Eric Porter

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Eric Porter as Professor Moriarty in The Red-Headed League (1985)

Eric Porter (8 april 1928 - 15 may 1995) was a British actor who played Professor Moriarty in 3 episodes of the TV series Sherlock Holmes between 1985 and 1986 with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.



Eric Porter

To Eric Porter, born 8 April 1928, a future as an actor was far from being all mapped out, for son of a bus conductor, his parents wanted him to qualify as an electrical engineer. Therefore, he went to Wimbledon Technical College at the age of 15 and a year later, started work for the Marconi Telegraph and Wireless Company, soldering joints. But he had acted in school plays and soon he was trying to get into the theatre. If Eric Porter's family was nothing of a show-business one, he had not the extrovert behaviour the audience usually expects from an actor either. According to Family Announcements, May 15 1995, he liked isolation and admitted, in his own words, an inability to relax completely in personal relationships. A reclusive man, Eric Porter never married, but he is reported to have said that, if Nyree Dawn Porter (no relation) who played the part of his wife Irene in the Forsyte Saga had not been already married, he would have proposed.

If 17 years old Eric Porter was a reserved young man without connection with the show-business world, on the other hand he was quite determined to become a great actor despite all obstacles standing in his way. He failed to get a scholarship to RADA, but succeeded in being engaged by the director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company where, according to The Independent, 17 May 1995, he made his stage debut carrying a spear, at £3 a week. Then Eric Porter toured with Sir Donald Wolfit and acted in repertory theatre in Birmingham, Bristol and London Old Vic. He soon turned out to be a remarkable theatre performer: in 1959, he won London Evening Standard Award as Best Actor for his part of Rosmer in Ibsen's Rosmersholm. A highly dependable, versatile and compelling actor, Porter became, in the 1960s, one of the leading players at the Royal Shakespeare Company. But though fully recognised by his fellow actors, he found that world-wide stardom still eluded him.

Eric Porter as Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga (1967)

It was the role of the ruthless and tortured Soames Forsythe in the memorable Forsythe Saga, created from the novels of John Galsworthy, which thrust him to the top of fame. The producer Donald Wilson had persuaded a reluctant Sydney Newman, head of BBC drama, who doubted whether a period drama would appeal to television audience in the Swinging Sixties, to run the risk of making the series. The Forsythe Saga was an instant and unprecedented hit. The series, sold to television companies world-wide, earned Eric Porter a BAFTA Best Actor award. The scene where Soames rapes his wife Irene shook the audience and even the crew. To everyone horror, recalled Porter, there was blood all over the place. I had gashed my hand on a brooch she was wearing. Having made his name through the triumph of the Forsythe Saga, Eric Porter took the title roles of many television productions such as Cyrano de Bergerac, Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

Eric Porter's film career was sparse, but in no way dull. He figured in notable successes like The Heroes of Telemark (1965), a war film based on the Norwegian heavy water sabotage during WW2, which appeared amongst the 15 most popular movies in 1966. In 1973, he played Colonel Rodin in the Anglo-French intricate and gripping thriller directed by Fred Zinneman, The Day of the Jackal, which won several awards, and in 1978 Chief Superintendent Lomas in another well-received thriller, The 39 Steps, based on the novel by John Buchan. But Eric Porter is best remembered for two successful Hammer productions. The first one was the fantasy film The Lost Continent (1968), a marvellously absurd, straight-faced anthology of comic-strips plots (New-York Times), where he was top billed as Captain Lansen, whose tramp steamer wanders into an unknown civilisation. The New-York Times praised the conviction he put in his interpretation of the part: Among the performers who play all this as if they believed it is Eric Porter.

Eric Porter as Dr. John Pritchard in Hands of the Ripper (1971)

Three years later was released the British horror film Hands of the Ripper, directed by Peter Sasdy. In this extremely gory production, Porter, who plays the part of the sympathetic Freudian psychiatrist Doctor John Pritchard, succeeded in giving a very measured yet powerful performance, and we can read on the site especially wonderful are the exchanges between Pritchard and Dysart with Porter and Godfrey going at each other like a pair of fighters in the ring. But Eric Porter's television roles outnumbered his film appearances. He began his television career with the part of Newton in The Physicists (1963), then appeared as Richmond in the valued BBC production of The War of the Roses (1965), based on the Royal Shakespeare Company outstanding modernized adaptation of Shakespeare's first historical trilogy. But what really catapulted Eric Porter to television leading roles was the amazing success of the Forsythe Saga (1966). In Donald Wilson 1977 adaptation of Anna Karenina, he was a stern and sometimes brutal Karenin but managed to let the audience catch a glimpse of the guarded aristocrat's suppressed sensitivity. He was highly acclaimed for his portrayal of Danforth (The Crucible, 1980), the leading judicial figure overseeing the Salem trial, under whose authority many are sentenced to hang and who later proves to be a hypocrite. The following year, in the drama serial Winston Churchill: the Wilderness Years, Eric Porter played Neville Chamberlain opposite Robert Hardy's Churchill in his typical well-thought-out and subtle way: at first full of blind arrogance, Porter's Chamberlain finally realizes that his best efforts have led to nothing but ruin, which gives him a measure of tragic dignity making him sympathetic despite everything. In 1985, Porter succeeded in being a perfectly despicable Fagin in BBC Oliver Twist (video), faithfully adapted from Dickens by Alexander Baron, and a bone-chilling Professor Moriarty opposite Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes in the Granada series. His last on-screen role was left-wing painter James Player in the 1994 remake of Message for Posterity, a bold television play by Dennis Potter, inspired by an incident in the life of Sir Winston Churchill which Potter used as a starting point for a drama symbolizing the power of the British establishment to crush any challenge to its power. In Potter's play, political radical James Player is commissioned by the House of Commons to paint Conservative statesman Sir David Browning. The artist, played by Eric Porter with impressive versatility and strength, intends the portrait to serve as a revenge for Browning's actions during 1926 general strike.

