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Obituary: Michael Thomas – ‘widely admired stage and TV actor’

A hard-working and widely admired stage and TV actor for more than five decades, Michael Thomas was a fixture at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Almeida, while his onscreen credits included 1990s hits Life Without George and Head Over Heels.

He is probably best remembered in recent times for performances in the 2004 world premiere of Festen at the Almeida, as Kent to David Warner’s Lear at Chichester in 2005 [1], Exeter in Henry V in Stratford-upon-Avon, and as the Reverend Parris in Yael Farber’s acclaimed revival of The Crucible [2] in 2014.

In 2010, Thomas was diagnosed with an aggressive form of myeloma, and later received a life-saving stem cell donation from a PhD student named Jeremy Brice. As a result of this, Thomas was able to carry on acting until recently, managing to appear in eight plays and three TV series, including The Crown.

Thomas grew up just outside Southend-on-Sea and attended Bishop’s Stortford High School before studying law at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Bored with the law, he later switched to English and spent a great deal of time acting.

On leaving Cambridge, he bombarded repertory theatres with letters asking for work and was eventually offered places at Manchester Library Theatre and Bristol Old Vic. He chose Manchester, and moved from there to Peter Cheeseman’s legendary company at Stoke-on-Trent in the mid-1970s.

Thomas’ first big break was playing Romeo for Toby Robertson’s Prospect Theatre Company at the Old Vic in 1978, opposite Janet Maw as Juliet. During the run, he received a fan letter from the actor and comedian Kenneth Williams, who expressed his “unbounded admiration” in his published diaries.

Thomas met his wife Selina Cadell while they were working in John Dexter’s production of The Life of Galileo at the National Theatre in 1981. Cadell remembers being part of “something very special”, not only because it was where she met her future husband, but also because “we all witnessed a great actor (Michael Gambon) emerging from his comedy cocoon”.

In 1988 Thomas appeared with Roy Marsden and Kate O’Mara in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse at the Mermaid Theatre in the City of London.

Struggling to make the transition from handsome juvenile to middle-aged character roles, Thomas set up his own touring company, Imaginary Forces, in the mid-1990s and toured Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet very successfully.

In 1998, Thomas rejoined the RSC, where he appeared in numerous productions across six years, notably playing Exeter in Ed Hall’s Henry V, and the King of France in Edward III. In the mid-2000s, he appeared in Pillars of the Community [3], Marianne Elliott’s revival of Shaw’s Saint Joan [4], and in the same director’s acclaimed All’s Well That Ends Well [5], playing Lafew. At the Almeida he played to critical acclaim in Festen [6], Waste [7] and Before the Party [8].

Thomas’ son, Edwin, also an actor, has described his father as “an actor’s actor who was the beating heart of every company he worked in”. Rufus Norris, who directed Thomas in Festen at the Almeida in 2004, called him “a wonderful company member and a wonderful man”, whose presence in the Festen company “in no small part helped to make Festen one of the highlights of my career”. Actor and director Samuel West added that Thomas was “consistently the best thing in most of the jobs he did”.

Outside the theatre, Thomas’ passion was sailing. His 36ft Westerly Fulmar yacht was the great love of his life. Together, he and Cadell crossed the Channel, the North Sea and sailed up and down the English coast.

Two days before he was due to have his stem cell transplant, he sailed to Holland and back. As Cadell says: “His attitude was: ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going to live life as best I can.’ ”

Michael Thomas was born in Westcliff-on-Sea on April 11, 1952, and died on March 4, 2019, aged 66. He is survived by his wife, Selina Cadell, and his son Edwin and daughter Letty, both actors.