James Mason

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James Mason
James Mason - still.JPG
Mason in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
James Neville Mason

(1909-05-15)15 May 1909
Died27 July 1984(1984-07-27) (aged 75)
Lausanne, Vaud, Switzerland
Alma materPeterhouse, Cambridge
Years active1931–1984
Pamela Mason
(m. 1941; div. 1964)

Clarissa Kaye (m. 1971)
ChildrenPortland Mason
Morgan Mason
FamilyBelinda Carlisle (daughter-in-law)

James Neville Mason (/ˈmsən/; 15 May 1909 – 27 July 1984) was an English actor. Mason achieved considerable success in British cinema before becoming one of Hollywood's biggest stars. He was the top box office attraction in the UK in 1944 and 1945, with notable films including The Seventh Veil (1945) and The Wicked Lady (1945). He starred in Odd Man Out (1947), the first recipient of the BAFTA Award for Best British Film.

He starred in a number of successful British and American films from the 1950s to the early 1980s, including The Desert Fox, A Star Is Born, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lolita, North by Northwest, The Prisoner of Zenda, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, A Touch of Larceny, Bigger Than Life, Julius Caesar, Georgy Girl, The Deadly Affair, Age of Consent, Heaven Can Wait, The Boys from Brazil, The Verdict, Mandingo, Murder by Decree and Salem's Lot.

Mason was nominated for three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes (winning the Golden Globe in 1955 for A Star is Born) and two BAFTA Awards throughout his career. Following his death in 1984, his ashes were interred near the tomb of his close friend, fellow English actor Sir Charlie Chaplin.

Early life, family and education[edit]

Mason was born in Huddersfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, to Mabel Hattersley (Gaunt) and John Mason.[1] His father was a wealthy textile merchant. He was educated at Marlborough College, and earned a first in Architecture at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he became involved in stock theatre companies in his spare time. Mason had no formal training in acting and initially embarked upon it for fun.


After Cambridge, Mason made his stage debut in Aldershot in The Rascal in 1931.[2][3] He joined the Old Vic theatre in London under the guidance of Tyrone Guthrie.[4] In 1933 Alexander Korda gave Mason a small role in The Private Life of Don Juan but sacked him three days into shooting.[5]

From 1935 to 1938, he starred in many British quota quickies. He registered as a conscientious objector during the Second World War[6] (causing his family to break with him for many years), but his tribunal exempted him only on the requirement to do non-combatant military service, which he refused; his appeal against this became irrelevant by including him in a general exemption for film work.[7]

Mason became hugely popular for his brooding anti-heroes in the Gainsborough series of melodramas of the 1940s, including The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). He also starred with Deborah Kerr and Robert Newton in Hatter's Castle (1942). He then took the lead role in the popular The Seventh Veil (1945), which set box office records in post-war Britain and raised him to international stardom. He followed it with a role as a mortally wounded IRA bank robber on the run in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and his first Hollywood film, Caught (1949). Exhibitors voted him the most popular star in Britain in each year between 1944 and 1947. They also thought he was the most popular international star in 1946; he dropped to second place the following year.[8][9] He was the most popular male star in Canada in 1948.[10]

Mason in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959)

Mason's "languid but impassioned"[6] vocal talent enabled him to play a menacing villain as easily as his good looks assisted him as a leading man. His roles include Brutus in Julius Caesar (1953); Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel and The Desert Rats; the amoral valet turned spy in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 5 Fingers; the declining actor in the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born; Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (also 1954); a small-town school teacher driven insane by the effects of cortisone in Bigger Than Life (1956); a suave master spy in North by Northwest (1959); a former World War II hero and Admiralty commander A Touch of Larceny (1959); and a determined scientist and explorer in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (also 1959). In the 1950s, Mason was host of Lux Video Theatre on CBS television.[11]

In 1963 he settled in Switzerland, and embarked on a transatlantic career.[12] He played Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita (1962); a river pirate who betrays Peter O'Toole's character in Lord Jim (1965); James Leamington in the Swinging London-set Georgy Girl (1966), a role that earned him a second Academy Award nomination; Bradley Morahan in Age of Consent (1969); the evil Doctor Polidori in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973); the vampire's servant, Richard Straker, in Salem's Lot (1979); and surreal Royal Navy Captain Hughes in Yellowbeard (1983). One of his last roles, that of the corrupt lawyer Ed Concannon in The Verdict (1982), earned him his third and final Oscar nomination.

