James Mason

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James Mason
James Mason Studio Publicity.jpg
Mason, 1940s
James Neville Mason

(1909-05-15)15 May 1909
Huddersfield, England
Died27 July 1984(1984-07-27) (aged 75)
Lausanne, Switzerland
Alma mater Peterhouse, Cambridge
Years active1931–1984
(m. 1941;div. 1964)

(m. 1971)
Children Portland Mason
Morgan Mason
Family Belinda Carlisle (daughter-in-law)

James Neville Mason ( /ˈmsən/ ; 15 May 1909 27 July 1984) was an English actor. He achieved considerable success in British cinema before becoming a star in Hollywood. He was the top box-office attraction in the UK in 1944 and 1945; his British films included The Seventh Veil (1945) and The Wicked Lady (1945). He starred in Odd Man Out (1947), the first recipient of the BAFTA Award for Best British Film.


He starred in a number of successful British and American films from the 1950s to the early 1980s, including The Desert Fox , A Star Is Born , 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , Lolita , North by Northwest , Journey to the Centre of the Earth , Bigger Than Life , Julius Caesar , Georgy Girl , Heaven Can Wait , The Boys from Brazil and The Verdict .

Mason was nominated for three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes (winning the Golden Globe in 1955 for A Star is Born) and two BAFTA Awards throughout his career. Following his death in 1984, his ashes were interred near the tomb of his close friend, fellow English actor Sir Charlie Chaplin.

Early life, family, and education

Mason was born on 15 May 1909, in Huddersfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the youngest of three sons of John Mason and Mabel Hattersley, daughter of J. Shaw Gaunt. [1] [2] A wealthy wool merchant like his own father before him, John Mason travelled a good deal on business, mainly in France and Belgium; Mabel - who was "uncommonly well-educated" and had lived in London to study and begin work as an artist before returning to Yorkshire to care for her father - was "attentive and loving" in raising her sons. [3] The Masons lived in a house in its own grounds on Croft House Lane in Marsh, which was replaced in the mid 1970s by flats called Arncliffe Court. A small residential development opposite where the house once stood is now called James Mason Court.

Mason was educated at Marlborough College, and earned a first in Architecture at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he became involved in stock theatre companies in his spare time. He had no formal training in acting and initially embarked upon it for fun.


Early stage appearances

After Cambridge, Mason made his stage debut in Aldershot in The Rascal in 1931. [4] [5]

He joined the Old Vic theatre in London under the guidance of Tyrone Guthrie. [6] While there he appeared in productions of The Cherry Orchard , Henry VIII , Measure for Measure , The Importance of Being Earnest , Love for Love, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and MacBeth. Featuring in many of these were Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. In the mid-1930s he also appeared at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, notably in Pride and Prejudice with Betty Chancellor. [7]

In 1933 Alexander Korda gave Mason a small role in The Private Life of Don Juan but sacked him three days into shooting. [8]

Early films

From 1935 to 1938, he starred in many British quota quickies, starting with his first film Late Extra (1935), in which he played the lead. Albert Parker directed. Mason appeared in Twice Branded (1936); Troubled Waters (1936), also directed by Parker; Prison Breaker (1936); Blind Man's Bluff (1936), for Parker's The Secret of Stamboul (1936), and The Mill on the Floss (1936), an "A" movie.

Mason had a key support role in Korda's Fire Over England (1937) with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. He was in another "A", The High Command (1937) directed by Thorold Dickinson then went back to quickies, starring in Catch As Catch Can (1937), directed by Roy Kellino. Korda cast him as the villain in The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937)


Mason began appearing in some televised productions of plays, made in the very early days of television: Cyrano de Bergerac (1938), The Moon in the Yellow River (1938), Bees on the Boat-Deck (1939), Square Pegs (1939), L’Avare (1939), and The Circle (1939).

He returned to features with I Met a Murderer (1939) based on a story by Mason and Pamela Kellino, who also starred with Mason and whom he would marry. Her then-husband Roy Kellino directed.

Second World War

He registered as a conscientious objector during World War II [9] (causing his family to break with him for many years), but his tribunal exempted him only on the requirement to do non-combatant military service, which he refused; his appeal against this became irrelevant once he was included in a general exemption for film work. [10]

In 1941–42 he returned to the stage to appear in Jupiter Laughs by A. J. Cronin.

