Leo Genn

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Leo Genn
Leo Genn in The Miniver Story.JPG
in The Miniver Story (1950)
Born Leopold John Genn
(1905-08-09)9 August 1905
London, England
Died 26 January 1978(1978-01-26) (aged 72)
London, England
Years active 1935–75
Spouse(s) Marguerite van Praag
(1933–78, his death)
Military career
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Rank Lieutenant Colonel
Unit Royal Artillery
Battles/wars Second World War

Leo John Genn (9 August 1905 – 26 January 1978) was a British stage and film actor and barrister.[1]

Early life and family

Genn was born at 144 Kyverdale Road, Stamford Hill, Hackney, London, the son of Woolfe (William) Genn, a jewellery salesman, and Rachel Genn (née Asserson). His parents were both Jewish.

Genn attended the City of London School and studied law at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, qualifying as a barrister in 1928. He ceased practising as a lawyer soon after World War II. On 14 May 1933, Genn married Marguerite van Praag, a casting director at Ealing Studios. They had no children.

Leo Genn, the British lawyer turned actor, who became known as “The man with the black velvet voice”, with a stage and screen career that spanned almost four decades, died yesterday at a London hospital. He was 72 years old.

Although the darkly handsome actor appeared in some two dozen movies and more than 50 plays, in such notable parts as the evil Ben Hubbard in Lillian Hellman's “Another Part of the Forest,” he was best‐known to American audiences for his film portrayals of Capt. Adorn Brant in “Mourning Becomes Electra”; the sensitive psychiatrist; Dr. Kik, in “The Snake Pit”; Nero's counselor, Gaius Petronius, in “Quo Vadis?”, and Starbuck in “Moby Dick”. [2]


Theatre career

Leon M. Lion saw Genn act and offered him a contract[3]. His theatrical debut was in 1930 in A Marriage has been Disarranged at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne and then at the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, London. Actor/manager Leon M. Lion had engaged him simultaneously as an actor and attorney. In 1933 he appeared in Ballerina by Rodney Ackland. Between September 1934 and March 1936, Leo Genn was a member of the Old Vic Company where he appeared in many productions of Shakespeare. In 1937 he was Horatio in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, in Elsinore, Denmark. In 1938, Genn appeared in the theatrical hit, The Flashing Stream by Charles Langbridge Morgan and went with the show to America and Broadway. His many other stage performances included Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, 12 Angry Men, The Devil's Advocate, Maugham's The Sacred Flame. In 1959 Genn gave a reading[4] in Chichester Cathedral. Rarely cast as the leading lover and never a box‐office idol, Mr. Genn nevertheless enjoyed critical acclaim, throughout his career and was nominated as best supporting actor for his “Quo Vadis?” role in the Acadeniy Awards of 1952. Mr. Genn followed a curious route to his acting career. The son of a prosperous London merchant, he received scholarships in both mathematics and classics from the City of London School and then went to Cambridge, where he studied law and became a star athlete as captain of the soccer and tennis teams. It was not until he had completed his legal studies at the Temple Inn and began to practice law that he made his first venture into acting, and only then, he once recalled, as little more than a lark. A woman friend suggested that joining amateur theatrical companies might be a good way for a struggling young barrister to meet prospective clients, and he followed her advice. That was in 1930, and the stratagem worked well enough. But Mr. Genn, who won an early success as a criminal trial lawyer, soon found he preferred the camaraderie and challehge of the theater to the histrionics of the courtroom. His first major break as an actor came the first year, when he played the lead in “Dear Brutus” and caught the eye of Leon M. Lion, one of the last of the oldschool actor‐managers. Mr. Genn, who still did not take acting seriously, kept an appointment with the manager, he later recalled, just to have something to tell his friends about. He accepted a contract, however, and for the next few years appeared in Mr. Lion's plays and served as his legal adviser. Mr. Genn's legal training also played a part in his transition to the movies after he had completed his West End apprenticeship and spent two years specializing in the classics at the Old Vic. In 1936 he was asked to write some legal scenes for a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. picture and ended up taking the part of the lawyer.


