Like his contemporary, David Niven, actor James Mason came across on film as a quintessential English gentleman, but while Niven was all charm and lightness – the Hugh Grant of his generation – James Mason had a darker, more sinister edge – more a Ralph Fiennes.

He was born, the son of a wealth merchant, in Huddersfield in the north of England on 15th May 1909, and was educated at Marlborough College, one of England’s premiere public schools. From there, he went to Peterhouse College at Cambridge University, where he was studying to become an architect. Discovering acting through college productions, he came to the conclusion that the stage was a much more enjoyable (and lucrative) career than architecture, and after university he worked in stock companies, before joining the Old Vic company and later the Gate Theatre in Dublin. As he became a more prominent theatre actor, he graduated from small to larger, and finally starring roles in “Quota quickies” – movies filmed to fulfill legal requirements that a given proportion of films shown in Britain be British made. In 1941, he married actress Pamela Mason.

By this time he was primarily acting in films, where his ability to portray complexity and depth in characters, particularly those with a darker, troubled side, made him one of Britain’s most popular actors in the 1940’s. He was less popular personally, however: a staunch pacifist, he refused to serve in WWII, leading to a long time schism with the rest of his family.

Towards the end of the forties, he came to America, where for a while, he was cast in more glamorous, less equivocal roles. His habit of accepting any role offered him (he had a pathological fear, like many actors – and especially British actors – of ‘resting’) meant that he had a number of less than distinguished credits in his resume. He managed, even so, to keep getting offered the parts he was best at – probably because of his marvelous speaking voice (which is up there with other theatre trained British actors like Richard Burton, Patrick Stewart, Anthony Hopkins and Alan Rickman) and his ability to intimate strong and deep emotion while maintaining a calm façade – you always knew, watching James Mason, that the feelings were there, suppressed, even while the surface remained – almost – unaffected.

He worked steadily and without any significant interruptions throughout his life. In 1964 he and Pamela Mason divorced, having had two children in their 23 years of marriage, and in 1971 he remarried Clarissa Kaye-Mason to whom he remained married until his death of a heart attack in Switzerland in 1984.

Highlights of his career began with The Man in Grey in 1943, where he caused a sensation as a charming vicious sadist, and include North by Northwest, Julius Caesar and two Jules Verne epics: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

It was in roles with an edgy side that he was always best – as the fading, tortured star-cum-monster Norman Maine, opposite Judy Garland in A Star is Born, for which he was Oscar nominated; as an engaging Rupert of Hentzau in the otherwise execrable 1952 version of The Prisoner of Zenda; as Humbert Humbert, obsessed with his pubescent step-daughter in Kubrick’s Lolita; as the aging roué pursuing the teenaged Georgy in Georgy Girl, which earned him his second Academy Award nomination and as the Chief Defense Attorney in The Verdict, for which he received his third and last nomination.

There was always a sense of quiet menace about Mason, which made you believe he was capable of anything, coupled with an insouciance and charm and that beautiful mellifluous voice that meant you’d probably let him get away with it. In a different time and place, he’d have made the perfect James Bond, as it was, he left a number of wonderful, fascinating performances worth watching.


The Assisi Underground (1985)
The Shooting Party (1984)
Alexandre (1983)
Group Madness (1983)
Yellowbeard (1983)
Ivanhoe (1982)
The Verdict (1982)
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
A Dangerous Summer (1981)
North Sea Hijack (1980)
The Passage (1979)
Murder by Decree (1979)
The Water Babies (1978)
The Boys from Brazil (1978)
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Homage to Chagall: The Colours of Love (1977)
Cross of Iron (1977)
Paura in città (1976)
People of the Wind (1976)
Voyage of the Damned (1976)
Autobiography of a Princess (1975)
Gente di rispetto (1975)
La Polizia interviene: ordine di uccidere (1975)
Inside Out (1975)
La Città sconvolta: caccia spietata ai rapitori (1975)
Mandingo (1975)
The Bananas Boat (1974)
11 Harrowhouse (1974)
The Destructors (1974)
The Last of Sheila (1973)
The Mackintosh Man (1973)
Child's Play (1972)
Kill! (1972)
Bad Man's River (1972)
Spring and Port Wine (1970)
The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go (1970)
De la part des copains (1970)
Age of Consent (1969)
The Sea Gull (1968)
Mayerling (1968)
Duffy (1968)
London Nobody Knows (1967)
Stranger in the House (1967)
Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn (1966)
A Deadly Affair (1966 Georgy Girl (1966)
The Blue Max (1966)
Genghis Khan (1965)
Lord Jim (1965)
The Pumpkin Eater (1964)
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
Beta Som (1962)
Escape from Zahrain (1962)
Hero's Island (1962)
Tiara Tahiti (1962)
Lolita (1962)
The Marriage-Go-Round (1960)
The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960)
The Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
A Touch of Larceny (1959)
North by Northwest (1959)
The Decks Ran Red (1958)
Cry Terror! (1958)
Island in the Sun (1957)
Bigger Than Life (1956)
Forever Darling (1956)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
A Star Is Born (1954)
Prince Valiant (1954)
Charade (1953)
Man Between (1953)
The Story of Three Loves (1953)
The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
Desert Rats (1953)
Julius Caesar (1953)
Botany Bay (1953)
Face to Face (1952)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)
5 Fingers (1952)
Lady Possessed (1952)
Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951)
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)
One Way Street (1950)
East Side, West Side (1949)
Reckless Moment (1949)
Madame Bovary (1949)
Caught (1949)
Upturned Glass (1947)
Odd Man Out (1947)
Seventh Veil (1946)
They Were Sisters (1945)
Wicked Lady (1945)
Fanny by Gaslight (1944)
Hotel Reserve (1944)
A Place of One's Own (1944)
Candlelight in Algeria (1944)
Bells Go Down (1943)
Man in Grey (1943)
They Met in the Dark (1943)
Alibi (1942)
Night Has Eyes (1942)
Secret Mission (1942)
Thunder Rock (1942)
Hatter's Castle (1941)
The Patient Vanishes (1941)
I Met a Murderer (1939)
Cyrano de Bergerac (1938)
Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1938)
Catch As Catch Can (1937)
Mill on the Floss (1937)
Fire Over England (1937)
Blind Man's Bluff (1936)
The High Command (1936)
Prison Breaker (1936)
Secret of Stamboul (1936)
Troubled Waters (1936)
Twice Branded (1936)
Late Extra (1935)

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