Sad passing: John McCallum dies

The family of John McCallum has announced that he passed away this morning, aged 91. Mr McCallum had been suffering from leukaemia.

John McCallum was born on March 14, 1918. As the theatrical saying goes, he was practically “born in a basket” because he arrived on the first night of one of his father’s productions at the Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane. It was a comedy, and the next day a friend sent a telegram to his father saying, “Congratulations on two howling successes”.

He went on to become one of the greatest actors and directors of his generation, as well as a highly successful producer of theatre, film and television.

McCallum was born into a theatrical family. His father, John McCallum Snr had migrated with his parents from Scotland and, on the early death of his father, he and his brother were brought up by their mother who continued to run the small farm that McCallum’s grandfather had bought. McCallum Snr became an accomplished musician and was soon involved in the Brisbane entertainment scene.

McCallum’s childhood memories are full of backstage encounters at the Cremorne Theatre with the variety of performers peopling a multitude of hit shows and it was inevitable that he should enter the theatre as a profession. His mother was an accomplished amateur actress, born in England.

The middle child in this family of three boys, McCallum and his older brother received their primary school education in England. When the Great Depression forced the family to return to Australia, he entered a Church of England Grammar School in Brisbane and “liked it enormously”. McCallum trained for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he won a scholarship. His first stage part was at his father’s theatre, Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane. He has played many leading parts in England and Australia in the theatre, films and TV. He met actress Googie Withers, who became his wife, on the set of The Loves of Joanna Godden, an Ealing film of 1946.

Other films include It Always Rains On Sunday, Travellers Joy, Miranda, Valley of Eagles, Woman In Question, Derby Day, Trent’s Last Case, The Calendar and Port Of No Escape. Before the war he did two years in repertory and seasons at Stratford Upon Avon and The Old Vic before makings his first appearance in The West End at the Whitehall Theatre in Cornelius.

During the war he served with the AIF. In 1958 after a decade in England he returned to Australia to be managing director of JC Williamson’s, at that time the largest theatrical organization in the world, owning nine theatres, operating in 13 and mounting all its own productions. In 1966 he went into film production, and produced or directed over 200 films for TV including the series Skippy, Boney, Barrier Reef and Baily’s Bird, and several feature films including The Highest Honour and Attack Force 7 starring Mel Gibson. Theatre credits in England include Roar Like a Dove, The Constant Wife with Ingrid Bergman, Janus, Waiting for Gillian, The Cherry Orchard, The Skin Game, Dandy Dick, and Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

In Australia he acted in many productions for JC Williamson’s including The Deep Blue Sea, Simon and Laura, Roar Like a Dove and The Wind and The Rain and in musical comedy opposite Gladys Moncrieff in Rio Rita and The Maid of the Mountains. His productions for Williamson’s include My Fair Lady (three companies), Camelot, Funny Girl, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Hello, Dolly! and many plays, also operas with Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti, and concert tours with Danny Kaye, Gracie Fields, Jack Benny, Harry Belafonte and Maurice Chevalier.

Other acting credits include The Circle at Chichester in 1976 and at The Haymarket, The School For Scandal at the Duke of York’s followed by a European tour, The Chalk Garden at Chichester in 1986, Hayfever in 1989, and The Royal Baccarat Scandal, later at the Haymarket and The Cocktail Hour.

In 1992 he toured with this wife in On Golden Pond. In 1990 he devised and directed High Spirits, a two hander with this wife, and his book Life With Googie was published by Heineman in 1976. He has written four plays, the last produced at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne in 1975. He is a past President of The Australian Film Council and The Producers and Directors Guild. In 1971 he was appointed CBE, and AO in 1992.

In 1996 he played Lord Caversham in Sir Peter Hall’s production of An Ideal Husband at the Old Vic in London which he repeated in Australia the following year, and in 1997 was in Richard Cottrell’s production of Lady Windermere’s Fan at Chichester.

Theatre producer John Frost worked with McCallum on several occasions, and became a close family friend.

“My association with John and Googie began in 1978 when I worked as stage manager on their production of The Kingfisher,” Frost said today.

“We became firm friends and I was thrilled to present them in productions of High Spirits in 1993 and An Ideal Husband in 1997 and co produced their final West End appearance in Lady Windermere’s Fan starring Vanessa Redgrave. As well as an extraordinarily fine actor, director and producer, one of the most important theatrical figures in Australia during the second half of the 20th century, John was an incredibly warm, witty and committed friend, and I will miss him dearly.”

John McCallum is survived by his wife Googie and children Joanna, Nicholas and Amanda.

A memorial service to celebrate his life will be held at a time to be confirmed.


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