He established himself as a leading man in Britain in a series of films: The Patient Vanishes (1941); Hatter's Castle (1941) with Robert Newton and Deborah Kerr; The Night Has Eyes (1941); Alibi (1942) with Margaret Lockwood; Secret Mission (1942); Thunder Rock (1942) with Michael Redgrave; and The Bells Go Down (1943) with Tommy Trinder.

Gainsborough melodramas and stardom

Mason became hugely popular for his brooding anti-heroes in the Gainsborough series of melodramas of the 1940s, starting with The Man in Grey (1943). The film was a huge hit and launched him and co-stars Lockwood, Stewart Granger and Phyllis Calvert, to top level stars.

Mason starred in two war time dramas, They Met in the Dark (1943) and Candlelight in Algeria (1944), then returned to Gainsborough melodrama with Fanny By Gaslight (1944) with Granger and Calvert; it was another big hit.

Mason starred in Hotel Reserve (1944), a thriller, then did a ghost story for Gainsborough with Lockwood, A Place of One's Own (1945). Far more popular was a melodrama, They Were Sisters (1945). [11] [12]

Sydney Box cast Mason in the lead of a musical melodrama, The Seventh Veil (1945) alongside Ann Todd. It was a huge success in Britain and the US and demand for Mason was at a fever pitch. Exhibitors voted him the most popular star in Britain in each year between 1944 and 1947. They also thought he was the most popular international star in 1946; he dropped to second place the following year. [13] [14] He was the most popular male star in Canada in 1948. [15]

Mason had a relatively minor role in The Wicked Lady (1945) with Lockwood, a big hit. Mason then received his best reviews to date playing a mortally wounded IRA bank robber on the run in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947). [16] [17]

Mason was able to turn producer on a film with Box, written by his wife and starring Mason, The Upturned Glass (1947). It was not particularly successful. Neither was Bathsheba, a play he and his wife did on Broadway.


Mason went to Hollywood where his first film was Caught (1949), directed by Max Ophüls. He played Gustave Flaubert in MGM's Madame Bovary (1949).

Mason did another with Ophuls, The Reckless Moment (1949), then did East Side, West Side (1949) with Barbara Stanwyck at MGM and One Way Street (1950) at Universal. He made Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) with Ava Gardner. None of these films was particularly successful.

The Desert Fox and 20th Century Fox

Mason's Hollywood career was revived when cast as General Rommel in The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951), directed by Henry Hathaway. To do the film he agreed to sign a contract with 20th Century Fox for seven years at one film a year. [18]

Mason did a film at Republic Pictures written by his wife and directed by Roy Kellino, Lady Possessed (1951). At Fox he played a spy in 5 Fingers (1951) directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

MGM hired him to play Rupert of Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) opposite Granger. He was in the lower budgeted Face to Face (1952) then went to Paramount to play a villainous sea captain opposite Alan Ladd in Botany Bay (1953).

Mason was one of many stars in MGM's The Story of Three Loves (1953). At Fox he reprised his role as Rommel in The Desert Rats (1953), then he was reunited with Mankiewicz at MGM, playing Brutus in Julius Caesar (1953), opposite Marlon Brando. The film was very successful.

Mason worked with Carol Reed in The Man Between (1953), then Fox used him as a villain again in Prince Valiant (1954). Mason did another film with a screenplay by his wife and directed by Roy Kellino, Charade (1954).

Warner Bros., hired him to play Judy Garland's leading man in A Star Is Born (1954). He went over to Disney to play Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), a huge hit. During 1954 and 1955, Mason was the host of some episodes of Lux Video Theatre on CBS television. [19]

Mason appeared with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Forever, Darling (1956) then starred in and produced a film at Fox, Bigger Than Life (1956), directed by Nicholas Ray. Mason played a small-town school teacher driven insane by the effects of cortisone. He did another for Fox, the hugely popular melodrama, Island in the Sun (1957).

