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Robert Bolt | Biography

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Education, Wartime Service, and Teaching

British playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Oxton Bolt was born in Cheshire, near Manchester, England, on August 15, 1924, to a stern Methodist family. As a student at Manchester Grammar School he became interested in the devout and independent Tudor statesman Sir Thomas More.

His college education was interrupted by World War II (1939–45), when he served in England's army and Royal Air Force. After the war Bolt finished a history degree at Manchester University and the University of Exeter, joined the Communist Party, and became a committed atheist.

Bolt's first job was teaching English and history at the prestigious Millfield School. He loved his course subjects and taught for nearly a decade. His first play, a Nativity pageant, was written at Millfield.

Playwriting Success and A Man for All Seasons

While teaching, Bolt kept writing. In 1957 his play, Flowering Cherry, a play Encyclopaedia Britannica calls a "study of failure and self-deception" in the style of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, was a hit at London's Haymarket Theater. The next year Flowering Cherry made it to Broadway. Bolt followed Flowering Cherry with The Tiger and the Horse in 1960. He left teaching to pursue scriptwriting full-time.

His next play became his most well-known work: A Man for All Seasons (1960) established a theme connecting Bolt's work for both stage and screen. Bolt's protagonists wrestled with moral dilemmas and conflicted with the rules of their society. A Man for All Seasons, set in 16th-century Tudor England, dramatizes Sir Thomas More's clash with King Henry VIII over the king's remarriage. More was executed for his stance. In a preface to the play Bolt explains he hoped the historical setting would help him "treat my characters in a properly heroic, properly theatrical manner." He worried previous plays had been too artificial and affected.

When A Man for All Seasons came to London's Globe Theater in 1960, it cemented Bolt's reputation as a major British playwright. The 1962 Broadway adaptation won five Tony Awards. English actor Paul Scofield played More on Broadway and returned for the 1966 film version. By then Bolt was an acclaimed screenwriter. He wrote the film's screenplay and won an Oscar, his first, for best screenplay. The film was awarded six Oscars in all.

Screenwriting: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and More

After writing A Man for All Seasons Bolt took on the screenplay for director David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He continued his theme of the conflicted, fiercely independent protagonist in Lawrence, who struggled to fit into Arab and British cultures. The film became an exploration of identity. Bolt worked with Lean again in 1965 on the screenplay for Doctor Zhivago (1965), the epic film based on Boris Pasternak's novel about the Russian Revolution (1917). These films helped establish the early 1960s as "British cinema's golden age" according to the New York Times. The films are still widely regarded as two of the best films of all time.

Several later screenplays addressed the tension between society and personal identity. The Bounty (1984) dramatized a crew revolt on a British ship and starred American actor Mel Gibson and Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins. The Mission (1986) told the story of 18th-century Jesuits faced with moral struggles in South America. Other screenplays included Ryan's Daughter (1970) and Lady Caroline Lamb (1972).

Activism, Personal Life, and Legacy

Like Sir Thomas More, Bolt followed his conscience and got in trouble with the law as a result. In 1960, when nuclear war seemed imminent, Bolt joined the anti-war Committee of 100. The committee was a group of leading writers and artists who protested the nuclear arms race through civil disobedience. Bolt, along with other members, was arrested in 1961 at a London Trafalgar Square protest.

Bolt was sentenced to one month in jail. He refused to sign a declaration stating he wouldn't participate in similar protest activities. He was working on Lawrence of Arabia at the time, and the script still wasn't finished. Polish American film producer Sam Spiegel visited Bolt in jail and urged him to sign the declaration so the film could continue production. After two weeks Bolt signed and was released. However, he deeply regretted his actions later, dealing with guilt for years and refusing to speak to Spiegel again.

In later life Bolt returned to writing plays. The 1970 play Vivat! Vivat Regina! returned to British history with the conflict between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I. State of Revolution (1977) examined the lives of Russian Bolshevik leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

Bolt was partially paralyzed by a stroke in 1979. Although he took two years to fully relearn how to speak and write, he continued to work. He used a word processor to type with his left hand. Before he could speak again he'd finished a rewrite of the script for The Mission (1986).

A final script, Political Animal, told the story of President Ronald Reagan's press secretary James Brady. Wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, Brady was left paralyzed and with impaired speech. Bolt's script integrated many of his own experiences in stroke recovery. It was adapted into the HBO special Without Warning: The James Brady Story (1991).

Bolt's second wife, actress Sarah Miles, reunited with him before his death on February 21, 1995. He'd previously been married to painter Celia Roberts and actress Anne Zane.

Right up until Bolt died he was still at work adapting novelist Jung Chang's memoir Wild Swans (1994) for television. He'd also recently rewritten his 1966 children's play The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew (1995) as a children's novel. Bolt is remembered as one of England's greatest screenwriters.
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