In 1967 Mason narrated the documentary The London Nobody Knows. An ardent cinephile on top of his career interests, Mason then went on to narrate two British documentary series supervised by Kevin Brownlow: Hollywood (1980), on the silent cinema and Unknown Chaplin (1983), devoted to out-take material from the films of Sir Charlie Chaplin. Mason had been a long-time neighbour and friend of the comedian. In the late 1970s, Mason became a mentor to up-and-coming actor Sam Neill.[13]

Having completed playing the lead role in Dr. Fischer of Geneva (1985), adapted from Graham Greene's eponymous novella for the BBC, he stepped into the role in The Shooting Party originally meant for Paul Scofield, who was unable to continue after being seriously injured in an accident on the first day of shooting. This was to be Mason's final screen performance.[14]

Personal life[edit]

Mason and his family in 1957 in the television programme Panic! From left, son Morgan, Mason's wife Pamela, daughter Portland and Mason

Mason was a devoted lover of animals, particularly cats. He and his wife, Pamela Mason, co-authored the book The Cats in Our Lives, which was published in 1949. James Mason wrote most of the book and also illustrated it. In The Cats in Our Lives, he recounted humorous and sometimes touching tales of the cats (as well as a few dogs) he had known and loved.

In 1952, Mason purchased a house previously owned by Buster Keaton. He discovered several nitrate film reels of films thought to have been lost, stored in the house and produced by the comedian, such as The Boat. Mason arranged to have the decomposing films transferred to safety stock and thus saved them from oblivion.[15]

Mason was married twice:

  • From 1941 to 1964 to British actress Pamela Mason (née Ostrer) (1916–1996); one daughter, Portland Mason Schuyler (1948–2004), and one son, Morgan (who is married to Belinda Carlisle, the lead singer of the Go-Go's). Pamela Mason was widely reported to be a devotee of the Hollywood social scene and was frequently unfaithful to her husband. Nevertheless, she initiated divorce proceedings against him in 1962, claiming adultery on his part. This led to a $1m divorce settlement, and made a star of her attorney Marvin Mitchelson.[16]
  • Australian actress Clarissa Kaye (1971–his death). Tobe Hooper's DVD commentary for Salem's Lot reveals that Mason regularly worked contractual clauses into his later work guaranteeing Kaye bit parts in his film appearances.

Mason's autobiography, Before I Forget, was published in 1981.


Mason survived a severe heart attack in 1959.[17] He died as result of another heart attack on 27 July 1984 in Lausanne, Switzerland[18] and was cremated.

Mason left his entire estate to his second wife, Clarissa Kaye, but his will was challenged by his two children. The lawsuit had not been settled when she died on 21 July 1994 from cancer.[16] Clarissa Kaye Mason left her holdings to the religious guru Sathya Sai Baba, including the actor's ashes which she had retained in their shared home. Mason's children sued Sai Baba and subsequently had Mason's ashes interred in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland.[19] The remains of Mason's old friend Charlie Chaplin are in a tomb a few steps away.[19] Mason's children specified that his headstone read: "Never say in grief you are sorry he's gone. Rather, say in thankfulness you are grateful he was here," words that were spoken to Portland Mason by U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy after the actor's death.[20]