Film career

Genn's first film role was as Shylock in Immortal Gentleman (1935), a biography of Shakespeare. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. hired Genn as a technical advisor on the film Accused (1936). He was subsequently given a small part in the film on the strength of a "splendid voice and presence". Genn received another small role in Alexander Korda's The Drum (1938) and was the young man who danced with Eliza Doolittle at the duchess's ball in Pygmalion, a film made in the same year, although he was uncredited. Mr. Genn appeared in two more movies and made his Broldway debut with “The Flashing Stream” in 1938, his career was interupted by World War II, which led him back to the law.

After seeing combat with the Royal Artillery until just before VE day, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and joined the British unit investigating war crimes at the Belsen concentration camp, later serving as an assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. But Mr. Genn, who once said that he had given up the law because “somewhere inside me there was an actor trying to be heard,” soon returned to acting and promptly scored a major success as the Constable of France in Laurence Olivier's acclaimed 1946 film version of “Henry V,” which Mr. Genn, true to his nonchalant attitude toward his profession, insisted on calling “Hank Cinq.”

The part was small (shot in a total of 16 days snatched from military leaves), but Mr, Genn's subtly sarcastic portrayal drew both critical and popular acclaim and earned one of his most treasured compliments, from Frank Capra, who, on being introduced to Mr. Genn, said, “Oh, you're the fellow who makes Shakespeare sound like conversation.”

The role also led to one of his biggest Broadway successes in the 1946 production of Miss Hellman's “Another Part of the Forest,” which portrayed the early career of the Hubbard family, who had been introduced in “Little Foxes.” Reviewing the play for The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson praised Mr. Genn for conveying “the strength, unscrupulousness and maturity” of the blackmailing elder son. The part led Mr. Genn to a string of successes in Hollywood. including “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Velvet. Touch.” “The Miniver Story” and “The Snake Pit.”

Mr. Genn, who returned to Broadway for “The Devil's Advocate,” in 1961, continued to appear regularly on the screen, including parts in “Lady Chatterly's Lover,” “The Longest Day” and “Ten Little Indians,” and in a number of television dramas.[6]

War service

On approaching war, Genn joined the Officers' Emergency Reserve in 1938[7]. He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery on 6 July 1940[8] and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1943. In 1944, the actor was given official leave to appear as the Constable of France in Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

Genn was awarded the Croix de guerre in 1945[9]. He was part of the British unit that investigated war crimes at Belsen concentration camp and later was an assistant prosecutor at the trial for Belsen in Lüneburg, Germany.[citation needed]


He was in Green for Danger (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948). After his Academy Award-nominated success as Petronius in Quo Vadis (1951) he appeared in John Huston's Moby Dick (1956). Genn also appeared in some rather forgettable American films, such as The Girls of Pleasure Island, and Plymouth Adventure (1952), a fictionalised, but entertaining soap opera treatment of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. He fared far better in a British film, Personal Affair (1953), starring opposite Gene Tierney.

He played Major Michael Pemberton in Roberto Rossellini's Era Notte a Roma (Escape by Night, 1960). Leo Genn narrated the coronation programmes of both 1937 and 1953,[10] the King George VI Memorial Programme in 1952, and the United Nations ceremonial opening (in the USA) in 1947.

Genn was a governor of the Mermaid Theatre and trustee of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. He was also council member of the Arts Educational Trust. He was appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theatre Arts, Pennsylvania State University, 1968 and Visiting Professor of Drama, University of Utah, 1969.


Genn died in London on 26 January 1978. The immediate cause of death was a heart attack, brought on by complications of pneumonia.

Selected filmography

Genn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Petronius in Quo Vadis[11].


