Dirk Bogarde was born in 1921 to Ulric van den Bogaerde, the first and most influential Art Editor of The Times newspaper, and the actress Margaret Niven. Ulric was immensely ambitious for his first child and from early on groomed Dirk to follow in his footsteps at The Times. But Dirk¹s mother had sacrificed a successful career for her marriage and children and it was ultimately only a matter of time before her theatrical heritage proved stronger than Ulric¹s ambitions and Dirk found himself drawn to the world of the theatre.
In 1939 he made his professional debut at the Q Theatre in London. Despite having only one line to say, it was a beginning for the young Dirk, and a few months later he made his West End debut in J B Priestley¹s play Cornelius. The progress of Dirk¹s early career was halted by the outbreak of the Second World War when he was called up to serve in the Signal Corps, and it was not until 1947 that his career got back on track. In this year he appeared in the play Power Without Glory, where he was spotted and signed up by movie giants Rank.
It was three years before Rank managed to hit on a winning formula for their new star. In 1950 Dirk starred as the murderer Tom Riley in The Blue Lamp. The police drama was the most successful British film that year, and launched the long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green. Dirk¹s role as the neurotic, intense and dangerously attractive villain was a character-type he was to return to throughout his career.
A few years after The Blue Lamp Dirk had the chance to prove that the neurotic villain was not the only character in his repertoire. In the early 1950s producer Betty Box bought the rights to the popular novel Doctor in the House. The Rank organisation were at first reluctant to give the go ahead for the film to be made as they thought a hospital setting would never attract an audience.
Eventually they relented and Doctor in the House became one of the most popular films ever, with 17 million tickets sold in the first year alone. For Dirk it was the chance to prove his hand at light comedy and his character Simon Sparrow became a national heartthrob. He was to recreate the character in three further ‘Doctor’ films over the next ten years, and the part turned him into a hugely popular star.
Throughout these early years with Rank, Dirk continued to perform in theatre when his filming schedule would allow. As he became more well-known however he started to find the pressure from his fans a little overwhelming. In 1955 he appeared in a touring production of Summertime and found himself not only being mobbed at every stage door, but also being distracted by over-enthusiastic fans shouting out during the play itself. Dirk had always suffered from terrible stage fright and this extra pressure exacerbated his nerves, until he said he had started to feel “you can¹t be as frightened as I am now and still be alive”. He made only one stage appearance after this, in the 1958 production of Jezebel at Oxford Playhouse.
Not long after he bade farewell to the theatre Dirk decided to try his chances in Hollywood. He made only two films in America – Song Without End and The Angel Wore Red. Despite huge budgets and star names (his co-star in the second film was Ava Gardner) both films suffered from sub-standard scripts and it was with some relief that he returned to England.
On his return Bogarde made one of the biggest gambles of his life when he took the part of Melville Farr in the thriller Victim. Farr is a successful barrister who sacrifices his career and marriage by confessing to his homosexuality rather than allowing a long-running blackmail racket to continue (same sex relationships were illegal at this time). The American censors refused to classify the film, effectively blocking it¹s mainstream release, and the fans of Dirk’s light-hearted ‘Doctor’ films were horrified by this new turn in his career. Dirk however was immensely proud of the film, and later said he had received countless letters of from people thanking him for taking the difficult role and telling their story.
Victim marked a change in Dirk’s career with many of his finest serious roles coming after this time, culminating in his performance in 1971 as Gustav von Aschenbach in the film Death in Venice. Dirk regarded this film as the pinnacle of his career, declaring it was “the peak and end of my career . . . I can never hope to give a better performance in a better film”.
Despite this prediction Dirk made another seven films over the next twenty years. In-between his filming commitments Dirk started to write about his extraordinary life. He proved to be an immensely talented writer, and a prolific one, producing seven volumes of autobiography and five novels in these later years.
Dirk continued to court controversy, speaking out in favour of voluntary euthanasia and talking publicly about his ‘living will’. But the end for Dirk came suddenly – he died of a heart attack at his home in Chelsea, London in May 1999.
The man may be gone but the legacy of his enormous contribution to the British Film Industry ensures he will not be forgotten.
Dirk was born in a taxi in Hampstead, London on 28th March 1921.
He was the eldest of three children having a sister, Elizabeth, and a much younger brother Gareth, born when Dirk was thirteen.
Dirk’s real name was Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde. His West End debut was as ‘Derek Bogaerde’, and it was not until after the war that his then agent, Freddy Joachim, re-christened him with the name that would become so famous.
Dirk’s father was convinced that his eldest son would follow him into the Art Department of The Times. Dirk’s early training was therefore not as an actor, but as an artist, at what is now Chelsea College of Art, where his teachers included Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
In 1939 Dirk met theatrical manager Anthony Forwood who later became his manager, his friend and ultimately his lifelong partner. In the early 1970s they bought a house together in the South of France where they lived very happily until shortly before Forwood’s death in 1988.
Dirk featured in an amazing sixty-one films during his working life (from 1948 to 1991). At the height of his career he was sometimes shooting four or five films in a year.
In 1996 Dirk Bogarde had a stroke, which left him partially paralysed. He made a good recovery and continued to live in his own flat in Chelsea until his death on 8th May 1999 at the age of 78.
Five Fascinating Facts about Dirk Bogarde
- While serving with the Signal Corps in the Second World War Dirk took part in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Like many others he could never describe what he saw there, but could only say that he found himself “looking into Dante’s Inferno”.
- He was approached to play the role of Jimmy Porter in the film version of Look Back in Anger, but Rank refused him permission to make the film saying that there was “altogether too much dialogue”.
- During the filming of The Servant in 1963 the director Joseph Losey was hospitalised with pneumonia. Desperate to stop the producers pulling the plug on the film, Losey asked Dirk to take over. Dirk reluctantly agreed and directed the film for ten days, later confessing “it’s my only scrape at directing and I’ll never do it again”.
- Dirk could never be persuaded to set foot on stage after 1958, despite several tempting offers. One such offer was the title role in Olivier’s production of Hamlet, which opened the newly built Chichester Festival Theatre in 1963. The role was eventually played by Peter O’Toole
- In 1984 Dirk was asked to preside over the Cannes Film Festival. This was a huge honour not only because it confirmed his status as a respected player in the European Film Industry, but also because he was the first Briton ever to be granted such a privilege.