There is some confusion about his exact birthdate: most filmographers record it as 13th July 1903, but this is the date of his baptismal record when he was christened along with his younger brother.
His birth certificate shows that he was born in 1901 and gives his name as Eric Harold Portman. His death certificate shows gives his name as Eric Harrison Portman – Harrison was his mother's maiden name.
The council erected a Blue Plaque in his memory at 20 Chester Road, Akroydon which shows the incorrect date of birth, 1903. This may be a consequence of house renumbering as he was born at 71 Chester Road.
He was best known for his portrayal of strong, sensitive men – often with a psychotic tendency – and his firm, commanding voice made him ideal for his rôles in war movies. He was rarely the ladies' man or the lover.
In 1922, he started work as a salesman in the menswear department at Marshall & Snelgrove's department store in Leeds
Eric was a friend of Wilfred Pickles and Wilfred's brother, Arthur.
In 192?, the actor-manager Henry Baynton came to play at the Theatre Royal in Halifax. Eric joined the company.
In 1923, he joined Robert Courtneidge's Shakespeare Company while it was playing at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. In 1924, he made his professional stage debut when played his first speaking part with the company at the Victoria Theatre, Sunderland.
In 1924, he made his first appearance on the London stage at the Savoy Theatre as Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors.
He was engaged by Lilian Baylis for the Old Vic Company, and made a reputation as a noted Shakespearian actor, appearing as Romeo, Charles Surface, Edmund in King Lear, Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen and Strength in Everyman
On 14th February, 1928, he played Romeo at the reopening of the Old Vic in London.
In July 1932, he played John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast included Donald Finlay and Sybil Holroyd. This was the last production at the Theatre Royal, Halifax.
He had great success in the theatre in London and New York, and, from 1935, he appeared in many films. His only Hollywood appearance was a minor rôle in The Prince and the Pauper.
In 1936, he signed a contract with Warner Brothers in the US – though nothing came of it.
In 1942, he was voted one of the top 10 money-making stars in the British film industry.
In 1945, he won the Ellen Terry Award for Best Actor.
In 1948, he was voted one of the top 10 money-making stars in the British cinema.
On 5th November 1953, he came to Halifax to open Mollett's store in Silver Street.
On Sunday 11th March 1956, he brought a London production of Separate Tables – which Terence Rattigan had written specially for Eric – to raise funds to save the Grand Theatre, Halifax. Along with Eric, the cast included Margaret Leighton, Phyllis Neilson-Terry, Beryl Mason, and Basil Henson. Members of the audience included Robert Morley, Margaret Rutherford, and Laurence Harvey
In 1957, he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor (Dramatic) for his Broadway performance in Separate Tables.
Except for short visits, he never returned to Halifax. In response to a question during an interview for the BBC Talkabout series in 1965, he said
What is there to go back to Halifax for?
He was a quiet, retiring man – possibly because of his homosexuality, in an era which was much less open than today and when this was a criminal offence.
It has been said that one of his lovers was killed by the Mau Mau whilst in Kenya.
In 1968, ill-health – a heart condition – forced him to retire while appearing in a production of John Galsworthy's Justice.
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Malcolm Bull 2012 /
Revised 16:26 on 25th October 2012 / p112_2 / 9