Our Learned Friend – Felix Aylmer (1889 – 1979)

Posted in Rewind by - April 03, 2014
Our Learned Friend – Felix Aylmer (1889 – 1979)

With his perfect diction and noble appearance, Oxford educated stage actor Felix Aylmer also had a long and prestigious career in film and television. Although he often specialised in elderly characters and wise figures (including clerics and judges), Aylmer’s roles also ranged from Shakespearean to the surprising villain.

Born on February 21st 1889, Felix began his stage career in 1911, but it would not be until 1930 when he would begin his long film career. One of his early, notable parts was as the Archbishop of Canterbury in Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1944 version of ‘Henry V’. The following year he played a faithful servant murdered by Margaret Lockwood in the cult costume picture ‘The Wicked Lady’ (’45). After parts in a couple of excellent pictures (‘The Man Within’ and ‘The October Man’ – both ’47), Felix was a memorable Polonius in Olivier’s multi Oscar-winning film version of ‘Hamlet’ (’48), and then the voice of Cheshire Cat in a pre Disney version of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Other notable films at this time include the excellent mystery ‘So Long at the Fair’ (’50), the Biblical epic ‘Quo Vadis’ (’51), and the colourful adventure ‘Ivanhoe’ (’52), where he was particularly good as Elizabeth Taylor’s father; Isaac, passing on to her his worldly wisdom. Aylmer was an entertaining Merlin in Richard Thorpe’s ‘Knights of the Round Table’ and Errol Flynn’s father in the period adventure ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ (both ’53). After playing a Russian minister in ‘Anastasia’ (’56), Aylmer was the inquisitor in Otto Preminger’s troubled production of ‘Saint Joan’ (’57). Next up came the movie for which I most fondly remember Felix for. In Delbert Mann’s hugely popular hotel drama ‘Separate Tables’ (’58), he was first-rate as kindly Mr Fowler, a retired schoolteacher, and the film was a huge success, winning both David Niven and Wendy Hiller well deserved Oscars.

After playing Peter Cushing’s archaeologist father in Hammer Studio’s ‘The Mummy’, Felix took on the brave role of town patriarch; Clarence Olderberry Sr. in Hammer’s creepily thrilling ‘Never Take Sweets from a Stranger’ (’60). Very tense in places, the movie was a change of pace and a daring choice of role for Felix, and although he was excellent in an almost silent role, it was still unnerving to see him as a child molester. 1960 also saw Aylmer in two Paul Newman pictures; ‘From the Terrace’ and ‘Exodus’, which also reunited Felix with director Otto Preminger. A little light relief came in 1962 with a bit part in ‘The Road to Hong Kong’, the seventh and last of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby series of ‘Road to’ comedies.

Two memorable roles came in 1964, with ‘The Chalk Garden’, as a retired judge, and the Peter O’Toole/Richard Burton drama ‘Becket’, playing (for the second time), the Archbishop of Canterbury. Aylmer’s final movie appearance came in 1968, in another courtroom drama, ‘Hostile Witness’. Once again, Felix was a justice of the peace in what was a watchable thriller, and also the final movie directed by legendary actor Ray Milland. Aylmer found some late success in television when he played Father Anselm in the 1968 hit comedy series ‘Oh Brother!’, and its 1973 follow-up series ‘Oh, Father!’

A recognisable face for over forty years, Aylmer died in his Surrey Nursing home on September 2nd 1979. He was 90 years old. A tremendous talent and constant professional, Felix Aylmer is one of those wonderful character actors whose appearance on screen always brings a reassuring smile to the viewer.

Favourite Movie: The Chalk Garden
Favourite Performance: Seperate Tables

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