Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Many Charms of Robert Coote

"You would come. I didn't want to show it to you, but, oh, no, no, you just had to see it!" 

Mr. Coombes, who uttered these words in the beloved 1947 classic The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, was just one of many characters portrayed by English actor Robert Coote. Like most character actors, Robert Coote's face is more familiar than his name and a quick search online would reveal that even that name is nearly forgotten. However, a forgotten name does not represent a forgettable player. 

Coote was born on February 4, 1909 in London and grew up in the atmosphere of the theatre with his mother being a dancer and his father, Bert Coote, a popular music hall comedian. The younger Coote loved the stage as a boy and at the age of 16 left school to join a touring repertory company where, in 1925, he made his stage debut as a manservant in The Private Secretary.

Coote dabbled in various productions throughout the 1920s and, in 1931, landed his first uncredited movie role in Sally in Our Alley as a waiter. After only a few small parts in other films, Coote portrayed a leading role as a flight lieutenant in Rangle River, a Zane Grey adventure flick. This part led to him landing the ducky role of Wavertree, a student who tries his darnest to get booted from Oxford, in A Yank at Oxford ( 1938 ), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's inaugural Anglo-American production. While Robert Taylor's character was garnering all the attention from the young ladies in the audience, Coote's character provided the comic relief in the story and kept things light and jolly. This was just one of Coote's many charms, he was such an amiable chap. 

In 1939 he was cast as Higgenbotham in Gunga Din with Cary Grant. He also played small parts in two nurse-themed pictures - Nurse Edith Cavell and Vigil in the Night

Coote could very well have had a steady career as a supporting player in British and Hollywood productions had it not been for the outbreak of World War II. Like most actors, he put his career on hold while he went off to serve his country. Oddly enough, he did not sign up with Britain's fighting legions but went on to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Between 1940-1946, Coote served as a squadron leader taking time off to act only in the interest of the RCAF. He portrayed himself in the 1942 documentary Commandos Strike at Dawn and in 1943 helped organize a RCAF stageshow, Blackouts of 1943. He must have been a good squadron leader as well. 

After the war, one of the first roles Coote portrayed was that of an Air Force pilot in the Powell and Pressburger classic Stairway to Heaven. This was one of many films that he played in with his good friend Sir David Niven. They would also team up on television twenty years later for The Rogues ( 1964-1965 ), for which Coote was nominated for an Emmy Award. 

Another one of Coote's charms was his comradery and almost all of his career was spent portraying friends to the hero of the story. This was the case in A Yank at Oxford, Stairway to Heaven, The Prisoner of Zenda, and in The Three Musketeers, where he played one of the loyal sword-yielding comrades: Aramis. You could always find an ally in one of Coote's characters. 

The late 1940s were busy years for the Brit and he landed parts in nine different film productions, including The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Forever Amber, and The Red Danube. The roles given to Robert Coote while he worked at Twentieth Century Fox were similar to those handed to Richard Haydn. These usually required a good dose of English pomposity or a touch of eccentricity and, like Haydn, he milked the most he could from these parts.

During the 1950s, Coote got to work alongside one of MGM's most popular leading men - Stewart Granger - in the swashbucklers Scaramouche and The Prisoner of Zenda. He also appeared for the first time on Broadway in The Love of Four Colonels and Dear Charles, receiving rave reviews for both comedic performances. 

Another charming feature of Coote's character was his aristocratic bearing. Upbringing means a lot to the British gentry and Robert had the bearing of a thoroughly well-bred Englishman. You would never find him portraying a beggar or a lowly sort of character. 

In 1956 he played his most famous role on Broadway, that of Colonel Pickering in the Lerner and Lowe production of My Fair Lady starring his friend Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. This character embodied all of the charms that Robert Coote had become known for - affability, comradery, and gentility. Coote joined the cast on the national tour and appeared in the 1976 revival as well, but - like Andrews - did not reprise his role for the 1965 film adaption. Not surprisingly, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as the Colonel.

Coote also originated the part of King Pellinore in the musical Camelot, appearing in 874 performances on Broadway in 1960 before trying his hand at a regular television series - The Rogues. Coote had welcomed with open arms the new medium of television during the early 1950s and, beginning with the Robert Montgomery Presents show, became a frequent player on televised dramatic plays and series ( including The Whitehall Worrier ) up until his last performance as a regular on the 1981 television series Nero Wolfe

Robert Coote died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 73. He had never married and lived the life of an ocean-hopper, splitting his time between his residence in London and at the New York Athletic Club. 

Although most film fans would agree that if this post was devoid of photos they would not even know how Coote looked us, after viewing his performances his many charms will become quite obvious. 

This post is our contribution to our favorite What a Character! Blogathon being hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club. Head on over to any of these sites to check out the roster of writers covering their favorite character actors. 


  1. How marvelous to learn of Mr. Coote's career with the RCAF. I remember him fondly as Theodore on "Nero Wolfe" and recall the pleasant shock of realizing that it was poor old Higginbottom all along!

    1. Yes, MS Caftan Woman, Mr Coote put his career on hold to fight for the allies in 1940. David Niven did to, but others like Olivier, Grant, and Cedrick Hardwick hid behind a camera. He is a treasure, this Mr Robert Coote

  2. Great to see you remembering Robert Coote! I became acquainted with him through "The Rogues," and since then I've recognized him in many other roles. Charm, indeed!

    1. Loved him in Gunga Din. You are so lucky to have known him

  3. Thank you for writing about Mr. Coote. I have enjoyed his performances in classic films, but, like you pointed out, if you hadn't put in any pictures of him, I might not have been able to place him! Glad he got to be the original Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady-seems a crime he didn't get to play the part in the film version. Oh well.

  4. I agree with PortraitsbyJenni – if you hadn't included any portraits, I would be lost! (Well, OK, there is Google, after all...)

    I'm glad to know more about this very busy actor. I'll keep a sharper eye out for him now. :)

  5. I used to listen to the album of the Broadway 'My Fair Lady' constantly as a child, so have heard Coote sing many times, but I wasn't aware of all these roles. Will definitely aim to catch up with some of his parts in future. What a great subject.

  6. I had the pleasure of seeing Robert Coote several times as Pickering in the 1976 Broadway revival of "My Fair Lady" opposite Ian Richardson's Professor Higgins. They closed at the height of a terrible flu season, with all of the leads ill during their final week. Richardson was so exhausted one evening from performing while ill, Coote was charged with "stretching" the scene just prior to "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," so Richardson could sit for a minute. He ad-libbed a phone call to his pal in the Home Office for a good three minutes. Hilarious.
    Love him in "Gunga Din" and "The Prisoner of Zenda," and saw him recently in a fairly obscure Douglas Fairbanks Jr. film (Fairbanks as an exiled King James, and Coote as an actor hired to pretend to be the King, as bait for James' enemies). He was a trooper and always great fun to watch.

  7. He played the bumbling Bertie Higenbotham in that marvelous movie Gunga Din, but in real life he was anything but that. A Squardon Commander leads a group of 6 or so planes into combat. He must have been some kind of a man...this Robert Coote

  8. My mother Mariette was very fond of her cousin Bob Coote, son of her father’s sister Ada. Thanks for remembering him, he had quite a career.