James Mason

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James Mason
James Mason - still.JPG
Mason in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
Born James Neville Mason
(1909-05-15)15 May 1909
Huddersfield, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died 27 July 1984(1984-07-27) (aged 75)
Lausanne, Vaud, Switzerland
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Occupation Actor
Years active 1931–1984
Spouse(s) Pamela Mason
(m.1941–1964; divorced)
Clarissa Kaye
(m.1971–1984; his death)

James Neville Mason (15 May 1909 – 27 July 1984) was an English actor.

After achieving much success in the United Kingdom (he was the top box office attraction there in 1944 and 1945), he made the transition to the United States and became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, starring in iconic films including The Desert Fox, A Star Is Born, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lolita, North by Northwest, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Bigger Than Life, Julius Caesar, Georgy Girl, The Deadly Affair, Heaven Can Wait, The Boys from Brazil, The Verdict, Mandingo, Murder by Decree and Salem's Lot.

He was nominated for three Academy Awards and three Golden Globes (winning the Golden Globe in 1955 for A Star is Born).


Early life

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 as an actor and initially embarked upon it for fun. After Cambridge he 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 1935-38, 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 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 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 first remake of A Star Is Born (1954), 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) and a determined 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,[12] and embarked on a transatlantic career. 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), Bradley Morahan in Norman Lindsay's Age of Consent (1969), the evil Doctor Polidori in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), the vampire's servant, Richard Straker, in Salem's Lot, and surreal Royal Navy Captain Hughes in Yellowbeard (1983). One of his last roles, that of corrupt lawyer Ed Concannon in The Verdict (1982), earned him his third and final Oscar nomination.

Late in his life, Mason narrated 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 Charlie Chaplin. Mason had been a long-time neighbour and friend of the comedian.

Having completed playing the lead role in Dr. Fischer of Geneva (1985), adapted from the Graham Greene's eponymous novella for the BBC, he stepped into the role originally meant for Paul Scofield in The Shooting Party, 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.[13]

In the late 1970s, Mason became a mentor to up-and-coming actor Sam Neill.[14]

Personal life

Mason and his family in 1957 in the television programme Panic!. From left, son Morgan with 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 previously-thought lost films stored in the house and produced by the comedian, such as The Boat. Mason immediately arranged to have the decomposing films transferred to safety stock and thus saved them from being lost permanently.[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; they have a son, James Duke Mason). Portland Mason was named after Portland Hoffa, the wife of the American radio comedian Fred Allen; the Allens and the Masons were friends. The Masons were unusually indulgent parents, allowing their daughter to take up cigarette smoking at age three and their son to begin drinking beer at age five.[16] Pamela Mason was widely reported to be a devotee of the Hollywood social scene and was frequently unfaithful to her husband, leading him to divorce her for adultery in 1964 with one of the first million dollar settlements on record.[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] where he was cremated.

Mason left his entire estate to his second wife, Clarissa Kaye, but his will was challenged by his two children and 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 on the grounds that Clarissa had not been entitled to dispose of Mason's fortune after her death, ultimately winning custody of his ashes in 2000, after a delay of 16 years, burying them 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 Morgan Mason by Teddy Kennedy after the actor's death.[19]


