Biography

Gaunt -- nay, skeletal -- British actor Ernst Thesiger had originally studied to be an artist. While he retained his delicate manual skills for the rest of his days (he wrote several books on needlepoint), Thesiger cast his lot with Thespis when he made his first stage appearance in 1909, at the tender age of 30. He scored a personal and professional triumph as star of the stage farce A Little Bit of Fluff, which opened in 1915 and ran for several years. In 1916, he made the first of a handful of silent film appearances, and in 1924 he played the Dauphin in the original production of Shaw's St. Joan. Thesiger was well enough known in 1927 to write an autobiography, Practically True; he hadn't an inkling that his greatest acting days still lay ahead of him. In 1932, he made his talkie debut in James Whale's The Old Dark Horse, creating an indelible impression as Horace Femm, the imperious, condescending lord of the forbidding domicile of the title. Whale took full advantage of Thesiger's cadaverous features and his sneering erudition, while the actor made a meal of such simple lines as "Have a potato." Even better was the next Whale-Thesiger collaboration The Bride of Frankenstein, wherein the actor had the role of a lifetime as prissy, posturing mad scientist Dr. Praetorious. With such notable exceptions as the Whale films and the British melodramas The Ghoul (1933) and They Drive By Night (1938), most of Thesiger's screen characters were more snobbish than sinister. All of his film roles, however, can be regarded as extensions of the actor's real-life personality; from all accounts, the line between Thesiger's screen self and real self was thin indeed, as demonstrated by his disdainful public comments regarding his profession and his co-workers. Witheringly patronizing to the end, Ernest Thesiger made his final stage and screen appearances in 1960, the year before his death at age 81. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi