance in the film ‘Billy Liar’ (1963). For his 1965 outing as the revolutionary leader Pasha Antipov in ‘Doctor Zhivago’, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
One of the foremost young rebels of British "kitchen sink" cinema, Courtenay continued to act in films despite his lack of enthusiasm for it and kept delivering believable, noteworthy performances.
He garnered his second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actor, for his outing as Norman in the 1983 drama film ‘The Dresser’. Recently, he has appeared in films like ‘45 Years’, ‘Dad’s Army’, and ‘King of Thieves’.
For his work on the small screen, Courtenay has won two BAFTAs. In 1999, he received the Best Actor BAFTA TV award for the telefilm ‘A Rather English Marriage’. He garnered the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA TV Award for his performance as Eric Slater in ITV’s crime-drama ‘Unforgotten’ in 2015.
In October 2001, Tom Courtenay put out his memoir, ‘Dear Tom: Letters from Home’, through Black Swan publishers. It contains several of his and his mother’s letters to each other from the time when he was a young student actor in London, in the early 1960s. In addition to the letters are Courtenay’s own recollections of his life during that period. The book was received positively by the critics.
Family & Personal Life
Tom Courtenay has been married twice in his life. His first wife was fellow English thespian Cheryl Kennedy, with whom he exchanged wedding vows on January 12, 1973. After being married for about nine years, they parted ways in 1982.
In August 1988, he tied the knot with Isabel Crossley, who was a stage manager at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester at the time. Courtenay does not have any children. In the early 2000s, he was diagnosed with and treated for prostate cancer.