Later 1950s and early 1960s

Mason in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) North by Northwest movie trailer screenshot (27) James Mason.jpg
Mason in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959)

Mason began appearing regularly on television in shows such as Panic!, General Electric Theater , Schlitz Playhouse , Goodyear Theatre and Playhouse 90 (several episodes including John Brown's Raid).

He starred in two thrillers for Andrew L. Stone, Cry Terror! (1958) and The Decks Ran Red (1958) then played a suave master spy in North by Northwest (1959) directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

At Fox he had a huge hit playing a determined scientist and explorer in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959), taking over a role meant for Clifton Webb. He did a comedy A Touch of Larceny (1960) and was Sir Edward Carson in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960).

He continued to appear on TV shows like The DuPont Show with June Allyson , Golden Showcase, Theatre '62 and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour .

He did The Marriage-Go-Round (1961), then played Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita (1962).

He starred in Tiara Tahiti (1962), then Hero's Island (1962), which he also produced. He was in Torpedo Bay (1963).

From 1963 to the end of the decade

In 1963 Mason settled in Switzerland, and embarked on a transatlantic career. [20] He began to drift into support roles, or second leads: the epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964); The Pumpkin Eater (1964), with Anne Bancroft; a river pirate who betrays Peter O'Toole's character in Lord Jim (1965); a Chinese noble in Genghis Khan (1965); The Uninhibited (1965); a guest role on Dr Kildare ; James Leamington in the Swinging London-set Georgy Girl (1966), a role that earned him a second Academy Award nomination, for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

He was in several episodes of ITV Play of the Week and he had the lead in The Deadly Affair (1967) for Sidney Lumet and Stranger in the House (1968).

He provided a supporting role in Duffy (1968) and Mayerling (1968) but was top billed in The Sea Gull (1968) for Sidney Lumet and starred as Bradley Morahan in Age of Consent (1969) for Michael Powell, a film which Mason also produced. He also had the star role in Spring and Port Wine (1970).


Mason in 1975's The Flower in His Mouth Genterispetto mason+oneill.jpg
Mason in 1975's The Flower in His Mouth

Mason supported Charles Bronson in Cold Sweat (1970) and Lee Van Cleef in Bad Man's River (1971). He was a support in Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971) and top billed in Child's Play (1972) for Lumet, replacing Marlon Brando.

He was one of many stars in The Last of Sheila (1973) and played the evil Doctor Polidori in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973). He had support roles in The MacKintosh Man (1973), 11 Harrowhouse (1974), The Marseille Contract (1974), and Great Expectations (1974) and was top billed in Mandingo (1975).

Mason's later 70s performances included Kidnap Syndicate (1975), The Left Hand of the Law (1975), Autobiography of a Princess (1975), Inside Out (1975), The Flower in His Mouth (1975), Voyage of the Damned (1976), Hot Stuff (1977), Cross of Iron (1977), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go (1978), The Water Babies (1978), Heaven Can Wait (1978), The Boys from Brazil (1978), Murder by Decree (1979) (as Watson), The Passage (1979), Bloodline (1979) and as the vampire's servant, Richard Straker, in Salem's Lot (1979).


Mason was in North Sea Hijack (1980), Evil Under the Sun (1982), Ivanhoe (1982), and A Dangerous Summer (1982).

One of his last roles, that of the corrupt lawyer Ed Concannon in The Verdict (1982), opposite Paul Newman, earned him his third and final Oscar nomination, for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

He had parts in Yellowbeard (1983), Alexandre (1983), and George Washington (1984).


In 1967, Mason narrated the documentary The London Nobody Knows. An ardent cinephile on top of his career interests, Mason narrated two British documentary series supervised by Kevin Brownlow: Hollywood (1980), on the silent cinema and Unknown Chaplin (1983), devoted to out-take material from the films of Sir Charlie Chaplin. Mason had been a long-time neighbour and friend of the comedian. In the late 1970s, Mason became a mentor to up-and-coming actor Sam Neill. [21]

Final performances

Having completed playing the lead role in Dr. Fischer of Geneva (1985), adapted from Graham Greene's eponymous novella for the BBC, he stepped into the role in The Shooting Party originally meant for Paul Scofield, who was unable to continue after being seriously injured in an accident on the first day of shooting. This was to be Mason's final screen performance in a feature film. [22]

He did appear on TV in A.D. (1985) and The Assisi Underground (1985).

