You know, here in the U.S., we don't always have access to some of the fine acting work that goes on around the globe, though things are ever becoming more available. Thus, I have probably only seen a fraction of the performances that today's profiled actress has given. To be honest, though, she could have enacted nothing but one single role of hers and I would be a devoted fan for life. As it is, I have that and then also have the joy of seeing her every now and again in something else, and it's never a disappointment! (You probably have, too, perhaps without knowing it.) We're referring to stalwart English stage, big screen and television actress Judy Parfitt.
November 7th, 1935 is the day that produced one Judy Catherine Claire Parfitt, the square-jawed, polar-blue-eyed baby girl that would grow up to become a highly-accomplished actress. Parfitt went from an all girls high school to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts where she honed her craft to a fare thee well. Before she was twenty, she found herself on the stage, absorbing every conceivable detail that could serve her in her career pursuit.
A string of stage roles continued, though Parfitt was informed that she would likely never achieve stardom before middle age thanks to her unconventional looks. She was what my grandmother would have called a “handsome” woman; attractive, but not “pretty.” Having developed a penetrating glare, she was arresting to look at in any case and would become even more so as the years progressed.
In 1962, Parfitt began to appear on British television, first in adapted versions of plays and then in episodic programs as a guest star. In 1963, she wed fellow actor Tony Steedman, with whom she would remain until his death in 2001. Their only child, David, was born in 1964. She also landed a bit part in the 1964 movie Hide and Seek, a thriller which starred Ian Carmichael, Curd Jurgens and Janet Munro.
All through the mid-1960s, she continued to appear on British TV with a multi-episode role on A Man Called Harry Brent (1965), the role of Rosa Dartle on an episodic version of David Copperfield (1966), a trio of parts on ITV Play of the Week (1963-1966) and a guest role on The Saint (1967) with Roger Moore.
She also worked on a TV adaptation of Les Miserables, appearing in four installments as Madame Thenardier and popped up four times on The Avengers (between 1962 and 1968), among many other jobs. She and her husband worked together several times in the 1960s including the four-episode program Angel Pavement, all about the people of 1930s London.
Her life took a significant turn, however, in 1969 when she was cast in a stage rendition of Hamlet as Queen Gertrude. Nicol Williamson played the title Dane, her son, even though he was but ten months her junior! Her husband was played by Anthony Hopkins while pop singer Marianne Faithful was enlisted to play Ophelia. The production was a huge success and plans fell into place to film it as a movie with the same cast.
Hamlet brought her a wave of attention for her striking work in the famous part and she immediately found herself in demand elsewhere. She was featured in two 1970 British TV series. Villette, as shown below, based on a Charlotte Bronte novel, cast her as a teacher at a girls school and Diamond Crack Diamond had her playing opposite Alan Dobie as her husband in a dramatic thriller.
He has to be taught to eat, dress, speak and so forth. After a lengthy tutoring process, he begins to get restless for the outside world and runs away, eventually being struck down by a reckless driver. Parfitt plays the careless driver's concerned and comforting wife.
The husband can barely register any compassion for Stamp, but Parfitt puts him to bed, cleans his clothes, fixes his breakfast and, if one picks up on some of the subtext, introduces him to the act of sex! It's a small role, but she invests it with her customary devotion to detail and emotion.
One of her 1968 TV appearances, Journey to the Unknown, was paired with another episode of the series and repackaged as a feature film called Journey to Murder. “Hosted by” Joan Crawford, the “movie” featured Parfitt as the wife of Joseph Cotten, a man who's hired a hit man to kill himself, but then changes his mind.
It would be four more years before she stepped before a movie camera again, but she continued to show up in scads of British television programs. She joined her old Hamlet costar Anthony Hopkins in The Edwardians (1972), guested on Robert Vaughn's The Protectors (though they hadn't shared any scenes in Mr. Soames) and played The Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973).
Galileo (1975) put forth a sharp cast that included Topol, Edward Fox, Colin Blakely, Clive Revill, Margaret Leighton, John Gielgud and others including her. Many other roles followed in notable or prestigious projects like Rumpole of the Bailey (1978), Pride and Prejudice (1980), A Tale of Two Cities (as Madame Defarge, 1980) and the long-running series Crown Court (various up to 1984.)
In 1984, she portrayed a doctor in Champions, about jockey John Hurt grappling with cancer, and joined other great ladies such as Anna Massey and Billie Whitelaw in the house-moving comedy The Chain. There was also a production of Passion Play with Barry Foster and others.
The real jewel in her crown that year, though, was just that! The renowned miniseries The Jewel in the Crown offered her a meaty role as the bitchy, domineering mother of the leading character. In it, she was paired with no less than Dame Peggy Ashcroft as an acting partner and the role earned her a BAFTA nomination (Jewel swept the entire category, with Ashcroft winning the award.)
Things slowed up a bit as far as screen work was concerned, but Parfitt remained active all through her career on the stage, portraying anything from Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard to Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra. In 1987, she was cast as Hugh Grant's mother in the Merchant Ivory film Maurice, which was a cult favorite among gays thanks to its three-cornered romantic storyline between Grant, James Wilby and Rupert Graves.
1987 was a key year for Parfitt for another reason, though. She took part in one of Hollywood's most bizarre examples of a sitcom. The Charmings was a “fish-out-of water” concept in which Snow White and Prince Charming, having wed and intending to live happily ever after, are instead put to sleep for a thousand years and awaken to life in suburban California!