Year Title Role Notes
1935 Late Extra Jim Martin
Fighting Shadows Horn
1936 Twice Branded Henry Hamilton
Prison Breaker 'Bunny' Barnes
Troubled Waters John Merriman
Blind Man's Bluff Stephen Neville
Secret of Stamboul Larry
The Mill on the Floss Tom Tulliver
1937 Fire Over England Hillary Vane
The High Command Capt. Heverell
Catch As Catch Can Robert Leyland
The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel Jean Tallien
1939 I Met a Murderer Mark Warrow
1941 This Man Is Dangerous Mick Cardby Released in the U.S. as The Patient Vanishes
1942 Hatter's Castle Dr. Renwick
The Night Has Eyes Stephen Deremid Released in the U.S. as Terror House
Alibi Andre Laurent
Secret Mission Raoul de Carnot
Thunder Rock Streeter
1943 The Bells Go Down Ted Robbins
The Man in Grey Lord Rohan
They Met in the Dark Richard Francis Heritage
1944 Candlelight in Algeria Alan Thurston
Fanny by Gaslight Lord Manderstoke Released in the U.S. as Man of Evil
Hotel Reserve Peter Vadassy
1945 A Place of One's Own Smedhurst
They Were Sisters Geoffrey Lee
The Seventh Veil Nicholas
The Wicked Lady Capt. Jerry Jackson
1947 Odd Man Out Johnny McQueen
The Upturned Glass Michael Joyce
1949 Caught Larry Quinada
Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
The Reckless Moment Martin Donnelly
East Side, West Side Brandon Bourne
1950 One Way Street Dr. Frank Matson
1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee
The Desert Fox Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel
1952 Lady Possessed Jimmy del Palma Also producer and writer
5 Fingers Ulysses Diello
Face to Face The Captain ('The Secret Sharer') National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
The Prisoner of Zenda Rupert of Hentzau
Botany Bay Capt. Paul Gilbert
1953 The Story of Three Loves Charles Coutray Segment "The Jealous Lover"
The Desert Rats Field Marshal Erwin von Rommel National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
Julius Caesar Brutus
The Man Between Ivo Kern
The Tell-Tale Heart Narrator (voice) Animated short subject
1954 Prince Valiant Sir Brack
Charade The Murderer / Maj. Linden / Jonah Watson Also producer and writer
A Star Is Born Norman Maine Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (2nd place)
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actor
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Captain Nemo
1956 Forever, Darling The Guardian Angel With Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
Bigger Than Life Ed Avery Also producer and writer
1957 Island in the Sun Maxwell Fleury
1958 Cry Terror! Jim Molner
The Decks Ran Red Capt. Edwin Rummill
1959 North by Northwest Phillip Vandamm
A Touch of Larceny Cmdr. Max Easton
Journey to the Center of the Earth Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook
1960 The Trials of Oscar Wilde Sir Edward Carson
1961 The Marriage-Go-Round Paul Delville
1962 Escape from Zahrain Johnson Uncredited
Lolita Prof. Humbert Humbert Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Tiara Tahiti Capt. Brett Aimsley
Hero's Island Jacob Weber
1963 Torpedo Bay Captain Blayne
1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire Timonides
The Pumpkin Eater Bob Conway
1965 Lord Jim Gentleman Brown
Genghis Khan Kam Ling
The Uninhibited Pascal Regnier
1966 The Deadly Affair Charles Dobbs Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Georgy Girl James Leamington Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
The Blue Max General Count von Klugermann
Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn Otto Hoffman
1967 The London Nobody Knows Narrator Documentary
Stranger in the House John Sawyer (also known as Cop Out)
1968 Duffy Charles Calvert
Mayerling Emperor Franz-Joseph
The Sea Gull Trigorin, a writer
1969 Age of Consent Bradley Morahan
1970 Spring and Port Wine Rafe Crompton
Cold Sweat Captain Ross
The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go Y.Y. Go
1971 Bad Man's River Francisco Paco Montero
Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! [fr] Alan Hamilton
1972 Child's Play Jerome Mailey New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (3rd place)
1973 John Keats: His Life and Death Narrator (voice)
The Last of Sheila Phillip
The Mackintosh Man Sir George Wheeler
Frankenstein: The True Story Dr. John Polidori TV mini-series
1974 11 Harrowhouse Charles D. Watts
The Marseille Contract Jacques Brizard Released as The Destructors
1975 The Year of the Wildebeest Narrator Documentary
Mandingo Warren Maxwell
Kidnap Syndicate Fillippini
The Left Hand of the Law Senator Leandri
Autobiography of a Princess Cyril Sahib
Inside Out Ernst Furben
The Flower in His Mouth Bellocampo
1976 People of the Wind Narrator Documentary
Voyage of the Damned Dr. Juan Ramos
Fear in the City Prosecutor
1977 Jesus of Nazareth Joseph of Arimathea TV mini-series
Cross of Iron Oberst Brandt
Homage to Chagall: The Colours of Love Narrator Documentary
1978 The Water Babies Mr. Grimes
Voice of Killer Shark
Heaven Can Wait Mr. Jordan Nominated—Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor
The Boys from Brazil Eduard Seibert
1979 North Sea Hijack Admiral Brinsden Released as ffolkes outside the UK and as Assault Force on US TV
Murder by Decree Dr. John H. Watson
The Passage Prof. John Bergson
Bloodline Sir Alec Nichols
Salem's Lot Richard K. Straker TV mini-series
1982 Evil Under the Sun Odell Gardener
Ivanhoe Isaac of York
A Dangerous Summer George Engels
The Verdict Ed Concannon Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor (2nd place)
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
Socrates Socrates
1983 Yellowbeard Captain Hughes
Don't Eat the Pictures Demon TV
Alexandre The Father
1984 George Washington Edward Braddock TV mini-series
Dr. Fischer of Geneva Dr. Fischer
1985 The Shooting Party Sir Randolph Nettleby London Film Critics' Circle Award for Actor of the Year (tied with Richard Farnsworth for The Grey Fox)
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor (3rd place)
A.D. Tiberius TV mini-series
The Assisi Underground Bishop Nicolini (final film role)

