Donald Sinden, a British acting stalwart of stage and screen for more than 60 years who was known for a plummy voice and robust presence whether appearing in Shakespeare tragedies or popular sitcoms, died Sept. 12 at his home in Romney Marsh, England. He was 90.
Marc Sinden, a son who is an actor, producer and director, said the cause of death was prostate cancer.
To American audiences, Mr. Sinden is best remembered for a series of movie roles in the 1950s. In “The Cruel Sea,” one of the most gripping films ever made about wartime stress, he played a determined British navy officer opposite Jack Hawkins’s unraveling skipper.
Mr. Sinden was an anthropologist in “Mogambo” with Grace Kelly as his romantically restless wife. And he was one of the frisky, newly minted physicians in the “Doctor” film comedies starring Dirk Bogarde.
Mr. Sinden continued to perform in dozens of movies, including the assassination thriller “The Day of the Jackal” (1973) as a Scotland Yard official, the Disney adventure film “The Island at the Top of the World” (1974) as an aristocratic explorer and the animated feature “Balto” (1995) as a kindly Saint Bernard. Mostly, he focused on stage work, including a long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
For the RSC, he played the title roles of “Othello” and “King Lear” as well as the pompous Malvolio in the comedy “Twelfth Night,” opposite Judi Dench as Viola.
Mr. Sinden also made an impression on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1974 RSC revival of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 comedy of manners, “London Assurance.” He portrayed an aging, bankrupt London fop who schemes to marry an heiress, only to see his son fall in love with her.
“Fond of tossing in a French word when he can think of one, Sinden comes to grips with ‘devoir,’ which he begins confidently only to discover that his teeth have slipped and will require a moment of pained but hopefully concealed panic,” Washington Post theater critic Richard L. Coe wrote. “This masterly portrait is quickened by such details.”
The next year, Mr. Sinden was nominated for a Tony Award for best actor, portraying a philandering doctor in “Habeas Corpus,” a comedy by Alan Bennett.
Although he professed at times to disdain TV work, Mr. Sinden excelled as a farceur and was a star in two long-running British sitcoms. He played a butler to a brash rich American (Elaine Stritch) in “Two’s Company” (1975 to 1979). And in “Never the Twain” (1981 to 1991), Mr. Sinden portrayed a patrician antiques dealer who must contend with a comically downmarket rival (Windsor Davies).
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he told the London Independent. “I’ve been in theater, films, television, radio, tragedy, comedy, farce — I’ve been in a musical and in music halls, in pantomime, I was once ringmaster in a circus.
“I remember once saying, in a television interview, that the only things I hadn’t been in were the opera and the ballet. Two days later, I got a call from Lord Harewood, of the English National Opera, saying ‘Would you like to be in “Ariadne auf Naxos”?’ ”
He added that he was willing to entertain offers from the ballet.
Donald Alfred Sinden was born in Plymouth, England, on Oct. 9, 1923, and grew up in Ditchling, where his father was a chemist.
He became an actor serendipitously when a cousin, appearing in an amateur play, was called to active military duty and asked Mr. Sinden, whose asthma kept him from national service, to take over the role.
“I had never been in the least bit interested in acting,” he once told the Daily Mail. “But the chap was in a fix, so I agreed. I went along to a rehearsal and discovered this charming group of amateur actors — and some jolly attractive girls — talking a new language: upstage, downstage, stand center.”
He spent the war years entertaining troops and by the late 1940s had worked his way from regional repertory theaters to the London stage and his first film roles.
His wife, actress Diana Mahony, died in 2004. Their son Jeremy Sinden, an actor, died in 1996. Besides his son Marc, survivors include a brother, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Mr. Sinden, who estimated that he only had perhaps five weeks of unemployment between 1942 and 2008, received a knighthood in 1997 for his stage accomplishments. He had a recurring role in the BBC legal drama “Judge John Deed” in the 2000s. He also published two volumes of memoirs and, having once aspired to a career in architecture, wrote a book about and lectured on English country churches.
At times, his theatrical manner — the perpetually raised eyebrow, a stentorian speaking style with well-rounded vowels — was parodied on British television. But, as he told the Glasgow Herald in 2002, “Actors ought to be larger than life. Look at Gielgud, Olivier or Richardson. You come across quite ordinary, nondescript people in daily life, and I don’t see why you should be subjected to them on the stage, too.”