Personal life

Mason and his family in 1957 in the television programme Panic!. From left: son Morgan, Mason's wife Pamela, daughter Portland and Mason. James Mason and Family 1957.JPG
Mason and his family in 1957 in the television programme Panic!. From left: son Morgan, Mason's wife Pamela, daughter Portland and Mason.

Mason was a devoted lover of animals, particularly cats. He and his wife, Pamela Mason, co-authored the book The Cats in Our Lives, which was published in 1949. James Mason wrote most of the book and also illustrated it. In The Cats in Our Lives, he recounted humorous and sometimes touching tales of the cats (as well as a few dogs) he had known and loved.

In 1952, Mason purchased a house previously owned by Buster Keaton. He discovered reels of nitrate film thought to have been lost, stored in the house and produced by the comedian, such as The Boat (1921). Mason arranged to have the decomposing films transferred to safety stock and thus saved them from oblivion. [23]

In his youth, Mason was a keen fan of his local Rugby League team, Huddersfield. In later years he also began to follow the fortunes of Huddersfield Town. [24]

Mason was married twice:

Mason's autobiography, Before I Forget, was published in 1981.


Mason survived a severe heart attack in 1959. [26] He died as result of another heart attack on 27 July 1984 in Lausanne, Switzerland, [27] and was cremated.

Mason left his entire estate to his second wife, Clarissa Kaye, but his will was challenged by his two children. The lawsuit had not been settled when she died on 21 July 1994 from cancer. [25] Clarissa Kaye Mason left her holdings to the religious guru Sathya Sai Baba, including the actor's ashes which she had retained in their shared home. Mason's children sued Sai Baba and subsequently had Mason's ashes interred in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland. [28] The remains of Mason's friend Charlie Chaplin are in a tomb a few steps away. [28] Mason's children specified that his headstone read: "Never say in grief you are sorry he's gone. Rather, say in thankfulness you are grateful he was here", words that were spoken to Portland Mason by U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy after the actor's death. [29]


