Kenneth Haigh, 86; actor known as disaffected rebel

Jack Manning/The New York Times

Kenneth Haigh at rehearsal for Tennessee Williams’ play, “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” at the Minskoff Rehearsal Studio in New York, Jan. 31, 1980.

By Sam Roberts New York Times  

NEW YORK — Kenneth Haigh, the English actor whose starring role in the play “Look Back in Anger,” as well as his own blistering persona, defined the rebellious postwar “angry young man,” died Feb. 4. He was 86.

Mr. Haigh had reportedly been in a nursing home in England since 2003, admitted there after he had swallowed a chicken bone in a restaurant and, briefly deprived of oxygen, sustained brain damage.


Mr. Haigh, the son of a Yorkshire miner, appeared destined to dig coal himself. For him, he once explained, acting was not so much an aspiration as it was a persistent toothache. “Eventually,” he added, “I gave in and went to the dentist.”

He appeared in a dozen films, including “Cleopatra” (1963), with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in which he played Brutus, and “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964), in which he had a hilarious uncredited cameo role as a cocky television producer interrogating George Harrison.

He was also seen frequently on British and US television, including as a ruthless corporate climber in the 1970s series “Man at the Top” and as the British explorer Richard Burton in the 1971 miniseries “The Search for the Nile.”

But he was most acclaimed for his stage roles — and none more than that of Jimmy Porter, the choleric antihero of John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger.”

When “Look Back” opened at the Royal Court Theater in London in 1956, a publicist for the theater popularized the phrase “angry young men” to describe its focus: the disaffected generation that came of age in Britain after World War II.


A year later the play opened on Broadway, at the Lyceum Theater, with a cast that also included Alan Bates and Mary Ure. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times raved that Mr. Haigh had delivered “an enormously skillful performance that expresses undertones of despair and frustration and gives the character a basis in humanity.”

He was so good in the role — or so thoroughly unlikable as an unfaithful husband whom Osborne had called “a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice” — that, as Mr. Haigh told The New Yorker in 1958, “some nights I was hissed, and other nights people would clap when my wife left me in the second act.”

At one performance, a woman leapt onstage from the second row of the theater and belted him on behalf of aggrieved women everywhere. Publicity over the incident revived the play’s fortunes at the box office, and only later did David Merrick, the producer, admit that he had hired the woman for $250 (nearly 10 times that much in today’s dollars).

“Look Back in Anger” played another 15 months on Broadway and out of town.

Though Mr. Haigh’s performance was widely acclaimed, Richard Burton got the role in the 1959 film version.

Some critics wondered facetiously whether Mr. Haigh was actually acting, or simply playing himself. Indeed, he acknowledged that he had a volatile temperament and that it rarely provoked ambivalence.


“I was impossible to get on with,” he once recalled. “I either loved or hated people. There was no in-between. And all my ideas were based on a few arbitrary adolescent whims.”

The Guardian recently called “Look Back in Anger” a “game-changing new play that gave voice to a new generation, disaffected, provincial, working class, alienated by the Sunday newspapers, disgusted by the dreariness and hypocrisy of public life and private behavior.”

Mr. Haigh trained at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art (now the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) in London, where his classmates included the future playwright Harold Pinter. He later had a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Pinter’s “The Collection.”