AMan For All Seasons had been a radio play, then a television play with Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas More, which was criticised as too static, before the script of a stage version arrived at Paul Scofield’s home in Balcombe, West Sussex.
Even then Scofield, on the threshold of 40, had a reputation for turning down parts. More, as written by Robert Bolt, was going to be a difficult one – “The most difficult part I ever played,” Scofield told me when I came to write his biography in 2000.
But to do it he declined instead three parts in Peter Hall’s crucial 1959 first season at Stratford: Shylock, Petruchio and Pandarus, which he had been offered and expected to play – much to Hall’s annoyance. As Hall affectionately commented to me: “Paul has a private god which tells him what to do.” Thomas More, as depicted by Bolt the self-confessed atheist, is a role of silence, of the unstated, of gaps in the expected, of saving, of salvation – so much so, that he might be called the goalkeeper of English history, while the clean sheet he keeps is that of faith, of integrity. Eschewing theology, there was, said Bolt, “ample drama in the beauty of More’s behaviour, the tragedy of his position, the sordid violence of his end and the pathos of those who were left, so to speak, at the foot of the Cross”.
In spite of Scofield’s sympathy for the man, he saw at once the danger of More being played over-piously, “but it was not written that way”, he said. “Robert gave him humour and severity and obstinacy as well as goodness.” The first night of its London run, at the Globe Theatre in July 1960, was slow and tepid, while in the middle of the first act Scofield heard a loud whisper from the stalls. “ ‘Oh, get on with it!’ I swear it was Robert’s voice. Ah well!” Scofield told me.
Reviews were mixed, and then, as probably would happen again today, the London critics ignored the moral and spiritual themes, and fastened on the political and historical content. Harold Hobson wrote, ominously: “Scofield looks as if the Fellows of All Souls had pooled their brains and put them inside his skull.” It took time for recognition to come, and while the play remained for a while in danger, like More himself, of being axed, it gradually grew, as did Scofield’s performance, by dint of “stealth and perseverance” from inside, and from his extraordinary sensitivity to the reaction of audiences.
He said that “with the gathering certainty of simply doing it and thinking it, my understanding of More and his predicament and his inflexible faith and purpose grew beyond any initial visualisation.
“In the early stages I was stuck with his rigour, his zeal, his intractability, all qualities vital to the unfurling of the story. His humanity came to me after I had established those qualities firmly for myself. It came to me bit by bit, facet by facet, and slowly.
“I liked finally, after I had found the sweetness in him, his love for his family, his loyalty to friends, his deep, impartial lawyer’s wisdom.” The play then went on from strength to strength with full houses, opening at Thanksgiving in New York where it was the hit of the season, and it was still running to capacity a year later when, inevitably, Scofield left the cast, this time to play King Lear at Stratford. When it came to the film directed by Fred Zinneman, which after eight nominations won six Oscars, including Scofield’s for best actor, and Bolt’s for best screenplay, Scofield was nearly left out.
Zinneman noted about that “even though the axe comes down on Sir Thomas More’s head at the end, the audience found the story wasn’t a defeat but a victory. They were elated.” But in spite of wanting to keep Scofield for the film, Zinneman had Laurence Olivier foisted on him as the Columbia executives’ first choice, while Olivier was mad keen and coveted the part, if only to eliminate Scofield as rival.
Richard Burton was also preferred by the money men, but proved too costly: he wanted a million pounds. The whole film’s budget was £600,000. Zinneman persisted and got Scofield, who was paid $100,000 (then almost £27,000) and 10 per cent of the net profit. Much of it was filmed at Studley Priory in Oxfordshire, and for one important location scene, when they needed a snowy landscape with sparkling sunshine – and in spite of trucks ready full of styro-foam – it snowed all night, even though it was mid-April.
The film of A Man For All Seasons when completed made a fortune for all those who took part, and it is now listed frequently among the best films ever made. It became a favourite of Pope John Paul II, and was often screened in the Vatican. John Paul made More, who had been canonised in 1935 by Pius XI, the patron saint for politicians and statesmen.
Scofield’s gentle voice and steadfast refusal became iconic. Perhaps not surprisingly the Americans have always liked the film more than the British.
When Scofield first spoke during the filming More’s famous words about the law to his son-in-law Roper, that he would definitely give the devil benefit of law, challenging Roper, everyone on set suddenly became mesmerised by Paul’s delivery: More: What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: [roused and excited] Oh? [Advances on Roper] And when the law was down, and the devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? [Leaves him] This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast. Man’s laws. Not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? [Quietly] Yes, I’d give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Zinneman said: “So totally did Scofield convey the scope of More’s character that for months afterwards I could not help but look at him in awe as a saint rather than an actor.”