James Neville Mason (1909 – 1984) was a supremely classy British actor.
After achieving much success in the United Kingdom (he was the top box office attraction there in 1944 and 1945), he made the transition to the United States and became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, starring in iconic films such as The Desert Fox, A Star Is Born, 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lolita, North by Northwest, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Bigger Than Life, Julius Caesar, Georgy Girl, The Deadly Affair, The Boys from Brazil, The Verdict, Murder By Decree, and Salem's Lot.
He was nominated for three Academy Awards and three Golden Globes (winning the Golden Globe in 1955 for A Star is Born).
Mason became hugely popular for his brooding anti-heroes in the Gainsborough series of melodramas of the 1940s, including The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). He also starred with Deborah Kerr and Robert Newton in Hatter's Castle (1942). He then took the lead role in the popular The Seventh Veil (1945), which set box office records in postwar Britain and raised him to international stardom. He followed it with a role as a mortally wounded IRA bank robber on the run in Odd Man Out (1947) and his first Hollywood film, Caught (1949). Exhibitors voted him the most popular star in Britain in each year between 1944 and 1947. They also thought he was the most popular international star in 1946; he dropped to second place the following year. He was the most popular male star in Canada in 1948.
Mason's "languid but impassioned" vocal talent enabled him to play a menacing villain as easily as his good looks assisted him as a leading man. His roles include Brutus in Julius Caesar (1953), Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel and The Desert Rats, the amoral valet turned spy in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 5 Fingers, the declining actor in the first remake of A Star Is Born (1954), Captain Nemo in 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea (also 1954), a small town school teacher driven insane by the effects of cortisone in Bigger Than Life (1956), a suave master spy in North by Northwest (1959), and a determined explorer in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (also 1959).
In 1963 he settled in Switzerland, and embarked on a transatlantic career. He played Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita (1962), a river pirate who betrays Peter O'Toole's character in Lord Jim (1965), Bradley Morahan in Norman Lindsay's Age of Consent (1969), the evil Doctor Polidori in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), the vampire's servant, Richard Straker, in Salem's Lot, and surreal Royal Navy Captain Hughes in Yellowbeard (1983). One of his last roles, that of corrupt lawyer Ed Concannon in The Verdict (1982), earned him his third and final Oscar nomination.
Late in his life, Mason narrated two British documentary series supervised by Kevin Brownlow: Hollywood (1980), on the silent cinema and Unknown Chaplin (1983), devoted to out-take material from the films of Charlie Chaplin. Mason is shown each New Year's Day on Swedish television in his role as Isaac of York in Ivanhoe. Mason had been a long-time neighbour and friend of the comedian.
Having completed playing the lead role in Dr. Fischer of Geneva (1985), adapted from the Graham Greene's eponymous novella for the BBC, he stepped into the role originally meant for Paul Scofield in The Shooting Party, who was unable to continue due to several of the actors being seriously injured in an accident on the first day of shooting. This was to be his final screen performance. In the late 1970s, Mason became a mentor to up-and-coming actor Sam Neill.
Mason was a devoted lover of animals, particularly cats. He and his wife, Pamela Mason, co-authored the book The Cats in Our Lives, which was published in 1949. James Mason wrote most of the book and also illustrated it. In The Cats in Our Lives, he recounted humorous and sometimes touching tales of the cats (as well as a few dogs) he had known and loved.
In 1952, Mason purchased a house previously owned by Buster Keaton. He discovered several nitrate film reels of previously-thought lost films stored in the house produced by the comedian, such as The Boat. Mason immediately arranged to have the decomposing films transferred to safety stock and thus saved them from being lost permanently.
Mason's autobiography, Before I Forget, was published in 1981.