Eric Harold Portman (13 July 1901 – 7 December 1969) was an English stage and film actor. He is probably best remembered for his roles in several films for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger during the 1940s.
Eric Harold Portman
13 July 1901
|Died||7 December 1969 (aged 68)|
Born in Halifax, Yorkshire, he was the second son of Matthew Portman (1868–1939), a wool merchant, and his wife, Alice, née Harrison (1870–1918). His birth was registered with the middle name of Harold but he would later adopt his mother's maiden name as his middle name. He was educated at Rishworth School in Yorkshire and, in 1922, started work as a salesman in the menswear department at the Marshall & Snelgrove department store in Leeds and acted in the amateur Halifax Light Opera Society.
He made his professional stage debut in 1924 with Henry Baynton's company. In 1924, Robert Courtneidge's Shakespearian company arrived in Halifax. Portman joined the company as a 'passenger' and appeared in their production of Richard II at the Victoria Hall, Sunderland which led to Courtneidge giving him a contract. Portman made his West End debut at the Savoy Theatre in London, in September 1924, as Antipholous of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors. He was engaged by Lilian Baylis for the Old Vic Company. In 1928, Portman played Romeo at the rebuilt Old Vic. He became a successful theatre actor. In 1933, Portman was in Diplomacy at the Prince's Theatre with Gerald du Maurier and Basil Rathbone.
In the 1930s, he began appearing in films, starting with an uncredited bit in The Girl from Maxim's (1933) directed by Alexander Korda. In 1935, he appeared in four films, including Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn with Tod Slaughter. He also made Hyde Park Corner with Gordon Harker and directed by Sinclair Hill; Old Roses and Abdul the Damned.
In 1936 Portman had a stage hit playing Lord Byron in Bitter Harvest. After Hearts of Humanity (1936), he played Giuliano de' Medici in Hill's The Cardinal (1936). Portman made another film with Tod Slaughter, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), and was in Moonlight Sonata (1937).
He went to the US and played in Madame Bovary on Broadway for the Theatre Guild of America. He also had a small role in The Prince and the Pauper (1937), but disliked Hollywood and did not stay long.
In the semi-autobiographical play Dinner with Ribbentrop by screenwriter Norman Hudis, a former personal assistant to Portman, Hudis relates a claim made often by Portman that in 1937, before the start of the Second World War, he had had dinner in London with Joachim von Ribbentrop (then the German Ambassador to Britain). Portman claimed that Ribbentrop had told him that "when Germany wins the war, Portman would be installed as the greatest English star in the New Europe" at a purpose-built film studio in Berlin.
In 1941 he had his first important film role playing a Nazi on the run Hirth in Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel, which was a big hit in the US and Britain. Portman was established as a star and signed a long term contract with Gainsborough Pictures.
Portman was in Powell and Pressburger's follow up, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), which reworked the story of The 49th Parallel to be about Allied pilots in occupied Holland. He played a Belgian resistance leader in Uncensored (1942) from director Anthony Asquith, and a German pilot in Squadron Leader X (1943) with director Lance Comfort. Portman was a sailor in Asquith's We Dive at Dawn (1943) and a factory supervisor in Millions Like Us (1943) from Launder and Gilliat. He was in another war story in Comfort's Escape to Danger (1943), then was back with Powell and Pressburger for A Canterbury Tale (1944). Portman had the lead in Great Day (1945) with Flora Robson and in the expensive colonial epic Men of Two Worlds (1946).
He made some thrillers – Wanted for Murder (1947), Dear Murderer (1947) and The Mark of Cain (1947). He was a hangman in Daybreak (1948), then made Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and The Blind Goddess (1948). He made two films for the new producing team of Maxwell Setton and Aubrey Baring, The Spider and the Fly (1949) and Cairo Road (1950). Portman was one of many names in The Magic Box (1951) and then made an Ealing comedy, His Excellency (1952), playing a trade unionist who becomes Governor of a British colony. For Baring and Setton, he made South of Algiers (1953) then had a big hit on stage in Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables and on film in The Colditz Story (1955). Portman had a supporting part in The Deep Blue Sea (1955) and Child in the House (1956). He had the lead in The Good Companions (1957).
He played the bogus Major in Terence Rattigan's play Separate Tables in 1956–57 on Broadway. For this performance, he was nominated for a Tony Award (Best Actor (Dramatic)). In 1958 he appeared on Broadway in a short-lived production of Jane Eyre as Rochester. Portman had better luck the following year in a production of Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet, which had a long run. In contrast, Flowering Cherry by Robert Bolt, with Portman in the title role, only lasted five performances on Broadway.
