Donald Houston, great Welsh actor

Monday 7 November 2011, 14:34

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Wales has produced many fine actors over the years, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and Stanley Baker to name just three. But something of a forgotten man - someone who, in his own way, was as effective and popular as any of them - was Rhondda boy Donald Houston.

Portrait of actor Donald Houston from 1971

Portrait of actor Donald Houston from 1971

Born at 10 Thomas Street, Tonypandy, on Tuesday 6 November 1923, Donald Houston was the son of a professional footballer who hailed, not from Wales but from Scotland. His mother Elsie ran the local milk round and when Houston left school, like so many of his contemporaries, he was bound for a life in the coal mines of the Rhondda.

After a brief spell working underground at the Glamorganshire mine, Donald Houston decided to chance his arm and attend an audition for actors that was being held at the Llwynypia Boys Club. He had always been interested in acting and his charm and good looks, he reasoned, would hold him in good stead. However, even he must have been shocked at the result of the audition. He was immediately taken on by the travelling rep company and his life as an actor had begun.

Despite his clear valley roots, Donald had the ability to "do accents." He could speak in his normal Welsh tones or he could just as easily deliver his lines in a clipped and precise English voice - just listen to him as he plays opposite Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare to see how effective his control of accent really was.

Houston began his film career in The Blue Lagoon, with Jean Simmons as his fellow castaway on a deserted island. The film came out in 1949 and was the hit of the year, immediately propelling Donald to stardom.

Instant fame and adulation were something he did not want, however. He could so easily have remained as a matinée idol - certainly the film fans who flocked to see the picture in the austere post-war days would have welcomed that - but Donald Houston knew that such fame was transient and that people who built a career on such flimsy foundations did not last long in the movie business. He wanted to make a proper career out of acting.

Donald Houston preferred the role of character actor, despite achieving another enormous success with Run For Your Money (also in 1949) where he played alongside another "big name," Sir Alec Guiness. Shunning huge starring parts, Donald seemed to be at his happiest in supporting roles, taking on nuggety parts that demanded his full concentration but which, if played properly, could easily steal the picture.

Over the years he appeared in many well-known and popular films. These ranged from cameo roles in The Longest Day (again with Richard Burton) and Yangste Incident to significant parts in Room At The Top and 300 Spartans. He enjoyed playing military characters, his upright bearing and clear diction seeming to lend themselves to the roles but was also more than adept at comedy. He appeared in two of the hugely popular 'Doctor' films, all the rage in the 50s and early 60s, and in the 1963 comedy 'Carry on Jack'.

In a career that spanned 40 years, Donald Houston appeared alongside many household names, people like Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. He made films in Hollywood and in Britain and was also quite at home on television. His TV credits included dramas such as Danger Man, The Protectors and the mini-series Moonbase 3.

Ralph Bates as Michel Lebrun , Fiona Gaunt as Helen Smith , Donald Houston as David Caulder and Barry Lowe as Tom Hill

Moonbase 3: Ralph Bates as Michel Lebrun , Fiona Gaunt as Helen Smith , Donald Houston as David Caulder and Barry Lowe as Tom Hill

Perhaps his most memorable role, however, was as one of the traitors in Richard Burton's 1968 war film Where Eagles Dare. Such was the power of Houston's performance that it is almost impossible not to have a degree of sympathy for his character - and really only a minor character, at that - as he battles with Burton on the roof of the cable car and eventually falls to his death many hundreds of feet below.

Married to Brenda Hogan, Donald Houston had a successful professional and personal life. His younger brother Glyn also became a distinguished actor but neither of the brothers ever forgot their place of origin.

Soon after his death, Donald was accorded the honour of a Blue Plaque on the wall of the house where he was born, a fitting tribute to a fine actor and a distinguished Welshman. He died on 13 October 1991 at his home in Portugal.

One of his last films was Clash Of The Titans, a fantasy adventure made 10 years before his death. It was a cameo role in a film designed to appeal to children and adults alike, one where enjoyment was equally as important as critical acclaim - exactly how Donald Houston wanted his career to be remembered.

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