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Robert Donat was born Friedrich Robert Donath in 1905 in Withington, Manchester, England. He was of English, Polish, German and French descent. As a child he had a major stammer, and he also suffered from chronic asthma (some have speculated that may have started out as psychosomatic, as a way of deflecting attention from his stammer). He took speech lessons to deal with his stammer, and they not only cured it, but left him with one of the absolute best speaking voices any actor has ever had! He began acting on stage when he was 16 (performing Shakespeare). In 1932, he was noticed by Alexander Korda, and signed a film contract, and appeared in three minor film roles. In 1933, he was given the important role of Thomas Culpeper in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and that led to his starring role as Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo (both of these movies are wonderful, and well worth watching!). The following year he had his most memorable role as Richard Hannay in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, The 39 Steps. If you want to see everything that is missing in modern movies, see this right away (and if you have already seen it, watch it again!). Donat followed with three more movies in the 1930s (including "The Ghost Goes West" in 1935 for French director Rene Clair, which is also highly regarded), but he refused to go to Hollywood, where he could have had more important roles, and made as many movies as he wanted. in 1938 he starred in The Citadel (nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for this film), and in 1939, he starred in James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and he amazed the world when he won the Best Actor Oscar over Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, which otherwise swept most of the Oscars. Unfortunately, after this Donat's asthma became worse, and he only made 6 movies in the 1940s and four movies in the 1950s. Fortunately, one of these movies had him starring as Sir Robert Morton in Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy in 1948. In 1999, David Mamet directed a virtual scene-by-scene remake, and although Jeremy Northam and the rest of the remake cast were uniformly excellent, I urge you to seek out the original and see it before seeing the remake. Donat is marvelous, and this is a fantastic movie on all levels. It is one more rare case of a "talky" movie with no sex or violence whatsoever that completely draws in the audience! In 1958, Donat appeared in his final film role, as a Chinese mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. His last line in the movie was "We shall not see each other again, I think", and that proved prophetic, for he passed away once the film was completed, aged just 53. Robert Donat has always been one of my most favorite actors, and in researching this, I was not surprised to see many others felt the same way! Judy Garland said she sent him a fan letter after seeing The Count of Monte Cristo, and she wanted to sing "You Made Me Love You" to him, but the studio changed it to Clark Gable. Peter Sellers said Donat was his favorite, and said, "I thought he was a god.". I also was surprised to learn of some roles he did NOT get! He was the original choice for Captain Blood in 1935, and he wanted to play Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist in 1948, but he did not get either role, and while I know he would have been great in both, I can't imagine him playing either of these characters!
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