Year Title Role Notes
1935 Late Extra Jim Martin
1936 Troubled Waters John Merriman
Secret of Stamboul Larry
Prison Breaker 'Bunny' Barnes
Blind Man's Bluff Stephen Neville
1937 The Mill on the Floss Tom Tulliver
Catch As Catch Can Robert Leyland
Fire Over England Hillary Vane
Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel Jean Tallien
1938 The High Command Capt. Heverell
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 Hotel Reserve Peter Vadassy
Fanny by Gaslight Lord Manderstoke (released in the U.S. as Man of Evil)
Candlelight in Algeria Alan Thurston
1945 A Place of One's Own Smedhurst
They Were Sisters Geoffrey Lee
The Wicked Lady Capt. Jerry Jackson
The Seventh Veil Nicholas
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: The Story of Rommel Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel
1952 Lady Possessed Jimmy del Palma (also producer and writer)
5 Fingers Ulysses Diello
The Prisoner of Zenda Rupert of Hentzau
Face to Face The Captain ('The Secret Sharer') National Board of Review Award for Best Actor
1953 Charade The Murderer
Maj. Linden
Jonah Watson
(also producer and writer)
The Story of Three Loves Charles Coutray segment: The Jealous Lover
Botany Bay Capt. Paul Gilbert
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 (animated short subject, voice only)
1954 Prince Valiant Sir Black
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 A Touch of Larceny Cmdr. Max Easton
North by Northwest Phillip Vandamm
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
Hero's Island Jacob Weber
Tiara Tahiti Capt. Brett Aimsley
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 Blue Max General Count von Klugermann
Georgy Girl James Leamington Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
The Deadly Affair Charles Dobbs Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
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 The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go Y.Y. Go
Spring and Port Wine Rafe Crompton
Cold Sweat Captain Ross
1971 Bad Man's River Francisco Paco Montero
fr (Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!; Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!) Alan Hamilton
1972 Child's Play Jerome Mailey New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (3rd place)
1973 Frankenstein: The True Story Dr. John Polidori (TV mini-series)
The Last of Sheila Phillip
The Mackintosh Man Sir George Wheeler
1974 The Marseille Contract Jacques Brizard (released as The Destructors)
11 Harrowhouse Charles D. Watts
1975 The Year of the Wildebeest Narrator (documentary)
The Left Hand of the Law Senator Leandri
The Flower in His Mouth Avv. Antonio Bellocampo
Mandingo Warren Maxwell
Kidnap Syndicate Fillippini
Autobiography of a Princess Cyril Sahib
Inside Out Ernst Furben
1976 Fear in the City Prosecutor
People of the Wind Narrator (documentary)
Voyage of the Damned Dr. Juan Ramos
1977 Jesus of Nazareth Joseph of Arimathea
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
Murder by Decree Dr. John H. Watson
The Passage Prof. John Bergson
Bloodline Sir Alec Nichols
Salem's Lot (TV) Richard K. Straker
1982 A Dangerous Summer George Engels
Ivanhoe Isaac of York
Evil Under the Sun Odell Gardener
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
1983 Alexandre The Father
Yellowbeard Captain Hughes
Don't Eat the Pictures Demon
1984 George Washington Edward Braddock
1985 The Assisi Underground Bishop Nicolini
A.D. Tiberius
Dr. Fischer of Geneva Dr. Fischer
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)

Radio appearances

Year Programme Episode/source
1952 Suspense Odd Man Out[20]


  1. "NO BUYER FOR MASON POSTER".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. James Mason Obituary The Glasgow Herald 28 July 1984 pg 8 – Google News
  3. Sweeney, Kevin. James Mason: A Bio-bibliography Greenwood Press (1999) pg 5 Google Books
  4. Brian McFarlane "Mason, James (1909-1984)", BFI screenonline; McFarlane (ed) The Encyclopedia of British Film, London: Methuen/BFI, 2003, p.438
  5. James Mason Before I forget: autobiography and drawings, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981, p.89. ISBN 978-0-241-10677-8
  6. 6.0 6.1 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "FILM WORLD". The West Australian. Perth: National Library of Australia. 28 February 1947. p. 20 Edition: SECOND EDITION. Retrieved 27 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "FILM NEWS". The Mercury. Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 11 June 1949. p. 14. Retrieved 4 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Becker, Christine (1 October 2005). "Televising Film Stardom in the 1950s". Framework. Retrieved 21 January 2015 – via HighBeam Research. Unknown parameter |subscription= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Kevin Sweeney. James Mason: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999, p.47
  13. "Obituary: Paul Scofield". BBC News. 20 March 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Iley, Chrissy (23 July 2006). "Put it away, Sam ..." The Guardian. Retrieved 17 October 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Bailey, Steve. "The Boat". The Love Nest. Retrieved 19 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Edge, Simon (24 April 2009). "James Mason: The sad cad". Sunday Express. express.co.uk. Retrieved 2 May 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. http://www.thisisannouncements.co.uk/5848658
  18. Obituary Variety, 1 August 1984
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Caroline Davies "James Mason's ashes finally laid to rest", telegraph.co.uk, 25 November 2000
  20. Kirby, Walter (10 February 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 38. Retrieved 2 June 2015 – via Newspapers.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> open access publication - free to read

External links