Brian Bedford, a veteran at Ontario's Stratford Festival, has died

STRATFORD, Ont. -- Acclaimed British actor Brian Bedford, a Tony Award-winning mainstay of Broadway and Ontario's Stratford Festival, has died.

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The festival in Stratford, Ont., told The Canadian Press that Bedford died on Wednesday in Santa Barbara, Calif., after a 2 1/2-year battle with cancer. He was 80.

"The doctors were just astounded by his will to live," said Ann Swerdfager, the festival's publicity director.

Antoni Cimolino, the festival's artistic director, said in a statement that "Brian Bedford was the prime reason I went into the theatre."

Bedford had been ailing in recent years.

In early 2014, illness forced him to pull out of his role as the pope in a touring production of the Vatican mystery thriller "The Last Confession" that visited Toronto. It was a part he said he'd been "really looking forward" to, noting John Paul I was "a very, very sweet, modest, lovely person and I haven't played that kind of part for a long, long time."

In June 2013, he withdrew from his role as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Stratford Festival due to "a medical condition." He also missed shows during the festival's 2011 season.

Bedford was a fixture in the southwestern Ontario community of Stratford, where he worked at the festival for 29 seasons, acting and directing.

In 2009, he brought down the house directing and starring (in full drag) as Lady Bracknell in the festival's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which moved to Broadway and earned him a 2011 Tony Award nomination for best actor. The production itself won a Tony for best costume design and was nominated for another for best revival of a play.

Bedford's other Stratford roles included King Lear, Macbeth and Richard III. He also performed his one-man show "Ever Yours, Oscar" in Stratford.

Born in Morley, Yorkshire, England to a postal clerk father and a mother who worked in a weaving mill, Bedford's childhood was plagued by poverty and illness (two of his brothers died of tuberculosis). After joining an amateur theatre company as a teen, he landed a scholarship to study at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where classmates included Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney.

Bedford's big break came with "Five Finger Exercise," which moved from London to Broadway with co-star Jessica Tandy in 1959. He went on to star in more than 18 Broadway productions, winning a Tony in '71 for his leading role in "The School for Wives" and netting Tony nominations for several other roles.

Besides Shakespeare, Moliere was another playwright Bedford tackled several times to great acclaim, with productions including "Tartuffe" and "The Moliere Comedies."

It was in the '70s that Bedford first started performing in Stratford. In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, he said his transformation to classical actor began at the festival when then-artistic director Robin Phillips asked him to perform Shakespeare there.

Getting to play so many leading roles there was "a source of real happiness," he said.

"It's one of the consolations of getting older. If you have the luck, as I have had, to get these opportunities, your technique actually improves. And you are able to play these marvellous parts. When you are young, you have all these fabulous ideas, but you haven't got the technique to realize them."

While he carved out a reputation for mastering classical roles, Bedford was also known for his sharp timing in comedies. He acted in film and TV, with credits including "Nixon," "Grand Prix" and "Coronet Blue."

He's survived by his partner of 30 years, actor Tim MacDonald, whom he married in July 2013.

The two had a home in Stratford.


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