Monday, February 24, 2014

Actor who played Captain Hook 2 300 times

A Gadsden in the Limelight

This undated obituary was the initial clue in a search for Lionel Gadsden, who died on 9 November 1965 (some sources give 10 November; the death was registered at Bromley in December 1965).

He was an actor with an unusual claim to fame: he performed the role of Captain Hook in J M Barrie’s play Peter Pan, over 2, 300 times. Between 1913 and about 1937 he played Hook on at least 16 tours, sometimes taking on the dual part of Hook and Mr Darling.

In 1924 a review stated Gadsden was ‘a terrifying figure as the pirate captain’. His long association with the character became legendary, his version of the role establishing a theatrical tradition in its own right. He appeared in the play – in various guises - more than 4 000 times and on occasion was also stage manager.
Smee (Cassidy) and Hook (Gadsden)

Gadsden co-starred with well-known Irish actor and comedian John Rice Cassidy who played Smee to his Hook in Peter Pan on tour between 1921 and 1925.

The news report above mentions that at the age of 14 he worked as a theatre call boy, messenger and stagehand. If he was 86 when he died in 1965 it gives a birth year of about 1879 yet no birth record has emerged. He is also significantly absent in the UK Census, though shows up in London electoral registers between the 1930s and 1960s, including at Bromley the year before his death.

There are numerous references to him in press reports and reviews of theatrical productions. These show that while his Captain Hook was most memorable, Gadsden also performed in other plays and was known for ‘his fine elocutionary style’. In October 1930 he was on tour to the States in a production of Marigold for the 49th St Theatre. In 1935 he appeared at the Fortune Theatre in When Knights Were Bold, a review in The Times on 27 December stating that ‘the knockabout atmosphere does not prevent Mr. Lionel Gadsden from playing Isaac Isaacson intelligently.’

His career spanned more than 50 years. His first stage appearance was at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, when he was 21. A descendant of Patrick Desmond, who directed Peter Pan several times during the late 1950s and early 1960s, states that Lionel Gadsden was a member of the company for at least one of the productions. When Gadsden turned 80 in 1959 the veteran actor was appearing in The Trial of Mary Dugan at the Savoy, in the role of a spectator at the trial, receiving a round of applause each evening without having to say a word. He died in harness while playing a supporting role in Hostile Witnesses at the Haymarket Theatre.

The question remains: where and precisely when was Lionel Gadsden born and who were his parents? His death was registered by his son-in-law, Wilcoks [sic] but Lionel’s daughter’s name, and that of his wife, are not known.

Jennifer Forsyth
John Gadsden
Chris Duff

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