Parfitt played the evil queen who plotted various corny exploits while her magic mirror (containing the image and voice of Paul Winfield!) wisecracked back to her! The Prince, Snow White, their two children and one dwarf who somehow ended up along for the ride, went through the paces of typical sitcom-y scenarios with an underlying thread about how their simple and kind approach to life was often at odds with the 1980s greed and selfishness that was prevalent at the time.
The show has a devoted base of loyal fans, though it suffered from, first, recasting of the female lead and, secondly, a time slot change that took it from its initial mid-season debut spot on Fridays to a second-season one on Thursday opposite Family Ties, which trounced it. (NBC's Thursday night line-up was famously solid for many years.) Her husband Tony, however, did get to guest star as Santa Claus in the Christmas episode.
Lingering in the U.S. for a brief while, she appeared on an episode of Murder, She Wrote, but was soon back in the U.K. where she proceeded to small roles in Getting It Right, with Lynn Redgrave, and the erotic thriller Dark Obsession, shown here with Gabriel Byrne, both 1989.
In 1991, the unlikely duo of John Goodman and Peter O'Toole starred in the comedy King Ralph, in which sloppy American-raised Goodman wins a place as King of England when every prior claimant to the throne is killed in a freak accident! Parfitt appeared with Julian Glover as the King and Queen of Finland.
Now fifty, she was in the midst of a fairly fallow period, though when she worked it was usually to great effect. She enjoyed roles in several British miniseries such as The Blackheath Poisonings (1992) and Eye of the Storm (1993) and joined the cast of Gena Rowland's Silent Cries (1993) as one of several women placed in a Singapore prison camp during WWII.
1995 is the year that Parfitt filmed the role that made me sit up and take notice from then forever after. Practically unknown to U.S. audiences, she won a featured part in Taylor Hackford's cinematic adaptation of Dolores Claiborne, based on a Stephen King novel. Hackford's wife Helen Mirren, fully aware of Parfitt's skills, recommended her to him and her audition left the film's star Kathy Bates practically breathless.
Introduced as a withered, brittle invalid, she is revealed through flashbacks to have been an elegant, stylish, exceedingly commandeering and exacting socialite. It was an eye-popping, mesmerizing portrayal that knocked a lot of people's sock off and SHOULD have resulted in an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
I've already paid tribute to the film itself here, so I won't go on and on about it, but suffice it to say, there isn't one breath that she takes or one gesture or blink of her eye in the entire thing that I don't find fascinating. She's just perfection incarnate in the part.
Back it was, though, to the assortment of TV movies and occasional film parts (including 1997's Wilde as a societal fixture.) Parfitt had long parlayed her regal bearing, steel gaze and inherent elegance into wealthy matron roles and parts of royalty and in 1998's Ever After, she played another fairy tale Queen, this time the Prince's mother in the retooled rendition of the Cinderella story starring Drew Barrymore.
In 2000, Parfitt played the mother of Alex Kingston on the hit medical series ER. She would return a couple more times up until 2002. But Parfitt had been dealing with an emergency situation all her own. Her beloved husband Tony (a successful actor in his own right) had been struggling with dementia for a few years, causing an avalanche of heartache for her as she watched him waffle between normalcy and childlike confusion. He died in 2001.
Now in her mid-sixties, she ought to have been scrambling for work as an actress, but continued to find her services required as the next few years unfolded. One key project was The Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which she (seen here with Tom Wilkinson) was the iron-clad mother-in-law of the painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth.)
Her stone-faced willfulness came through beautifully in the part and earned her another BAFTA nomination, though this time the award was granted to Renee Zellweger for her corn pone cowgirl turn in Cold Mountain.
She continued to turn in solid performances in projects like the miniseries Little Dorritt (2008.) She has also kept her feet wet on stage as in this shot below from the 2010 production of Really Old, Like Forty Five.
In recent years, Parfitt has found terrific success on British television, this time in shows that have been successfully exported to the U.S. and other countries. There was 2013's Up the Women, about suffragists in the early 20th century. Another was The Game (2014), in which she played (in her own words) the biggest bitch ever in a show about the secret spy workings of MI5.
Then especially there has been the 2012 show Call the Midwife, in which she plays a memory-affected nun whose sideline observations (the character is a retired midwife) have won her legions of new fans. Still running at present, the pregnancy and delivery drama has emerged as a considerable hit, with her welcome comic relief a highlight. She appears alongside Vanessa Redgrave and Jenny Agutter as well as other talented actresses.
Parfitt is a vocal advocate against actresses undergoing plastic surgery in order to appear younger. Never at any time a vain actress about her appearance, she credits the laws of nature with giving her an un-retouched instrument with which to convey all the expressions and emotions that give both comedy and drama its magic. Citing Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins as fellow examples (and the younger Nicola Walker as well) of old gals who can deliver, she is now as busy or busier than she's ever been and can barely cross a street in England without being approached about her work as Sister Monica Joan.
Out of her makeup-less nun drag, Parfitt is still a handsome woman and a sparking, witty guest on talk shows. At age seventy-nine, she is enjoying and appreciating the fruits of a long, workmanlike career as an actress and it couldn't happen to anyone more deserving. We adore her and always look forward to seeing her in action!