Eric Porter

But what Eric Porter enjoyed above all was playing classical roles in the theatre. Among his many performances he was, in The Duchess of Malfi, a Jacobean drama full of violence and horror, an outstanding embodiment of Ferdinand, one of the unfortunate heroin's greedy, depraved and cruel brothers, who arrange to have her strangled. As Barabas in Marlowe's tragic farce The Jew of Malta, Porter was formidable, and successfully fashioned a multi-faceted portrait of a scheming, murderous but also keenly ironic character. His magnificent Jew Barabas contrasted with the drab Jew usurer Shylock he had played in The Merchant of Venice. About Porter's performance in both plays, directed by Clifford Williams, Robert Speaight writes: In each, Mr Porter deploys his exceptional powers of attack, with intensity of bravura in the one and of tragic passion in the other. These two performances of Mr Porter are masterpieces of acting in their different ways and they stand [...] as the outstanding individual achievements of the season. Porter played Macbeth, directed by John Gorie, opposite John Thaw as Banquo, with uncommonly fiery and passionate energy and starred in three stage productions of King Lear in the title role. In the 1968 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn, Porter was an imposing and moving Lear and, according to a Masterpiece Theatre online article, created a sensation when he stripped to his underwear at the climatic line: "off, off you lendings!" Porter set a new standard, but not until 97 did an actor, Ian Holm, go all the way and stand fully naked in the storm. In 1971, he was Captain Hook in the musical written by Grant Foster and directed by Sir Robert Helpmann. A tremendous success, which a critic summed up by writing: Helpmann's Peter Pan will be with us for many years to come. For his role of Big Daddy Pollitt, a wealthy cotton tycoon who is dying of cancer, in Tennessee Williams's masterpiece Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Porter won the London Evening Standard Award for Best Actor. An article from dated September, 30th 2012 reads: You have to leap forward to 1988 to find a British production that finally did full justice to Williams's symphonic play. [...] Everything one hoped for was there.

Eric Porter as Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem (1985)

Therefore, no wonder if Eric Porter was, in 1985 Granada series Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant Professor Moriarty whose performance is treasured by the great sleuth's fans. Moriarty makes his initial appearance in The Red-Headed League by stages, and his threatening presence hovers above the whole episode. First, we see his claws-like hands opening the letter from the Bank of France. Then we hear his overly calm and smooth voice proving a frightening self-control. We catch a glimpse of his profile and, finally, are allowed to discover entirely the fearsome Professor, climbing swiftly the stairs to his eyrie. The last image shows him while he watches Holmes and Watson, and his sinister expression leaves no doubt as to his intentions. In The Final Problem, the threat Moriarty means materializes. The contrast between his unctuous courtesy towards the rich art lover to whom he is about to sell a copy of the stolen Mona Lisa and the offhand, brutal way he dismisses him once informed that Holmes has recovered the original, tells volumes about his Machiavellian hypocrisy and his viciousness. Porter devised a stroke of genius: he drew a cross on the now useless fake with two deep slashes, to suggest Moriarty's intention to cross that wretched Holmes off the list of the living. The battle of words between Holmes and Moriarty in the detective's Baker Street rooms is one of the finest scenes in the series, and when Porter delivers Moriarty's ominous speech with a fastidious intensity, it is an unforgettable treat from the first words, this is not danger, to the last, or be trodden under foot. When the Professor appears, wrapped in smoke, at the top of the platform stairs, too late to board Holmes's train, he looks like a devil emerging from hell and when the fatal encounter happens, the fierce hatred he exudes, the reptilian oscillation of his head, the roaring snarl with which he leaps at Holmes, whom he tries to strangle with his claws, make him Conan Doyle's ghastly and horrible villain brought to life.

Michael Cox writes in A Study in Celluloid: « The fact that Conan Doyle gave Moriarty so little to do makes it difficult to cast the part. I once said that his one good scene and fight to the death gives him only four minutes and a funeral. So I was amazed that an actor as distinguished as Eric Porter accepted the part. » But, as The Independent (May 1995 issue) put it, Eric Porter had enough talent throughout his career, to make small parts big!