The multi-talented actor/singer Jim Dale's career spanned more than half a century, during which he was a standup comic, a radio personality, a pop star, a stage actor in straight plays and musicals, a songwriter, a film and television actor, and a voice-over narrator. His most notable achievements included his co-writing of the Academy Award-nominated hit song "Georgy Girl," his Tony Award-winning performance in the title role of the musical Barnum, and his Grammy-winning recitations of the audiobook versions of the Harry Potter novels.
Dale was born James Smith in Rothwell, Northampton, England, on August 15, 1935. He trained as a ballet dancer, but made his professional debut as comedian in 1951. In 1953, he began two years of national service, during which he entertained troops in England and Germany, then he returned to his career as a civilian. Initially, he did impressions, but he also was capable of physical comedy, which he demonstrated during a two-year stint in a tumbling act with the Carrol Levis touring show. He also sang, and he began to add more music to his stage act after audiences reacted favorably. In April 1957, he was hired to appear on the television series 6.5 Special, and that led to a recording contract with Parlophone Records, where he was produced by George Martin, releasing his first single, "Piccadilly Line." That record did not sell, but its follow-up, "Be My Girl," entered the British charts in October 1957 and peaked at number two. Both sides of his fourth single, "Just Born (To Be My Baby)" and "Crazy Dream," reached the Top 40 in January 1958, as did his next single, "Sugartime," in March 1958. That was it as far as his career as a pop star was concerned, despite further releases on Parlophone including a 1958 LP, Jim!, and later singles on the Piccadilly and Academy labels in the early '60s.
Meanwhile, he had made his film debut in a movie version of 6.5 Special in 1958, and with his recording career on the wane he turned increasingly to working in film comedies such as Raising the Wind (U.S. title Roommates) in 1961 and Nurse on Wheels and The Iron Maiden (U.S. title The Swingin' Maiden) in 1962. In 1963, he began appearing in the popular "Carry On" series of popular British movies with Carry on Cabby and Carry on Jack, followed by Carry on Spying and Carry on Cleo in 1964, Carry on Cowboy and Carry on Screaming in 1966, Carry on Doctor in 1967, and Carry on Again, Doctor in 1969. (He returned to the series in 1992 with Carry on Columbus.) These quickly shot low-budget pictures didn't take up much time, and he was also able to appear in other movies (The Big Job , Don't Lose Your Head , The Plank, Follow That Camel [both 1967]; all of these except The Plank are sometimes categorized as "Carry On" films) as well as working as a disc jockey on the BBC program Saturday Morning Children's Requests. Meanwhile, he began to work in plays in London, using his comic talent to portray humorous Shakespearean characters. (He also appeared in and wrote music for a movie version of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in 1966 after appearing in a stage version at the Edinburgh Festival.) In 1964, he made his West End musical comedy debut in a revival of The Wayward Way, with a cast album released by HMV Records. In 1966, he voiced the part of the Artful Dodger in a studio cast recording of the musical Oliver! released on the Music for Pleasure label.
Dale's creative musical talent came to the fore when he collaborated with Tom Springfield, writing the lyrics for the title song for the 1966 movie Georgy Girl. The song was performed on the film's soundtrack by the Seekers, whose recording was then released as a single that peaked at number two in the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1967, then hit number three in the U.K. It was nominated for Golden Globe, Laurel, and Academy Awards, and quickly became a popular standard, covered on albums that reached the U.S. charts in 1967 by the Baja Marimba Band, Ray Conniff, James Darren, John Davidson, Percy Faith, Warren Kime, the Lennon Sisters, the Lettermen, Matt Monro, the Ventures, Lawrence Welk, and Roger Williams, and in 1968 by Chet Atkins, the Boston Pops Orchestra, and King Richard's Fluegel Knights. There were also covers by Bobby Vinton, Cal Tjader, Charlie Byrd, Liberace, Bob Crosby, Ed McMahon, and Carol Burnett, among others. This success led to other songwriting and recording opportunities. In the late '60s and early '70s, Dale wrote songs for the films Shalako (1968; with a soundtrack album on Philips Records), Lola (1969; aka Twinky), Lock Up Your Daughters! (1969), and B.S. I Love You (1971; with a soundtrack album on Mercury Records); he also appeared in the last two. His song "Dick-A-Dum-Dum (King's Road)" was recorded by Des O'Connor for a single that entered the British charts in May 1969 and became a Top 20 hit. He was in the British television series Join Jim Dale and Rogue's Gallery (both 1969). He also took another stab at pop stardom, recording two albums for Pye Records, Meet Jim Dale (1969) and This Is Me (1973).
