Eric Portman: A star shines again

In 1968, the ailing actor made his movie swansong opposite a young Michael Caine. Tony Earnshaw salutes a performer of rare power as Deadfall is released on DVD.

Eric Portman carefully fixed a sandy wig over his thinning hair and momentarily considered his reflection in the mirror. Then he squared his shoulders and swung round. "There you are – not bad, is it, for 60? I've kept fit all my life, never believed in burning the candle at both ends. Plenty of walking, rest and the right food..."

It was April, 1964. Portman was back in Yorkshire and back on the stage for the world premiere of Robin Maugham's The Claimant at Leeds's Grand Theatre where, 41 years earlier, he had become a professional thespian. Four decades later, in the same dressing room surrounded by adoring relatives from a large family, he reflected on a showbiz career that had taken him from Halifax to Hollywood and back again.

Born in Halifax on July 13, 1903, and educated at Rishworth School, Portman was expected to follow his father, Matthew, a wool merchant, into the family firm. He managed a few monotonous weeks as a shop assistant at a store in Leeds before throwing caution to the wind and following his dream of becoming an actor.

He had been an enthusiastic member of Halifax Opera Society before auditioning at 18 for Shakespearean actor/manager Henry Baynton and joining Robert Courtneidge's Shakespeare Company while it was engaged at the Grand. He played his first speaking part at the Victoria Theatre, Sunderland, in 1924 and for the next dozen years slogged through scores of roles on stage.

In 1927, Portman joined the Old Vic Company at the Lyric, Hammersmith, under Lilian Baylis. His was a sturdy, solid presence, his portraits adjudged to be strong, economical and beautifully judged via a polished voice that possessed a natural warmth. He was particularly adept at ruminating, truculent, heavyweight parts.

"I learnt the acting thing by joining a touring company, playing parts and learning by my mistakes. Thank goodness I didn't have to go to a drama school – tiresome things," he said years later.

Over the next 20 years he acquired the apt nickname "Long-Run Eric". It was appropriate for a man whose stamina had taken him through some lengthy periods on the boards: The Browning Version (244 performances), A Touch of the Poet (284), The Living Room (307), His Excellency (412) and Separate Tables (726). The latter record-breaker took him to Broadway where he gave another 322 performances.

Neither conventionally handsome like Huddersfield-born James Mason nor characterful in the manner of Scarborough's Charles Laughton, Portman nevertheless enjoyed a rapid rise to stardom in British pictures.

He had first been offered a five-year Hollywood contract by Warner Bros after he was spotted by an American talent scout. He moved to California in October, 1936 to play a minor role opposite Errol Flynn in The Prince and the Pauper. He made little impression.

Things changed when he landed the lead role of a ruthless and calculating Nazi U-boat commander, in Powell and Pressburger's propagandist 49th Parallel. The part made Portman a star overnight.

In November, 1941, he returned to Halifax where the film was playing to packed houses. He was deeply moved to be in front of his home-town crowd and received a standing ovation.

"When I first took the part I asked (director] Michael Powell if I could play it absolutely straight, that is seriously and sincerely without making it a caricature of a Nazi. Nazism has ceased to be funny. It is no longer a joke; indeed, it is extremely dangerous."

Portman was speaking a month before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The film had not yet been released in the US. "When it is (released] it is going to have a great influence on American public opinion concerning the war. When we were in Hudson's Bay making the film, I couldn't help thinking that there was nothing in the story which could not actually happen."

He was hired again by Powell and Pressburger and cast as one of a downed bomber crew in occupied Holland in ...One of Our Aircraft is Missing. It was a strapping character study of Halifax manhood and led directly to other straight-talking roles: the factory foreman in Millions Like Us, the obsessed killer in Wanted for Murder, the Kentish sage in A Canterbury Tale.

Portman was voted among the first 10 money-making stars in British productions by the Motion Picture Herald poll of 1942 and stayed there until 1946. By 1950, he was widely considered to be the pre-eminent Yorkshire actor and one of the highest paid film heartthrobs in the country.

"Most actors can simulate an approximate accent for a part but they can rarely eradicate their native tongue completely in normal speech," he said by way of explanation for his appeal to audiences.

"I know I retain some Yorkshire, and I found it invaluable during my eight years in the States. In fact you could say it was my stock-in-trade."

If Yorkshire never left him, he never left it. In 1954 he interrupted filming on a new movie to make a personal appearance at Halifax's now vanished Grand Theatre to help bring repertory back to the town. The theatre had closed due to lack of support. Portman's involvement gave it a new lease of life.

Later that same year he took the entire London production of Separate Tables to Halifax for a Sunday charity performance in an attempt to raise more funds and ensure its survival. It was not to be.

The Fifties saw him increasingly in films and on television. He joined what appeared to be practically the entire British film community in The Magic Box, a star-studded biopic of film pioneer William Friese-Green and there were substantial parts as a PoW in The Colditz Story, the discredited doctor in Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea and as Jess Oakroyd in JB Priestley's The Good Companions.

His return to the stage in 1964 was accompanied by much fanfare but The Claimant was weak and Portman was said to have lost some of his once inflexible precision. Maybe he had been too long away.

In early 1968 Portman reluctantly accepted a role in a revival of John Galsworthy's Justice. When he began suffering dizzy spells at his London flat

he consulted his doctors, who prescribed rest and retirement.

"All three told me to slow down because I was taxing my heart. I found on matinee days that with only a quarter of an hour between shows I was just completely exhausted. It really was getting too much for me."

"I suppose I could have carried on. But one hears such wretched things about one's friends popping off suddenly because they didn't heed their doctors.

"In a week I had left my flat in St James's and was installed in Cornwall in a lovely Wuthering Heights-type of cottage."

His Cornish home was a converted labourer's cottage in 10 rugged acres in the fishing village of St Veep. There he lived quietly and radio was the one concession his doctors allowed.

There were three final jobs. For the stage, there was Justice. Said Portman: "It really wasn't very good. Not Galsworthy's best play". On TV he appeared in the series Strange Report. And on film he played an ageing homosexual safecracker, opposite cat burglar Michael Caine, in Bryan Forbes's Deadfall. Portman called it "my best part since 49th Parallel" and said it could do "great things" for his career.

He died on December 7, 1969. His passing was mourned but not in the way that a Redgrave, Gielgud or Olivier would later be cause for mass lament.

Today his name lives on courtesy of a Halifax pub, The Portman & Pickles, which celebrates him and another local lad, Wilfred Pickles. Forty years after his death, Portman is all but forgotten, a footnote in theatre and film history. Yet he was an actor of individuality and relentless, driving integrity. He probed the fallibility of ordinary men and, for a brief period, was the shining star of British cinema.

Deadfall is released on DVD on January 31.

YP MAG 29/1/11