One of George Rose’s best-remembered roles is that of the mutton-chopped Major General – spitting out his patter song with lightning speed – in Joseph Papp’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. But in his long career on the stage, Rose had a repertoire ranging from Shakespeare to Shaw and beyond – as well as a penchant for comic parts that allowed him to play the eccentric.
Born in Bicester, Oxfordshire, in 1920, Rose joined the Old Vic and made his stage debut with the company in Peer Gynt in 1944. Not long afterward he made his Broadway debut in an Old Vic production of Henry IV, Parts I and II (1946), playing several smaller roles, with Laurence Olivier as Hotspur and Ralph Richardson as Falstaff. He also appeared in the productions of Oedipus Rex and Sheridan’s The Critic that the company gave during the same visit to Broadway.
In England during the 1940s and the 1950s, he appeared in numerous productions of Shakespeare and other classics (as well as several contemporary plays), performing with the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He returned to Broadway in 1959 as Dogberry in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, which John Gielgud directed and acted in. Rose’s performance as the comical constable won rave reviews and helped him gain a foothold on Broadway. Two years later he returned to the Great White Way in A Man for All Seasons, playing The Common Man opposite Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell.
From the mid-1960s onward, Rose was a regular presence on Broadway, with appearances in plays and musicals, including Richard Burton’s famous Hamlet (1964), directed by Gielgud; The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1965); Walking Happy (1966); and Canterbury Tales (1968), in which he played several parts.
In 1969 he took center stage, starring alongside Katherine Hepburn as Coco Chanel in the André Previn/Alan Jay Lerner musical Coco (1969), earning a Tony® nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. In the early 1970s he stepped into one of the two leading roles in Sleuth, and in 1974 he starred in the four-person comedy My Fat Friend, playing alongside John Lithgow and Lynn Redgrave and winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance, as well as another Tony® nomination.
One of his great successes on Broadway was as the inebriated Alfred P. Doolittle in a 1976 revival of My Fair Lady, with Ian Richardson as Henry Higgins, for which Rose won his first Tony Award® for Best Actor in a Musical as well as another Drama Desk Award. He played Captain Hook to Sandy Duncan’s Peter Pan in a 1979 revival, and shone as the Major General in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of The Pirates of Penzance, presented first in Central Park, then on Broadway. Rose reprised his role in the 1983 movie featuring much of the same cast.
It was for his performance in the Rupert Holmes musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985) that Rose received his second Tony® and Drama Desk awards for his outstanding performance. Holmes had Rose’s special talents in mind when he transformed Dickens’s last novel into musical theater, and the show itself won the Tony® for Best Musical.
In 1988 Rose was murdered in the Dominican Republic, where he had settled.