Largely, though, he divided his time between a somewhat lowbrow film acting career (Adolf Hitler -- My Part in His Downfall [1972; earning him a nomination for best newcomer in the BAFTA awards], Digby -- The Biggest Dog in the World, The National Health [both 1973]) and a somewhat more highbrow stage career that found him joining Britain's National Theatre Company in 1970. On July 24, 1973, he opened in the West End in the starring role in a new musical, The Card. The show ran 130 performances and resulted in a cast album released by Pye. He briefly returned to television as the host of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. In 1974, he got the chance to re-create one of his British theatrical appearances from 1970 in New York in an off-Broadway production of Scapino, which he had adapted from Molière and for which he had written incidental music. After only ten performances, it transferred to Broadway, opening on May 18 for an eventual run of 121 performances, and it earned Dale his first Tony Award nomination. (He won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.) This success opened up America to him, and he moved to the U.S. and went back to working in films including Joseph Andrews (1976), the Walt Disney children's movie musical Pete's Dragon (1977; with a soundtrack album on Capitol Records), Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978; another Disney production), Bloodshy (1979), and Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979; released in the U.K. as The Spaceman and King Arthur).
Dale found his ideal stage vehicle in 1980 when he was hired to play the title role of showman P.T. Barnum in the Broadway musical Barnum, appearing opposite Glenn Close. The show opened on April 30, 1980, and was a big hit, eventually running 854 performances. Dale's energetic performance won him both the Tony and Drama Desk awards for best actor in a musical, and Columbia Records recorded a cast album. After starring in Barnum for a year, he went on to other things, appearing in the 1983 film Scandalous and a 1985 TV movie adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (He also began to make guest-starring appearances on network television series including The Equalizer, The Ellen Burstyn Show, and Cosby.) But he worked more on stage than in the movies thereafter. In 1985, he appeared in an off-Broadway revival of the play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg that transferred to Broadway on March 27 and ran for 102 performances, earning him another Tony nomination. In 1987, he replaced Robert Lindsay in the belated Broadway production of the 1937 British musical Me and My Girl, later starring in the road tour. He appeared in the off-Broadway show Privates on Parade, which opened on August 22, 1989, and ran 64 performances. In the 1990s, he returned to film in television movies of Arthur Miller's The American Clock (1993) and The Hunchback (1997). In 1994-1995, he was in an off-Broadway production of Travels with My Aunt. He went home to the U.K. to make a studio recording of The Music Man for BBC radio and to step into the part of Fagin in a West End revival of Oliver! (He returned to the long-running production in 1997.) On April 29, 1997, he opened in a Broadway revival of the Leonard Bernstein musical Candide that ran 103 performances, produced a cast album released by RCA Victor Records, and earned him his fourth Tony nomination.
Dale gained fame as a narrator by reading the audiobook versions of all seven books in the wildly popular Harry Potter series. This earned him recognition in The Guinness Book of World Records for creating more character voices in an audiobook than any other narrator. It also won him a series of Audie awards, one Grammy award (for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), and Grammy nominations (for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone , Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix , and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince ), as the books went on to become the biggest-selling audiobooks in history. (His fame brought him more audiobook assignments, including King of Shadows, A Christmas Carol, Around the World in 80 Days, Peter Pan (producing another Grammy nomination in 2007), and the Never Land Adventure series of Peter Pan prequels.) In 2002-2003, he appeared off-Broadway in the play Comedians. He starred as Scrooge in the musical version of A Christmas Carol at the Madison Square Garden theater in 2003. In 2004, he was awarded an M.B.E. (Member of the British Empire) award by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to his native country. He was back off-Broadway in Address Unknown in 2004. His appearance in a 2006 Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera (April 20-June 25) brought his fifth Tony nomination, his first in the best supporting actor category. (He also won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.) On November 13, 2006, he reunited with his old Barnum partner Glenn Close for a benefit concert performance of the musical Busker Alley put on by the York Theatre Company in New York. It was recorded for an album released a year later by Jay Records. He served again as a narrator for the American network television series Pushing Daisies, starting in October 2007. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi