John Fraser – actor, writer
Born March 18, 1931; died November 7, 2020
John Fraser, who has died aged 89, was an actor who transcended his working class Glasgow roots to become a matinee idol, before taking a sidestep out of the limelight. In a colourful career, he showed star quality in a stream of top-flight films following his breakout role in The Dam Busters (1955), and rubbed shoulders with the showbiz cognoscenti of his day.
At his most famous, Fraser was dubbed the most handsome man in Britain. In truth, he was something of a renaissance man. As well as receiving a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), Fraser published several books, and a brief brush with pop stardom ran parallel with his early acting career.
Fraser laid bare the ups and downs of his life with flamboyant abandon in his hugely entertaining memoir, Close Up (2004). It was ‘A Supa-candid-gossip-expo-valid-dose-worth of Dirk, Sophia, Bette and Rudy in the sixties’ according to actor Richard E Grant. ‘Grab and gobble it!’ he enthused.
There were richly descriptive tales of Fraser’s brief but intense affair with Soviet ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, and of being invited to Dirk Bogarde’s mansion, where Bogarde kept a Harley Davidson motorcycle in his loft. Bogarde proceeded to show Fraser how he got his kicks, giving it full throttle as he straddled the bike while watching a film poster of himself clad in black leather.
This followed the pair working together in Ralph Thomas’ World War Two-set prisoner of war drama, The Wind Cannot Read (1958). The film also starred Ronald Lewis, who came to blows with Lewis after taunting him about his sexuality. At a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, Fraser was never comfortable with the pretence of being forced to live a double life.
John Alexander Fraser was born in Glasgow to John and Christina Fraser. He grew up with his two elder sisters on the Mosspark estate, before being evacuated to Kirkcudbright when the Second World War broke out. He was so homesick, however, that his mother brought him home.
At Glasgow High School, he successfully auditioned for BBC Radio’s Children’s Hour, and became a stage manager with the Glasgow-based Park Theatre Company. His onstage debut came in 1947, as a loincloth-clad page in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Taking to heart a review that mocked his accent, Fraser embarked on elocution lessons.
Following National Service with the Royal Corps of Signals in the Rhine, Fraser joined the fledgling Pitlochry Festival Theatre, then based in a large marquee. His TV career began in 1952, playing David Balfour opposite Patrick Troughton’s Alan Breck in Joy Harrington’s six-part adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure yarn, Kidnapped.
This led to a couple of uncredited appearances in Titanic (1953) and The Desert Rats (1953) before being cast in Valley of Song (1953), Cliff Gordon’s big screen adaptation of his play, Choir Practice. He played the male lead in a BBC production of Troilus and Cressida (1954) prior to appearing in The Dam Busters, Touch and Go (1955) and sang with Janette Scott in The Good Companions (1957). This led to appearances on TV pop shows, Cool for Cats and Six-Five Special, and a support slot to Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele at the Royal Albert Hall.
Following his BAFTA nominated turn in The Trials of Oscar Wilde as Wilde’s lover, Bosie, Fraser acted alongside Alec Guinness in James Kennaway’s searing adaptation of his novel, Tunes of Glory (1960). Fraser went on to appear in El Cid (1961), and took the title role in an American TV production of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1961). He was cast alongside Peter Sellers in The Waltz of the Toreadors (1962), and acted opposite Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965).
Despite all this, Fraser looked like the nearly man of British cinema. American producer Ross Hunter promised to make him a star, but Fraser chose to return to London. British producer Jimmy Woolf courted him for the title role in Lawrence of Arabia, but gave it to Peter O’Toole instead. Tony Richardson considered him for Jimmy Porter in his film of Look Back in Anger, but cast Richard Burton. In the end, you get the impression that Fraser wasn’t prepared to play the fame game enough to fit in with the film world’s celebrity whirl. Perhaps he was simply too good for it.
As well as Close Up, Fraser penned two novels, Clap Hands If You Believe in Fairies (1969), which helped bring the disaster of the thalidomide drug to a wider public consciousness; and In Place of Reason (1985). He also wrote a play, Cannibal Crackers, and The Bard in the Bush (1978) a memoir of his international travels with his London Shakespeare Company, which toured the world.
Fraser was last seen regularly on British screens as Dr. Lawrence Golding in all forty-seven episodes of local surgery set drama, The Practice (1985). His final appearance came in Truth or Dare (1996), a BBC Scotland produced Screen One feature.
Fraser moved to Tuscany, before latterly returning to London, where Close Up’s freewheeling candour raised his profile in a way that drew attention to one of the most charismatic but neglected presences in British cinema.
He is survived by his partner of forty-two years, Rodney Pienaar.
The Herald, November 24th 2020