Later film roles included in The Naked Edge (1961), Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), West 11 (1963), The Man Who Finally Died (1963), The Bedford Incident (1965), and The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966).
In 1962 Portman was in a stage adaptation of A Passage to India that ran for 109 performances on Broadway.
Near the end of his life he played character roles including Number Two in the TV series The Prisoner, appearing in the episode "Free For All" (1967), as well as films including The Whisperers (1967) and Deadfall (1968), both for director Bryan Forbes. His final film was Assignment to Kill (1968).
Portman was homosexual, although newspapers never reported this during the mid-1950s when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. Newspapers refrained from identifying his sexuality throughout the 1960s when it could still have damaged his career. His partner was actor Knox Laing. In the very early 1920s he was an amateur in Halifax Light Opera. While there he was romantically involved with Eliza Jane Thornton, his leading lady. After appearing in The Silver Box together, they both went to London to work professionally, though eventually Thornton returned to Halifax.
- The Girl from Maxim's (1933) (uncredited)
- Old Roses (1935)
- Abdul the Damned (1935)
- Hyde Park Corner (1935)
- Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn (1935)
- The Cardinal (1936)
- The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936)
- Hearts of Humanity (1936)
- Moonlight Sonata (1937)
- The Prince and the Pauper (1937)
- The Singing Marine (1937) (uncredited)
- The Constant Nymph (1938 TV film) (uncredited)
- A Hundred Years Old (1938 TV film)
- The Rivals (1938 TV film)
- The Gamblers (1939 TV film)
- She Stoops to Conquer (1939 TV film)
- A Night at the Hardcastles (1939 TV film)
- The Pelican (1939 TV film)
- 49th Parallel (1941)
- One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)
- Uncensored (1942)
- Squadron Leader X (1943)
- We Dive at Dawn (1943)
- Millions Like Us (1943)
- Escape to Danger (1943)
- A Canterbury Tale (1944)
- Great Day (1945)
- Wanted for Murder (1946)
- Men of Two Worlds (1946)
- Dear Murderer (1947)
- The Mark of Cain (1947)
- Corridor of Mirrors (1948)
- Daybreak (1948)
- The Blind Goddess (1948)
- The Spider and the Fly (1949)
- Cairo Road (1950)
- The Magic Box (1951)
- His Excellency (1952)
- South of Algiers (a.k.a. The Golden Mask, 1953)
- The Colditz Story (1955)
- The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
- Child in the House (1956)
- The Good Companions (1957)
- The Naked Edge (1961)
- Freud (1962)
- August for the People (1963 TV film)
- West 11 (1963)
- The Man Who Finally Died (1963)
- The Bedford Incident (1965)
- The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966)
- The Whisperers (1967)
- Assignment to Kill (1968)
- Deadfall (1968)
- "Portman, Eric Harrison (1901–1969)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/38769. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "Malcolm Bull's Calderdale Companion : Foldout". Freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 19 July 2016.
- "ABOUT ERIC PORTMAN". Morwell Advertiser (2911). Victoria, Australia. 3 September 1942. p. 7 (morning.). Retrieved 29 August 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Dinner with Ribbentrop". Rudeguerrilla.org. 6 May 2004. Retrieved 11 June 2012.
- "Dinner with Ribbentrop". Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- "Eric Portman's New Yorkshire Role". Glen Innes Examiner. 18 (2376). New South Wales, Australia. 10 May 1945. p. 4. Retrieved 29 August 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "CROSBY and HOPE try their luck in Alaska". The Mercury. Hobart, Tasmania. 2 March 1946. p. 3 Supplement: The Mercury Magazine. Retrieved 24 April 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
- "FILM WORLD". The West Australian. Perth. 28 February 1947. p. 20 (2nd edition). Retrieved 27 April 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
- Earnshaw, Tony (19 January 2014). "Eric Portman: Forgotten movie idol". The Yorkshire Post. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
- Rattigan, Terence (1999). Separate Tables. Nick Hern Books. p. xxx. ISBN 978-1-85459-424-2.
- Verbatim from E J Frobisher ( nee Thornton)
- "Biography". Retrieved 3 May 2010.
- "List of Blue Plaques". Halifax Civic Trust. Archived from the original on 30 April 2019. Retrieved 30 April 2019.