Friday, September 26, 2014

James Robertson Justice - A Beloved Bear

If ever there be a man who embodied the qualities one would expect of a highly-educated and distinguished lord of the manor, it be James Robertson Justice. His characters were often authoritative, unswerving, staunch and independent and they were not unlike the true nature of Justice himself. Buried beneath that great ginger beard was a man with a large and lusty passion for life. Like a true Scotsman, he had an equal appetite for pleasure and work. 

James Norval Harald Justice was born in Lee, South London on June 15, 1907. His father, James Justice, was a geologist who had been born in Scotland but turned his back on the country. The younger James saw little of his father growing up, owing to the fact that he was often away travelling the world. 

Justice attended boarding school at Marlborough College in Wiltshire and then preceded to follow in his father's footsteps, studying science at University College in London and geology in Bonn, Germany, but a spot of the highly contagious wanderlust got the best of him and he quit both schools early to try his hand at a variety of odd jobs, including selling insurance, working on a barge, digging sewers, playing rugby, working as a lumberjack, mining gold, teaching in Canada, joining the Mounties, and playing professional ice hockey in London. Another one of his endeavors included working as a reporter for Reuters while both Ian Fleming and Sir Peter Ustinov's father were employed there. It was around this time that Justice developed a love for linguistics, a passion shared by Peter Ustinov as well. He spoke at least seven different languages. 

James had a myriad of interests in addition to this, notably race car driving and falconry, becoming one of the founders of Sir Peter Scott's Wildfowl Trust. During the 1940s Justice met the Duke of Edinburgh through their shared love of falconry. As his friend, the Duke once said "James was a large man with a personality to match. He lived every bit of his life to the full and richly deserves the title 'eccentric'". 

In the late 1930s his wanderlust carried him to Germany once again and here he joined with the League of Nations police force. After the Nazis came to power, Justice turned to fighting in the Spanish Civil War, whence he grew his famous bushy beard. He finally returned to the foggy isle of Britain to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, where he was soundly pensioned off after sustaining an injury in battle.

It was during a visit to the Players Club theatre that Justice took up acting for the first time. He stood in for the announcer, Leonard Sachs, during a music hall performance and happened to be spotted by a talent scout in the audience. On the strength of that performance he was recommended for a part in the film For Those in Peril. Justice was 37 years old at the time. He realized that acting could be a very lucrative profession and for once in his life stuck with a job....and a job was all that he considered acting to be. As he often boomed, "I am not a star! I am in this profession to make money." He must have done fairly well, for he drove a Rolls Royce, hobnobbed with the Royal family, and threw lavish parties to entertain his friends. He was known for being very generous and, in the words of Elspeth Huxley, "he was a brilliant raconteur, indifferent to money". Alas, his generosity did not extend to helping his mother, who died of malnutrition just a few years after his father's death in 1953. 


Justice may not have considered his past very exciting and instead enjoyed embellishing the truth by weaving stories to his friends about how he was a Scotsman by birth and was born under a whiskey distillery in the Isle of Skye. 

He began his career in films inauspiciously with a number of minor roles for Ealing Studios, one of which was Vice Versa ( 1948 ) directed by a young Peter Ustinov. Robertson Justice was perfectly cast as the gruff headmaster Dr. Grimstone. In real life, Justice was voted as Rector of the University of Edinburgh and served two three-year terms between 1957 and 1965. Later that year he starred in Whiskey Galore ( 1949 ), a film about the love Scots have for their drink. 

In 1952, Walt Disney cast James as the burly Little John in The Story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Like Alan Hale was to Errol Flynn, Justice was an excellent supporting member to the leading actor, Richard Todd, and the following year they were teamed up again in The Sword and the Rose. This time Justice portrayed King Henry VIII. In their final teaming - Rob Roy : The Highland Rogue - James donned the kilt and grew his hair long for his role as the Duke of Argyll, a proud Scotsman acting as a mediator between the British army and the hostile MacGregor clan led by Rob Roy ( Todd ). 

These were the roles that fit him best and in spite of his ease in comedy films, it was the dramatic pictures that really showcased his natural acting ability. However, as author Richard Gordon once said," Every performance was himself ".


In 1954, Robertson Justice was cast in the comedy medical film Doctor in the House. It was a low-budget production with a cast of relatively unknown actors, but it became the surprise smash hit of the year, launching Dirk Bogarde to stardom and spawning a series of similar sequels. Dr. Lancelot Spratt, the steam-rolling chief surgeon of St. Swithins, became Justice's most memorable role.

Off the set, he was continuing his enjoyment of lusty living. He married nurse Dillys Hayden in 1941, but only a few years afterward his roving eye fell on the beautiful Molly Parkin. She became one of his many mistresses in the coming years. When James and Dillys' only son, James Jr., drowned in 1949, at the age of four, their marriage fell apart and, although they remained married for nineteen more years, they were living separately. Justice used the payment he received for his role as Lancelot Spratt and purchased a cottage in Spinningdale, Scotland, where he lived for the next two decades and indulged in his hobbies of collecting hawks, moths and orchids.

During the mid-1950s, Justice was cast in a number of meaty roles, including that of Vashtar, the master builder in Land of the Pharoahs ( 1955 ), James MacDonald in Campbell's Kingdom ( 1957 ), and Captain Boom in Moby Dick ( 1956 ) which starred Gregory Peck. Justice lent his presence in a total of four films with the American actor, including David and BathshebaCaptain Horatio Hornblower R.N, and The Guns of Navarone, which James also narrated. His powerful voice was in high demand by film studios at this time and he was selected to become the host of Scotland's very first television program This is Scotland in 1957. 

In the UK, Leslie Phillips was fast becoming one of the leading comedic actors and Justice was cast in a number of films starring the smooth-talking Phillips - Raising the Wind, Very Important Person, Crooks Anonymous, and The Fast Lady


Another delightful film he made during this time was the Miss Marple mystery Murder She Said ( 1961 ), starring Margaret Rutherford. Here Justice portrays the irrascible Lord Ackenthorpe, a man who enjoys the good life despite his poor financial state. In real life, Justice was nearing the end of this good life as well. In 1968, shortly after he had completed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ( as Truly's father, Lord Scrumptious ), his wife Dillys divorced him and shortly after sued him for not paying her £50 per month alimony. His beloved cottage in Spinningdale was sold in order to pay the lawsuit. 

Destitute, he turned to his friend Toby Bromley, heir to the Russell and Bromley shoe fortune, to help him out. Bromley offered Justice a cottage on his Hampshire estate and together the two went on to make several wildlife documentaries about their love of falconry.

1968 was a terrible year for Justice and he suffered from a severe stroke on top of it all. He was beginning to look and act like an old disgruntled bear. A series of strokes followed in the coming years and while he continued to make films, they were fewer in between. 


On July 2, 1975 James Robertson Justice passed away at the age of 68. Beside him at the time was actress Irene Von Meyerdorff, his lover of fifteen years, whom he had married just three days before.

Be sure to check out this video of Robertson Justice hosting the television program This is Scotland on Youtube.

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