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09 February 2014

Leo Genn

Leo Genn (1905–1978) was a refined British stage and film actor - and barrister. Known for his relaxed charm and his deep black velvet voice, he also had success in Hollywood classics like Quo Vadis (1951) and Moby Dick (1956).

Leo Genn
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W 528. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Actor and Attorney


Leo John Genn was born in, London, England in 1905. He was the son of Woolfe (William) Genn, a jewellery salesman, and his wife Rachel Asserson.

Genn attended the City of London School and studied law at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, qualifying as a barrister in 1928. He ceased practicing as a lawyer soon after the Second World War.

Genn's stage debut was in A Marriage has been Disarranged (1930). Actor/manager Leon M. Lion engaged him simultaneously as an actor and attorney. In 1933 he appeared in Ballerina by Rodney Ackland.

In 1934-1936, Leo Genn was a member of the Old Vic Company where he appeared in many productions of William Shakespeare . He supplemented his early acting career by continuing to practice law.

Genn's first film role was as Shylock in the British production Immortal Gentleman (Widgey R. Newman, 1935), about the life of William Shakespeare featuring discussions with various friends along with scenes of his plays.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. hired Genn as a technical advisor on the film Accused (Raoul Walsh, 1936). He was subsequently given a small part as Prosecuting Counsel in the romantic drama on the strength of a "splendid voice and presence".

In 1937 he was Horatio in Tyrone Guthrie's stage production of Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, in Elsinore, Denmark.

In the cinema, he spent 1937 playing film prosecutors and defence attorneys but in 1938 he nabbed a small Indian character role in producer Alexander Korda's The Drum (Zoltan Korda, 1938) starring Sabu, and he was the young man who danced with Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) at the duchess's ball in Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard, 1938), although he was uncredited.

In 1938, Genn also appeared in the theatrical hit, The Flashing Stream by Charles Langbridge Morgan, and Genn made his American debut in early 1939 in the play's successful run on Broadway.

His many other stage performances included Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, 12 Angry Men, The Devil's Advocate, W. Somerset Maugham's The Sacred Flame.

Leo Genn
British postcard by L.D. Ltd., London in the Film Star Autograph Portrait Series, no. 72. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation. Publicity still for Personal Affair (Anthony Pelissier, 1953).

Leo Genn
Vintage postcard. Photo: MGM.

Quo Vadis


During World War II, Leo Genn served in the Royal Artillery, being made Lieutenant Colonel in 1943.

In 1944, the actor was given official leave to appear as the Constable of France in Olivier's film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944). It is widely considered the first Shakespeare film to be both artistically and commercially successful.

Genn was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1945. He was part of the British unit that investigated war crimes at Belsen concentration camp and later was an assistant prosecutor at the trial for Belsen in Lüneburg, Germany.

In 1946 he returned to law practice, but not for long. Genn had a great theatrical triumph in the 1946 Broadway production of Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. His stage and screen career flourished afterwards in both the US and England.

On screen, he was seen in the British thriller Green for Danger (Sidney Gilliat, 1946) with Alastair Sim, and the American drama The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948) starring Olivia De Havilland.

A highlight was his role as Nero’s counselor, the sardonic Gaius Petronius, in the MGM epic Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951).

William McPeak at IMDb: “Genn's generous part as the ancient Roman satirist was filled with double meaning quips and understated sarcasm that Genn delivered with his poker face charm and subtle sidelong glances. He is so good that the audience hangs on his next sub-level dig with anticipation that partially eclipses the first rate histrionics of Peter Ustinov as a tongue-in-cheek deranged Nero. The level of Genn's performance was recognized with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.”

Leo Genn
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W 695. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

During the 1950s, Leo Genn also appeared in some rather forgettable American films, such as Plymouth Adventure (Clarence Brown, 1952), and the comedy The Girls of Pleasure Island (Alvin Ganzer, F. Hugh Herbert, 1953).

He fared far better in the British film Personal Affair (Anthony Pelissier, 1953), starring opposite Gene Tierney. Then he appeared with Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart in Moby Dick (John Huston, 1956), the film adaptation of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

He also played Major Michael Pemberton in Rossellini's remarkable and largely forgotten war film Era Notte a Roma/Escape by Night (Roberto Rossellini, 1960) with Giovanna Ralli.

Genn was a governor of the Mermaid Theatre and trustee of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. He was also council member of the Arts Educational Trust. He was appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theatre Arts, Pennsylvania State University, in 1968 and Visiting Professor of Drama, University of Utah, in 1969.

Among his later films were the British drama Connecting Rooms (Franklin Gollings, 1970) starring Bette Davis, the low-budget horror-thriller Die Screaming, Marianne (Pete Walker, 1971) featuring Susan George, and the British cold war spy thriller The Mackintosh Man (John Huston, 1973) with Paul Newman.

In 1978, Leo Genn died in London from pneumonia, complications of a heart attack. His internment was in France.

Since 1933, Genn was married to Marguerite van Praag, a casting director at Ealing Studios. They had no children.


Dvd trailer Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951). Source: Ioana Barbu (YouTube).


Leader and scenes of Too hot to handle (Terence Young, 1960) with Jayne Mansfield. Source: CinemaSirens (YouTube).

Sources: William McPeak (IMDb), Paul (Find A Grave), AllMovie, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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