When he first came to London in 1950, the Australian actor Trader Faulkner, who has died aged 93, was instructed by John Gielgud in rehearsals to “take that dreadful compost out of your mouth, Trader”. He did, sort of, and soon afterwards succeeded Richard Burton in Gielgud’s production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning on Broadway, appearing alongside Pamela Brown and Esmé Percy “in the glittering style of artificial comedy.”
That last phrase of the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson could be as easily applied to Faulkner’s own life in show business. This was an eccentric tapestry of leading and not-so-leading roles, of name-dropping connections, close-up entanglements with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, flamenco dancing, Dorothy Tutin, for whom he reserved an unrequited adoration – they were houseboat neighbours for a time on the Thames at Chelsea Reach – and Maxine Audley.
Faulkner observed Leigh and Audley – Olivier was having an affair with the latter in her country cottage – stripping off naked and plunging together into the Avon during the famous Stratford season of 1955. He appeared on stage with them all in Macbeth (as Malcolm to Olivier’s Scottish regicide), Twelfth Night (as Sebastian, a taller identical twin to Leigh’s Viola), All’s Well That Ends Well (sharing small roles with Ian Holm) and Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus (as a Goth with Audley as the tribe’s Queen Tamora, Olivier as Titus, Leigh as Lavinia).
And underpinning this involvement was his friendship with his fellow Australian Peter Finch – a lover of Leigh’s while a close friend of Olivier – who had encouraged him back in Sydney to join the acting profession in the first place. This connection had been forged on the Old Vic tour of Australia in 1948, led by Olivier and Leigh, when Faulkner had “walked on” in Olivier’s Richard III in Sydney. He was one of several Australian actors – others included Keith Michell and Frank Thring – who surfaced back in the old country in the 1950s.
Trader Faulkner’s name was so distinctive and memorable that it was used by Martin Amis for the chief murder suspect (“another big brain dreamboat”) in his abrasive, spoof murder/suicide novel Night Train (1997). Amis had plucked it when the two of them – a bizarre conjunction – had appeared in Alexander Mackendrick’s 1965 film A High Wind in Jamaica, starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn.
Faulkner was a pirate, Amis a boy actor whom he tried to induct in dance moves between takes. He failed. When Amis’s novel was adapted as Carol Morley’s 2018 movie Out of the Blue, Faulkner beseeched the film company to have his name back (Amis thought he was dead, Faulkner alleged) and “his” character was renamed more blandly.
Trader was christened Ronald by his father, John Faulkner, an alcoholic English actor and silent movie star who had emigrated to Sydney with his second wife, the Scottish ballerina Sheila Whytock, who had danced in Diaghilev’s company in London and with Anna Pavlova in South America. His father died when he was seven, shortly after rechristening him “Trader” when he caught his son trading the bottles of his illicitly brewed whisky for marbles with his schoolmates.
He was packed off to a Jesuit boarding school and brought up by his mother, who also taught ballet classes. Working as a runner at ABC Radio in Sydney in 1945 he met Finch, who enrolled him in his training group. Between 1946 and 1949 he appeared in Shakespeare, Rattigan and Eugene O’Neill in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The director Tyrone Guthrie saw him play an outrageous old Dr Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor and said that if he got on a boat to Britain he would cast him in a play with John Mills.
That play fell through, but Faulkner was in the UK anyway in 1950 and stayed for the rest of his life. After the New York trip in The Lady’s Not for Burning (he also toured in the play to Philadelphia), Gielgud cast him again – as a well-spoken messenger in the opening scene – in Much Ado About Nothing at the Phoenix theatre in 1952, where he met Tutin playing Hero. Diana Wynyard and Gielgud were Beatrice and Benedick, Paul Scofield Don Pedro.
His best West End role, though, came in Peter Hall’s British premiere of Jean Anouilh’s The Waltz of the Toreadors at the Arts, and then the Criterion, in 1956. Faulkner was Gaston, the almost devoted secretary of a grumpy old general (Hugh Griffith) haunted by a long-ago romance: “No sir, I have not long left the seminary. I am still chaste.”
He was busy in films, too. He was in a Mills vehicle, Mr Denning Drives North (1951), with Phyllis Calvert and Wilfrid Hyde-White, and played a somnambulist brother to Laurence Harvey in A Killer Walks (1952), an excruciating psychological thriller. A Question of Adultery (1958) was the first movie about artificial insemination: while Anthony Steel made aggressive love to Julie London on an Iberian beach, Faulkner danced an equally aggressive flamenco on the terrace of the restaurant above them, stoking flames of desire.
He appeared in one of the early historical television adventure serials, 23 episodes of Richard the Lionheart (1962-63), as Prince John, the king’s (played by Dermot Walsh) embittered brother. And he devised a flamenco entertainment about the life of the Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca, who was censored and banned by Franco and assassinated by his militia in 1936. It surfaced three times in London in the 1980s – at the Latchmere (now Theatre 503), the Lyric, Hammersmith, and the Donmar Warehouse – and travelled far and wide.
In 80 Faulkner published Peter Finch, a biography of his hero and mentor, so it was fitting that his last published piece of journalism was about “Finchie”, in this month’s issue of The Oldie. He also wrote a collection of anecdotes, Losing My Marbles (2002), and the aptly named autobiography Inside Trader (2013) which, to be fair, recycled plenty of similar stories.
In 2015 he narrated a programme about the music of George Gershwin at Wilton’s Music Hall, London. His last public appearance was at the cabaret venue Crazy Coqs in Soho in November 2020, where he introduced, with a deft flourish, a tribute to Leigh with some of the same much-loved gobbets, and a rather crude proposition from Noël Coward – garbed in his “trade”-mark red beret, blouson and corduroy trousers.
Faulkner was awarded Spain’s Order of Civil Merit in 1985 for his promulgation of flamenco. For the last 50 years, he lived mostly alone in a west London flat off the Cromwell Road. He was married to the English model Bobo Faulkner (nee Ann Minchin) from 1963 to 1973, when they divorced, and is survived by their daughter, Sasha, and three grandchildren, Quinn, Eliza and Jamie.
• Trader (Ronald) Faulkner, actor, dancer and writer, born 7 September 1927; died 14 April 2021