During the nearly sixty years he graced stage and screen, Paul Scofield was a man who had little use for self-justification, and even less use for self-promotion. His press-shy ways created something of a vicious cycle. The less frequently the celebrated British actor consented to interviews, the more frequently such interviews tended to revolve around the question of why, say, he didn’t make himself more available to the media. Or, why he had chosen to appear in so few popular films. Or why, unlike so many of his peers, he had not been knighted.
It would be more correct, however, when we speak of peers, to say that Scofield had none. He was sui generis—universally admired by the Burtons and Oliviers of the English theatre, but sharing none of their swagger, and none of their taste for prestige. Scofield eschewed Hollywood. He remained married to the same woman for 65 years, and they lived only a few miles from the town where he had grown up.
There was, too, that lingering matter of knighthood. It had in fact been offered to him. He declined it—three times, exposing the vanity of the whole ordeal and revealing a bit of his uncommon soul by asking, “If you want a title, what’s wrong with ‘Mister’?”
Even so, it was as a “Sir” that I, and so many others, first came to know Mr. Scofield. In 1966, he appeared as Sir Thomas More in Fred Zinnemann’s classic film version of Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons.” Scofield was ideally suited for the part. He had, for one thing, originated it six years earlier at the Globe. And he was blessed with the reasoned demeanor and sure, stentorian voice that were necessary for Bolt’s More, whom the author framed as a paragon of principled dignity in an unprincipled time.
Scofield deservedly won an Academy Award for his enduring portrayal. He also indelibly shaped my image of a man we consider a saint all these centuries later.
As a boy preparing for Confirmation, I stumbled across Zinnemann’s film while deliberating whether to choose More as my patron saint. Something about the defiant rigor of More’s personal convictions had struck a chord with me at an age when I was laboring to forge my own. But it wasn’t until I saw Scofield inhabit that holy defiance that I resolved to take Thomas as my confirmation name.
Watching “A Man for All Seasons” amounted to a formation of conscience for me. The Thomas More of the film is no pious fool. Scofield put real flesh on his bones by playing him as crafty to the end, exhausting every imaginable legal equivocation to save his own head. And yet, what virtue! When I’ve prayed for More’s guidance in the intervening years, it is often with the image of Scofield’s More in mind: his Chancellor’s robes swishing along the floor and his shoulders slumping, as he walks into the courtroom to face his accusers, armed with nothing more than his own belief in what is right and good.
For all that Scofield brought to “A Man for All Seasons,” and to other celebrated films like “Quiz Show” and “The Crucible,” he belonged to the theatre. He transformed himself into characters as diverse as Hamlet, John Gabriel Borkman, and Salieri in “Amadeus” (another role he originated). Amazingly, his 1962 turn as King Lear was voted by the Royal Shakespeare Company as the greatest Shakespearean performance of all time.
By all accounts, Scofield possessed a rare personal warmth, and a congenital aversion to fame. He preferred his privacy. Because so many of his greatest moments unfolded on stage, uncaptured by any director’s camera, he managed to keep a sort of anonymity that suffused his acting with a saintly virtue of its own. He let his craft speak for itself, which it does still.
Scofield, who died in March at 86, left behind a body of work as rich as any actor of our time. He was a man for all seasons, yes. But one for the ages as well.