Robert Hardy has died at the age of 91, and his 70-year acting career means there are few people who have not experienced his work.
His children, Emma, Justine, and Paul, have told The Guardian that he was “gruff, elegant, twinkly, and always dignified, he is celebrated by all who knew him and loved him, and everyone who enjoyed his work”.
While Hardy did plenty of theatre acting, he is best known for his roles in television and film, namely as Siegfried Farnon in the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small and as Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, in Harry Potter.
J.K. Rowling revealed her appreciation for Hardy on twitter after he died: “so very sad to hear about Robert Hardy. He was such a talented actor and everybody who worked with him on Potter loved him.”
Born Timothy Sydney Robert Hardy in Cheltenham in 1925, he was the youngest of a large family. He called himself an “odd child”, and followed his passionate interest in literature by gaining a place to study English at Magdalen College, Oxford after finishing at Rugby School.
Hardy was lucky enough to be taught by the likes of JRR Tolkein and C.S. Lewis while he was at Oxford. He also struck up a close friendship with Richard Burton, celebrated theatre and film actor, while he was at university. Both men’s studies were interrupted when they were called up for war service and sent to an RAF station in Norfolk. Hardy, unlike his friend, returned to Oxford to complete his undergraduate degree after serving.
Hollywood was an inspiration for Hardy and he was determined to follow an acting career, choosing to join the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1949.
During the fifties, Hardy played an array of roles in theatre, focusing mainly on Shakespearean plays. He led his acting career alongside some other passions. He first became interested in the longbow when he found two of the weapons in the family attic. When he then played Shakespeare’s Henry V, his interest was re-ignited, so much so that he later went on to write two books and present a documentary on the subject.
The English actor was in high demand for theatre roles during the 1950s, and so in 1960, Sir Peter Hall offered him a contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hardy turned it down, however, claiming it was for middle-of-the-roadish parts. He later admitted that he had “behaved extremely badly”.
When Hardy was asked how to be a successful actor, he replied that you need “a certain amount of talent, luck, a spine of steel, a ruthlessness of mind that does not jib at murder and patience.”
Hardy had his debut behind the camera in 1958, when he played a naval officer in Glenn Ford’s Torpedo Run. A few years later, he enjoyed a reunion with his university friend Richard Burton when he played Dick Carlton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
The Troubleshooters, first aired in 1966, was Hardy’s first big series and saw him play the ruthless Alex Stewart in the BBC’s production about a fictional oil company called Mogul.
Then, in 1978, came an offer which Hardy would later be remembered famously and fondly for. He took on the role of Siegfried Farnon in the BBC’s long-running series, All Creatures Great and Small, which was based on the best-selling books by James Herriot.
Alongside Carol Drinkwater and Christopher Timothy, he rocketed to fame for his part as the senior vet of a small Yorkshire Dales practice. The show was a huge hit, audiences numbering around 20 million.
When the original run ended, the BBC had to wait ten years before obtaining permission to write new storylines and revive the series. Hardy was not pleased with the new scripts. He complained that “all they did was make Siegfried explode and be bad-tempered,” and so he rewrote a lot of the new material.
Despite playing a huge variety of roles during his career, Hardy did enjoy the blustering aristocrat-type character, and it wasn’t a surprise if you saw him wearing tweed on screen. This was true of his appearances in the likes of The Cleopatras, Middlemarch, The Shooting Party and Sense and Sensibility among others.
Winston Churchill was arguably Hardy’s most successful character portrayal. The actor played England’s prime minister many times, including in the 1981 series The Wilderness Years.
Hardy admitted to completely immersing himself in the character of Churchill and, since he was prone to volatility and expressing anger anyway, he once explained: “my family complained loudly about my behaviour while I was playing him.”
Hardy was married twice in his life and had three children. In 1981, he was awarded a CBE for his services to acting. Then, in 1995, he left his home in Oxfordshire to become laird of a Scottish mansion.
The building is a 13th-century miniature castle near Edinburgh and it has a walled garden and a tower. This seems out-of-the-blue, but Hardy had visited the place as a child and promised himself that he would return one day. Plus, he was following in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott, a hero of Hardy’s.
Military history was another personal interest for the English actor. As a result, he fiercely supported efforts to raise the Tudor warship, the Mary Rose. He was heavily involved in the project team which worked on this.
Hollywood and later life
Despite suffering from cancer in his later years, Hardy made a recovery to resume his acting career.
Most notably, he enjoyed playing Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, in multiple Harry Potter films.
Hardy admitted that his on-screen temper was something of a reality for him as a person, explaining wisely that “the ego may be essential for survival in the wilderness of acting, but it’s something that requires a great deal of comfort if you’re going to make a success of life.”
His family celebrate him as a “meticulous linguist, a fine artist, a lover of music and a champion of literature, as well as a highly respect historian.” Hardy was indeed a brilliant actor, but his talents spanned many disciplines, and so his life and memory should be celebrated.