Date of Birth : Feb 25th 1937
Acting chameleon Sir Tom Courtenay, along with Sirs Alan Bates and Albert Finney, became front-runners in an up-and-coming company of rebel upstarts who created quite a stir in British “kitchen sink” cinema during the early 60s. An undying love for the theatre, however, had Courtenay channeling a different course than the afore-mentioned greats and he never, by his own choosing, attained comparable cinematic stardom.
The gaunt and glum, fair-haired actor was born Thomas Daniel Courtenay of modest surroundings on February 25, 1937, in Hull, East Yorkshire, England, the son of Thomas Henry Courtenay, a ship painter, and his wife Anne Eliza (née Quest). Graduating from Kingston High School there, he trained in drama at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His reputation as an actor grew almost immediately with his professional debut in 1960 as Konstantin in “The Seagull” at the Old Vic. Following tours in Scotland and London with the play, Tom performed in “Henry IV, Part I” and “Twelfth Night” (also at the Old Vic) before assuming the title role of Billy from Albert Finney in the critically-acclaimed drama “Billy Liar” at the Cambridge Theatre in 1961. The story, which tells of a Yorkshire man who creates a fantasy world to shield himself from his mundane middle-class woes, was the initial spark in Tom’s rise to fame.
The recognition he received landed him squarely into the heap of things as a new wave of “angry young men” were taking over British cinema during the swinging 60s. Singled out for his earlier stage work at RADA, he was eventually handed the title role in the war film Private Potter (1962), but it was his second movie that clenched stardom. Winning the role of Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Courtenay invested everything he had in this bruising portrayal of youthful desolation and rebellion. As a reform school truant whose solitary sentencing for robbing a bakery leads to a reawakening and subsequent recognition as a long distance runner, he was awarded a “Promising Newcomer” award from the British Film Academy, It was Courtenay then, and not Finney, who recreated his stage triumph as Billy Fisher in the stark film version of Billy Liar (1963). British Film Academy nominations came his way for this and for his fourth movie role in King & Country (1964). Vivid contributions to the films King Rat (1965), the ever-popular Doctor Zhivago (1965), which earned him his first Oscar nomination, and The Night of the Generals (1967) followed.