x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Richard Todd: D-Day invader best known as a dambuster

Wartime hero who became box office star gained his greatest fame playing another wartime hero, bomber commander Guy Gibson.

Richard Todd in the role of Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the classic 1955 film The Dam Busters.
Richard Todd in the role of Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the classic 1955 film The Dam Busters.

Richard Andrew Palethorpe-Todd, one of Britain's most recognisable box office stars during the 1940s and 50s, famous for playing dashing heroes such as Robin Hood and Rob Roy, was the first British officer to parachute into Normandy with the 6th Airborne, in advance of the main D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. Eighteen years later he relived the event in the film The Longest Day, starring alongside the celluloid action hero John Wayne.

Todd was best known for his role in the classic war film The Dam Busters: the eponymous devices were bombs that bounced across the water and smashed the Ruhr dams in western Germany to smithereens. "Biggest binge of all time," announced Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the leader of the 1943 mission code-named Operation Chastise, in anticipation of his audacious attack. Todd's mother, a violet-eyed society beauty and accomplished horsewoman, hoped her son might become a diplomat. His father, who had served in India as an army physician, would have preferred his offspring to pursue a steadier career, which as a member of the British army, for a while at least, Todd did.

His personal intention was to become an author of plays. Consequently, he enrolled at the Italia Conti Academy to "simply get that feeling for theatre". He soon found he had a talent for acting and his career treading the boards started in 1939 when he joined the newly founded Dundee Repertory Theatre. After the war was over, following a successful screen test, he won a film contract with Associated British Pictures. For his second feature, The Hasty Heart, which co-starred the future US president Ronald Reagan - who became a personal friend - Todd won an Oscar nomination. Marlene Dietrich, the co-star of his next film, Hitchcock's Stage Fright, was, Todd recalled "awfully nice and taken with me".

A trio of films for Disney followed, starring Todd as a swaggering hero. "My image was all daring deeds, until my swash began to buckle a bit," he later said. He was named a "Disney Legend" in 2002, but for most of his career he excelled at playing the archetypal British male of the time; an often repressed, slightly starchy character who triumphed in the face of adversity without expressing undue emotion.

He was Ian Fleming's first choice to play James Bond in Dr No (1962), but unfortunately, was committed elsewhere. By the late 1960s, the work was less interesting, and the casting calls were less frequent. Returning to the theatre, Todd starred in the West End as Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband (1965) and as Nicholas Randolph in Dodie Smith's Dear Octopus (1967). In 1970, he founded Triumph Theatre Productions, touring various plays abroad.

Acting into his 80s, he appeared in a number of television series that all verged on the macabre, including Murder, She Wrote, and the BBC's Silent Witness and Holby City. After retirement, he was a popular speaker at military commemorations and was passionate about the English countryside. Married and divorced twice, tragedy marked his later life. In 1997, his 20-year-old son by his second marriage killed himself with a shotgun. In 2005, Peter, his eldest son, by his first marriage, also shot himself fatally. Todd's own mother had committed suicide when he was aged 19. He wrote eloquently about coming to terms with the death of his children, comparing the process with what war required of a man's character: "You just get on with it," he concluded.

Born June 11, 1919; died December 3. * The National