Radio appearances[edit]

Year Programme Episode/source
1952 Suspense Odd Man Out[21]
1950 Suspense Banquo's Chair
December 28, 1953 Suspense The Queen's Ring


  1. ^ "No Buyer for Mason Poster". The Free Library. 2 December 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2018.
  2. ^ Russell, William (28 July 1984). "James Mason: Star of Magnetism and Menace". The Glasgow Herald. p. 8 – via Google News.
  3. ^ Sweeney, Kevin (January 30, 1999). James Mason: A Bio-bibliography. Greenwood Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-313-28496-0.
  4. ^ Brian McFarlane "Mason, James (1909-1984)", BFI screenonline; McFarlane (ed) The Encyclopedia of British Film, London: Methuen/BFI, 2003, p.438
  5. ^ Mason, James (September 7, 1981). Before I forget: autobiography and drawings. London: Hamish Hamilton. p. 89. ISBN 978-0-241-10677-8. (Subscription required (help)).
  6. ^ a b Thomson, David (15 May 2009) Every word a poison dart, The Guardian
  7. ^ Eric Ambler, Mason, James Neville (1909–1984), rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011, accessed 23 March 2013.
  8. ^ "James Mason named again as Britain's brightest star". The Mercury. Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 2 March 1946. p. 3 Supplement: The Mercury Magazine. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  9. ^ "FILM WORLD". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 28 February 1947. p. 20 Edition: SECOND EDITION. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  10. ^ "FILM NEWS". The Mercury. Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 11 June 1949. p. 14. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  11. ^ Becker, Christine (1 October 2005). "Televising Film Stardom in the 1950s". Framework. Retrieved 21 January 2015 – via Questia Online Library. (Subscription required (help)).
  12. ^ Kevin Sweeney. James Mason: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999, p.47
  13. ^ Iley, Chrissy (23 July 2006). "Put it away, Sam ..." The Guardian. Manchester. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
  14. ^ "Obituary: Paul Scofield". BBC News. 20 March 2008.
  15. ^ Bailey, Steve. "The Boat". The Love Nest. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  16. ^ a b Edge, Simon (24 April 2009). "James Mason: The sad cad". Sunday Express. Retrieved 2 May 2015.
  17. ^ "James Mason: Obituary". Archived from the original on 9 January 2014. Retrieved 9 January 2014.
  18. ^ James Mason Obituary, Variety, 1 August 1984.
  19. ^ a b Davies, Caroline (25 November 2000). "James Mason's ashes finally laid to rest". The Daily Telegraph.
  20. ^ Glaister, Dan (10 March 1999). "15 years after his death, film star finds rest". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 June 2018.
  21. ^ Kirby, Walter (10 February 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 38. Retrieved 2 June 2015 – via Newspapers.com. open access publication – free to read

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