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Alastair Sim

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Memorial plaque near Sim’s birthplace in Edinburgh.

Alastair Sim CBE (born 9 October 1900 in Edinburgh, Scotland; † 19 August 1976 in London, England) was a British film and theatre actor who was one of Britain’s most popular character actors for decades.

Life

Alastair Sim was born in Edinburgh, the youngest child of Alexander Sim, a justice of the peace and tailor, and his wife Isabella. Towards the end of the First World War he completed a short period of military service, but was not in the war effort. At the end of his army service he abandoned his original plans to study chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, against his family’s wishes. Sim actually wanted to become a professional actor at that time, however it was to take another decade: After various small jobs in the Highlands, Sim worked as a rhetoric and language teacher during the 1920s, including at the University of Edinburgh. Early on he won several prizes for his excellent recitations of poetry. Alongside this work, Sim ran a small children’s theatre, where the writer John Drinkwater discovered him and got him a performance in a 1930s theatre production of Othello in London. However, he was later to return to the University of Edinburgh once more, as Rector of the University of Edinburgh between 1948 and 1951.

After his performance in Othello Sim stayed at the theater in London and acted especially in plays by William Shakespeare but also plays by George Bernhard Shaw or John Drinkwater. With his striking looks he couldn’t act as a classical leading man but only as a character actor and soon became a popular and respected actor at the West End. For many years he was a member of the Old Vic Theatre. Sim had a close friendship and partnership with Scottish playwright James Bridie, in whose plays he appeared regularly, from 1939 until his death in 1951. In his roles Sim covered a wide spectrum, from villains as Captain Hook to comic oddballs.

In 1935 Alastair Sim made his film debut as a rather simple police sergeant in a supporting role in the crime movie The Riverside Murder (1935). It lasted till the middle of the 1940’s that Sim could also get leading roles in movies. In 1951, for example, he received excellent reviews for his very haunting portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the film adaptation of the same name of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. A year earlier, in The Happiest Days of Your Life, with Margaret Rutherford at his side, he played the headmaster of a boys’ school that must additionally accommodate an evacuated girls’ school. Also in 1950, he played a commodore under Alfred Hitchcock in Stage Fright. However, Hitchcock later classified him as miscast for the role. The same year as Scrooge, Sim, alongside Hugh Griffith, played one of four heirs who must first be forced into happiness in Laughter in Paradise. A role actually written for him, which Sim turned down, was the mad crook Professor Marcus in Ladykillers (1955). Alec Guinness took on the role instead, and cast it as a tribute to Sim.

After Sim was mainly seen in films in the 1950s, he returned increasingly to the theater in the 1960s. He also appeared on television on and off, for example between 1967 and 1971 in the television series Uncommon Law. He last appeared on screen in 1976 in the role of Lord Harrogate in the Walt Disney Pictures productionEscape From the Dark/The Littlest Horsethieves. From 1932 until his death, he was married to Naomi Plaskit, one of his acting students from Edinburgh days. He also had a close friendship with the actor George Cole who even lived with him for some time. Alastair Sim died of lung cancer in 1976 at the age of 75.

Filmography (selection)

  • 1935: The Riverside Murder
  • 1938: Alf’s Button Afloat
  • 1939: Inspector Hornleigh
  • 1941: Cottage to Let
  • 1942: Let the People Sing
  • 1945: Waterloo Road
  • 1946: Attention: Green! (Green for Danger)
  • 1946: The Little Detectives (Hue and Cry)
  • 1950: The Red Lola (Stage Fright)
  • 1950: Double College (The Happiest Days of Your Life)
  • 1951: He Who Laughs Last… (Laughter in Paradise)
  • 1951: A Christmas Story (Scrooge)
  • 1954: Die Schönen von St. Trinians (The Belles of St. Trinian’s)
  • 1954: AnInspector Calls
  • 1955: Geordie
  • 1956: The Green Man (The Green Man)
  • 1957: Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s
  • 1958: Doctor at the Crossroads ( The Doctor’s Dilemma)
  • 1960: School for Scoundrels
  • 1960: The Millionairess (The Millionaire)
  • 1967-1971: Misleading Cases (television series, 19 episodes)
  • 1971: A Christmas Carol (television film, speaking part)
  • 1972: The Ruling Class
  • 1975: Royal Flash
  • 1976: The Little Horse Thieves(Escape From the Dark, alternate title The Littlest Horsethieves)#
  • 1976: Rogue Male (TV movie)

Literature

  • Naomi Sim: Dance and Skylark. Fifty Years With Alastair Sim. Bloomsbury, London 1987, ISBN 0-7475-0052-5
  • David Quinlan: Quinlan’s Film Comedy Stars, ISBN 0-7134-6149-7

Web links