He was a unique character actor. Once seen, not easily forgotten. His girth, his voice, his manner were distinctly his.
Robert Morely, born in Wiltshire England in 1908, was one of the screen’s most likable actors despite the formidable villains he sometimes played. His brand of the pompous, sputtering yet unctuous English ‘gentleman’ — invariably bushy-browed and overweight — disarmed audiences for over a half century via more than 110 movie and tv credits.
He was sometimes compared to Sydney Greenstreet but was more in the vein of his good friend and fellow British character actor, Peter Bull.
The son of a career army officer, Morely went to school all over Europe, and was expected to enter the British diplomatic service. Instead, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. By the late Twenties he was honing his skills on stages in London and the provinces. His portrayal of the title role in the 1936 play, Oscar Wilde, earned him kudos in London and, two years later, on Broadway.
That’s when MGM took notice. Morely was signed, and cast as the effete French king Louis XVI in the studio’s lavishly funded Marie Antoinette, with Norma Shearer in the title role.
In addition to films, Morely worked in theater on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s his screen work that we are heralding today, and herewith some of our favorite Morely movies:
Here (above) is Morely taking umbrage in Jules Dassin’s 1964 thriller Topkapi. His costars are Melina Mercouri and Maximiliam Schell. Morely plays one Cedric Page in the movie, a role that Orson Welles had turned down. (Welles was pretty portly himself at the time.)
Here (above) is Morely as a malevolent doctor who commits murder in Otto Preminger’s 1979 spy thriller, The Human Factor. (That’s an unsuspecting Derek Jacoby getting his blood pressure taken.)
Finally, Morely is superb in Beat The Devil, which stars Humphrey Bogart (who also co-produced the picture, meaning he put his own money into it). The cast also includes Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida in full flower as Bogie’s wife. They are seen above right. (Yes, that’s Peter Lorre third from left.)
The movie was directed by the John Huston, who, of course, cut his professional teeth along with Bogie and Lorre in the 1941 classic, The Maltese Falcon. (Huston also wrote the script in conjunction with a young Truman Capote.)
Beat the Devil was shot on location in Ravello, a steeply banked mountaintop village behind Sorrento on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
The plot has to do with the search for supposed uranium deposit in East Africa by a motley international group of shady characters — led by Morely — stuck in a small village until a dilapidated Italian cargo ship is able to transport them to Africa.
See this picture and enjoy Morely in full flight. He once said: It’s a great help for a man to be in love with himself. For an actor it is absolutely essential . He led a long and full life, passing at age 84 of a stroke in 1992.