  • 1930 A Marriage Has Been Disarranged, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Royalty Theatre
  • appearances in: No 17; Tiger Cats; Champion North; While Parents Sleep; Clive of India
  • 1931 O.H.M.S.
  • 1934–36 Old Vic Company:
1934–35 Old Vic Season
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Henry IV Part 2
  • Major Barbara
  • Hippolytus by Euripides
  • The Two Shepherds by Sierra
  • Othello
  • The Taming of the Shrew, Sadler's Wells
  • Saint Joan, Old Vic/Sadler's Wells
  • Richard II
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Hamlet
  • Shakespeare Birthday Festival- 23 April 1935
  • Last Night of Shakespeare Season: scenes from Hamlet, Richard II, Taming of The Shrew, 20 May 1935
1935–36 Old Vic Season
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth
  • Richard III
  • King Lear
  • Saint Helena by R.C. Sherriff
  • Peer Gynt
  • The School for Scandal
  • 1936 St Helena, Dalys Theatre
1936–37 Old Vic Season


  • 1955 Omnibus: "Herod"
  • 1955 Screen Director's Playhouse: "Titanic Incident"
  • 1960 Mrs. Miniver with Maureen O'Hara as Mrs Miniver and Leo Genn as Clem Miniver, CBS
  • 1961 The Defenders
  • 1961 The Jack Paar Show, (himself)
  • 1961 The Life of Adolf Hitler written & directed by Paul Rotha, commentary by Leo Genn & Marius Goring
  • 1962 An Act of Faith, a BBC documentary on Coventry Cathedral, narrated by Leo Genn
  • 1963 Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre: "Commander Tony Gardiner"
  • 1963 The Merv Griffin Show, (himself)
  • 1964 "The Thirty Days of Gavin Heath", an episode of The Virginian, Leo Genn as Gavin Heath
  • 1965 The Cat's Cradle by Hugo Charteris, an instalment of The Wednesday Play, BBC Television
  • 1967 Saint Joan
  • 1969 Strange Report
  • 1969 The Expert
  • 1970 Howard's End (with Glenda Jackson), an instalment of Play of the Month BBC Television
  • 1971 The Persuaders
  • 1973 The Movie Quiz
  • 1974 The Zoo Gang
  • 1974 Jackanory



  1. ^ Obituary Variety, 1 February 1978.
  2. ^ Genn, Leopold John (Jan. 2017). "Leo Genn, British Actor, 72, Dies; 'Man With the Black Velvet Voice'". Special to the NY Times Archives (Archives NY Times by Robt. McG.Thomas Jr.). NY Times Archives. NY Times Newspaper. Retrieved Jan. 27, 1978.  Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  3. ^ The telegraph obituary 27 January 1978
  4. ^ "Search Online". West Sussex Past. Retrieved 17 July 2015. 
  5. ^ Genn, Leopold John (Jan. 27, 1978). [www.nytimes.com/1978/01/27/archives/leo-genn-british-actor-72-dies-man-with-the-black-velvet-voice-an.html "Leo Genn, british Actor, 72, Dies; 'Man With the Black Velvet Voice'""] Check |url= value (help). NY Times Archives by Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. (Special to the NY Times 1978). NY Times. New York Times Newspaper Archives. Retrieved Jan. 27, 1978.  Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  6. ^ Genn, Leopold John (Jan. 27, 1978). "Leo Genn, British Actor, 72, Dies; 'Man With the Black Velvet Voice'" (Archives Special to the NY Times). NY Times Archives. NY Times Newspaper. Retrieved Jan. 27, 1978.  Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  7. ^ The telegraph obituary 27 January 1978
  8. ^ "No. 34926". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 August 1940. p. 5079. 
  9. ^ The telegraph obituary 27 January 1978
  10. ^ "Elizabeth Is Queen (1953)". IMDb. Retrieved 17 May 2015. 
  11. ^ http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0312890/awards. Retrieved 24 October 2017

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