British character actor Rupert Davies (1916-1976) often played amiable, reassuring authority figures, none more famous than his signature role, Inspector Jules Maigret.
Abluff, burly man with an unruly mop of crinkly brown hair, Rupert Davies was an instantly recognizable character player in movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Gentle in demeanor, he often played priests, detectives, and other authority figures. But he is best known to audiences in his native Great Britain for his portrayal of Inspector Jules Maigret, a pipe-puffing Parisian sleuth, on a television series in the early 1960s. Later in his career he became a valuable supporting actor in low-budget horror movies, often starring Vincent Price or Christopher Lee.
Rupert Davies was born in Liverpool, England in 1916. He did not take up acting until he was an adult. When World War II broke out, Davies joined the British naval air force. After his airplane went down off the coast of Holland during the early days of the conflict, Davies was captured by the Germans. He was placed in a prisoner of war camp, where he spent the next five years of his life. To keep up morale and entertain his fellow inmates, Davies performed in camp shows. After the war, Davies continued acting in provincial repertory companies. He made his film debut in 1949 in Private Angelo. Three years later, Davies played Page, a resident of Windsor whose wife helps to trick Sir John Falstaff, in a television production of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.
In the 1950s, Davies' movie career began to take off. He had a small role in The Dark Avenger (1955), a swashbuckling adventure starring screen legend Errol Flynn and British actor Christopher Lee, with whom Davies would work on many subsequent pictures. After a brief stint on the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) television series Quatermass II, about an intrepid scientist who routinely saves the world from alien threats, he worked alongside Lee again in the 1957 spy drama The Traitor. Davies' other supporting roles in this period came in Danger Tomorrow and The Criminal, both in 1960.
Wins Signature Role
In 1960, the BBC signed Davies to a two-year contract to play Inspector Jules Maigret, a pipe-smoking French detective, in a television drama series. Maigret, a fictional Parisian detective, was the creation of Belgian-born novelist Georges Simenon. Maigret's adventures have been translated into English and scores of other languages almost since they first started to appear in 1931. There are 75 Maigret novels and 25 short stories.
The colorful part was perfectly suited to Davies' affable screen demeanor. Maigret was to become the actor's signature role. The show was a huge hit with viewers in Britain, and Davies' unforgettable portrayal earned him British Actor of the Year honors in 1961. With only a limited number of Maigret novels to work from, the series eventually ground to a halt.
Returns to Big Screen
After Maigret's cancellation, Davies found it hard to land other parts in television. For years his most memorable work in that medium came as a commercial pitchman for Flora margarine. In need of steady work, Davies returned to making movies. Now in his late 40s, Davies settled for supporting roles, invariably playing a comforting authority figure. The most popular of these releases was the 1965 film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, an adaptation of John Le Carre's best seller about a disenchanted undercover agent. Davies played George Smiley, the career spy later essayed by Sir Alec Guinness in the TV production of Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Davies' other mainstream features during this period were The Uncle (1966) and the West German production Das Geheimnis der gelben Mnche, also in 1966.
Horror Movie Fixture
In the late 1960s, Davies found a niche in the horror and fantasy genre. He appeared in a succession of low-budget films in the United States and Great Britain. The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) cast him opposite horror icon Christopher Lee in an adaptation of Sax Rohmer's classic book series. Lee and Davies were reunited in Five Golden Dragons (1968), a fantastic crime adventure set in Hong Kong. George Raft, Robert Cummings, and Klaus Kinski rounded out the international cast. Davies took a break from the fantasy genre for his next film, Submarine X-1 (1968). The World War II adventure, about a Royal Navy officer who takes on the German battle fleet with midget submarines, also starred James Caan and William Dysart.
Davies returned to horror movies with his next project, Witchfinder General (1968), a creepy witchhunting tale featuring another of the genre's stalwart stars, Vincent Price. He paired again with Christopher Lee for the 1968 film Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, the fourth installment in Hammer Films' gory vampire cycle. Davies plays Monsignor Ernst Muller, a virtuous cleric who sacrifices himself to destroy Lee's pasty prince of darkness. Davies again played a vicar, again opposite Lee, in the 1968 film The Crimson Cult, an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Dreams in the Witch House." The low-budget production features one of the final performances by 81-year-old horror legend Boris Karloff. Davies' next film, The Oblong Box (1969) was loosely based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe. It starred Vincent price as a depraved aristocrat who keeps his disfigured brother locked in a tower in his house. Complications ensue when the deranged man escapes and begins murdering villagers.
By the end of the 1960s, the market for low-budget horror movies had largely dried up. Davies found it difficult to make the transition back to mainstream drama. He had a small role as Lord Gordon in Waterloo (1970), an epic about Napoleon's disastrous final campaign that starred Rod Steiger as the French general. And he supported Max Von Sydow in the 1970 film The Night Visitor about an ingenious murderer who keeps escaping from his asylum cell. Davies' other films of this period are The Firechasers, a crime drama about an arsonist, and Zeppelin (1971), about espionage on board a balloon over pre-World War I Europe.
Davies' fortunes took a turn in 1972, when the BBC cast him in the role of Count Rostov in its 20-part serialization of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel War and Peace. The programs were handsomely produced and well-received by the public. They helped remind viewers what an engaging presence Davies could project on the small screen. That same year, Davies played Cerdig, Chief of the Saxons, on the BBC series Arthur of the Britons. The historical drama, starring Oliver Tobias in the title role, depicted Arthur not as a grand king but as the chief of a small Celtic tribe in Dark Ages Britain.
Davies last screen appearance came in Frightmare, a 1974 British horror feature. The gory film cast Davies against type as one half of a cannibal farm couple. It was released on video under the title Frightmare 2. Rupert Davies died of cancer in London, England on November 22, 1976. He was 59 years old.
Further Reading on Rupert Davies
Quinlan, David, Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Character Actors, Bath Press, 1995.
New York Times, November 23, 1976.
Time, December 6, 1976.