1935 Late Extra Jim Martin
1936 Twice Branded Henry Hamilton
Prison Breaker 'Bunny' Barnes
Troubled Waters John Merriman
Blind Man's Bluff Stephen Neville
Secret of Stamboul Larry
The Mill on the Floss Tom Tulliver
1937 Fire Over England Hillary Vane
The High Command Capt. Heverell
Catch As Catch Can Robert Leyland
The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel Jean Tallien
1939 I Met a Murderer Mark Warrow
1941 This Man Is Dangerous Mick CardbyReleased in the U.S. as The Patient Vanishes
1942 Hatter's Castle Dr. Renwick
The Night Has Eyes Stephen DeremidReleased in the U.S. as Terror House
Alibi Andre Laurent
Secret Mission Raoul de Carnot
Thunder Rock Streeter
1943 The Bells Go Down Ted Robbins
The Man in Grey Lord Rohan
They Met in the Dark Richard Francis Heritage
1944 Candlelight in Algeria Alan Thurston
Fanny by Gaslight Lord ManderstokeReleased in the U.S. as Man of Evil
Hotel Reserve Peter Vadassy
1945 A Place of One's Own Smedhurst
They Were Sisters Geoffrey Lee
The Seventh Veil Nicholas
The Wicked Lady Capt. Jerry Jackson
1947 Odd Man Out Johnny McQueen
The Upturned Glass Michael Joyce
1949 Caught Larry Quinada
Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
The Reckless Moment Martin Donnelly
East Side, West Side Brandon Bourne
1950 One Way Street Dr. Frank Matson
1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee
The Desert Fox Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
1952 Lady Possessed Jimmy del PalmaAlso producer and writer
5 Fingers Ulysses Diello
Face to Face The Captain ('The Secret Sharer') National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
The Prisoner of Zenda Rupert of Hentzau
Botany Bay Capt. Paul Gilbert
1953 The Story of Three Loves Charles CoutraySegment "The Jealous Lover"
The Desert Rats Field Marshal Erwin Rommel National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
Julius Caesar Brutus
The Man Between Ivo Kern
The Tell-Tale Heart Narrator (voice)Animated short subject
1954 Prince Valiant Sir Brack
Charade The Murderer / Maj. Linden / Jonah WatsonAlso producer and writer
A Star Is Born Norman Maine Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (2nd place)
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actor
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Captain Nemo
1956 Forever, Darling The Guardian AngelWith Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
Bigger Than Life Ed AveryAlso producer and writer
1957 Island in the Sun Maxwell Fleury
1958 Cry Terror! Jim Molner
The Decks Ran Red Capt. Edwin Rummill
1959 North by Northwest Phillip Vandamm
A Touch of Larceny Cmdr. Max Easton
Journey to the Center of the Earth Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook
1960 The Trials of Oscar Wilde Sir Edward Carson
1961 The Marriage-Go-Round Paul Delville
1962 Escape from Zahrain JohnsonUncredited
Lolita Prof. Humbert HumbertNominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Tiara Tahiti Capt. Brett Aimsley
Hero's Island Jacob Weber
1963 Torpedo Bay Captain Blayne
1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire Timonides
The Pumpkin Eater Bob Conway
1965 Lord Jim Gentleman Brown
Genghis Khan Kam Ling
The Uninhibited Pascal Regnier
1966 Georgy Girl James LeamingtonNominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
The Blue Max General Count von Klugermann
Dare I Weep, Dare I MournOtto Hoffman
1967 The Deadly Affair Charles DobbsNominated-BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
The London Nobody KnowsNarratorDocumentary
Stranger in the House John Sawyer(also known as Cop Out)
1968 Duffy Charles Calvert
Mayerling Emperor Franz-Joseph
The Sea Gull Trigorin, a writer
1969 Age of Consent Bradley Morahan
1970 Spring and Port Wine Rafe Crompton
Cold Sweat Captain Ross
The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go Y.Y. Go
1971 Bad Man's River Francisco Paco Montero
Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Alan Hamilton
1972 Child's Play Jerome Mailey New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (3rd place)
1973John Keats: His Life and DeathNarrator (voice)
The Last of Sheila Phillip
The Mackintosh Man Sir George Wheeler
Frankenstein: The True Story Dr. John PolidoriTV miniseries
1974 11 Harrowhouse Charles D. Watts
The Marseille Contract Jacques BrizardReleased as The Destructors
1975 The Year of the Wildebeest NarratorDocumentary
Mandingo Warren Maxwell
Kidnap Syndicate Fillippini
The Left Hand of the Law Senator Leandri
Autobiography of a Princess Cyril Sahib
Inside Out Ernst Furben
The Flower in His Mouth Bellocampo
1976 People of the Wind NarratorDocumentary
Voyage of the Damned Dr. Juan Ramos
Fear in the City Prosecutor
1977 Jesus of Nazareth Joseph of Arimathea TV miniseries
Cross of Iron Oberst Brandt
Homage to Chagall: The Colours of Love NarratorDocumentary
1978 The Water Babies Mr. Grimes
Voice of Killer Shark
Heaven Can Wait Mr. Jordan Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor
The Boys from Brazil Eduard Seibert
1979 North Sea Hijack Admiral BrinsdenReleased as ffolkes outside the UK and as Assault Force on US TV
Murder by Decree Dr. John H. Watson
The Passage Prof. John Bergson
Bloodline Sir Alec Nichols
Salem's Lot Richard K. Straker TV miniseries
1982 Evil Under the Sun Odell Gardener
Ivanhoe Isaac of York
A Dangerous Summer George Engels
The Verdict Ed Concannon Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor (2nd place)
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
Socrates Socrates
1983 Yellowbeard Captain Hughes
Don't Eat the Pictures DemonTV
AlexandreThe Father
1984 George Washington Edward Braddock TV miniseries
Dr. Fischer of Geneva Dr. Fischer
1985 The Shooting Party Sir Randolph Nettleby London Film Critics' Circle Award for Actor of the Year (tied with Richard Farnsworth for The Grey Fox )
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor (3rd place)
A.D. Tiberius TV miniseries
The Assisi Underground Bishop Nicolini Final film role

Radio appearances

1950 Suspense Banquo's Chair
1952 Odd Man Out [30]
28 December 1953The Queen's Ring

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