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David Harewood Biography

Trained as Shakespearean Actor, New York Impressed Critics in London, Selected works



Harewood, David, photograph. Will Conran/Getty Images.

British actor David Harewood starred in Babyfather, a hit British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television series that followed the exploits of a quartet of black men and their struggles with romance, fidelity, and parenthood. Harewood played Augustus "Gus" Pottinger across eight episodes in 2001 and 2002 in a performance that garnered excellent reviews and made him one of Britain's newest leading men. After struggling for a number of years earlier in his career because of the "black actor" tag usually appended to his name, Harewood was thrilled that Babyfather seemed to be breaking new ground. "It challenges a lot of stereotypes and shows a side of the black male that we just haven't seen before," he told Graham Keal of Liverpool's Daily Post. "A side that's a lot more sensitive, a lot more understanding, a lot more humorous."

Born in 1965, Harewood was the last of four children born to parents who were originally from Barbados, the West Indian island nation, and had settled in Birmingham, a major city located in the central part of England known as the Midlands. His father was a long-distance truck driver, while his mother worked as a caterer, but they separated when Harewood was in his early teens. Birmingham was a hotbed of racial tensions during those years, with a large skinhead population and frequent skirmishes between blacks and whites. As he recalled in an interview with Nina Myskow for London's Mirror newspaper, there were definitely "no-go areas for black people. There was quite a lot of racism. I remember being chased, gangs and rottweilers. You'd wait for the screech of [tires], and find yourself half laughing and running for your life, clambering over fences. It was just part of life."

Though Harewood was an admittedly indifferent student at Washwood Heath comprehensive school, he was a talented mimic and the unofficial class clown. His career ambitions seemed dim at this point, and he imagined that if he would be able to get a job after leaving school at all, it would be in one of the nearby factories. But his English teacher suggested that he might try acting, and though Harewood's parents scoffed at the idea, he was able to earn a place in a six-week course at the Britain's prestigious National Youth Theatre. "I had the most brilliant time," he told a writer for London's Independent, Andrew G. Marshall. "There were three other black guys, but two of them completely ignored me. It was the first time I got a taste of what it would be like to be in competition in the business."

Trained as Shakespearean Actor

From this starting point, Harewood won a coveted spot at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where he shed his distinctive "Brummie," or Birmingham, accent. Not long after he finished, he was cast in a production of Romeo and Juliet as the male lead in the doomed romantic tragedy from Shakespeare, and his skin color occasioned much press for the unknown actor. Further articles also seemed to emphasize his race, and within two years of leaving school Harewood suffered a nervous breakdown, caused in part by overwork but also due to intense media scrutiny. He recalled that he began speaking in a variety of character voices, and at one point believed he was actually a secret agent. "I'd literally wake up on Oxford Street at four in the afternoon and think 'What am I doing here? Dressed as a clown, in a pair of shorts and a pair of boots. I'd better get home,'" he told Myskow in the Mirror interview. "I'd start walking home and the next thing I knew, I'd find myself in Islington at 3am. I kept waking up in various places in London."

Harewood was temporarily committed to a hospital for treatment, which involved a heavy dose of stabilizing drugs, but thankfully his RADA professors and theater colleagues stepped in, along with "incredibly supportive friends and family who rang up the institution and said, 'Look, he's not mad, he's an actor and just stressed,'" he told Rebecca Fletcher in another Mirror article. "I was lucky. If I'd been an anonymous black guy in another city, I'd probably have disappeared into the system."

After some months of rest, Harewood resumed his career, and began to win an increasing number of roles in British-made television series and films. In 1995, Vanessa Redgrave cast him in the lead in another Shakespearean romantic tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, opposite herself in a production staged by her repertory theater company. They reprised the roles on a lengthy two-year tour, and their on-stage chemistry was so apparent that rumors arose they were romantically involved in real life as well. Redgrave, scion of a British acting family and known for her outspoken political views, was nearly 30 years Harewood's senior, and the pair did live together for a time in Redgrave's suburban London home. But Harewood maintains that theirs was a platonic relationship, and the two remain close friends.

New York Impressed Critics in London

Harewood's career was boosted by his appearance in the title role of yet another Shakespearean tragedy, Othello, at the Royal National Theatre beginning in 1997. He was cast in the part by theater director Sam Mendes, who would go on to earn an Academy Award for the 1999 film, American Beauty. Harewood's performance earned excellent reviews, with the Financial Times critic Alastair Macaulay noting that he "so fully inhabits the role of Othello that he carries the play's later acts. His rapport with Desdemona and Iago is full of superb detail." Macaulay concluded by musing, "sometimes I think that the best experience of all is to encounter a familiar play as if for the first time. So with this superb Othello." Robert L. Daniels, a critic for the entertainment-industry trade journal Variety, saw the play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April of 1998 and also gave Harewood's stage talents some high marks. "The actor makes the transition from dignified general to tormented pawn with a startling and pitiful descent into festering fury," Daniels asserted.

Harewood won a role in a British police-drama series, The Vice, in 1999 as Sergeant Joe Robinson. He also began another job in a medical drama, Always and Everyone, that also went on the air in Britain that same year. In the latter drama, which ran until 2002, he played a hospital physician, Dr. Mike Gregson. In 2001, he began appearing in Babyfather, a BBC2 series based on a book of the same name. He played Augustus "Gus" Pottinger, a successful jeweler who carries on romantic dalliances with two women, but Pottinger was one of just four men on the series, each with their own set of relationship troubles. The series ran into a second season and scored high ratings.

At a Glance …

Born in 1965 in Birmingham, England; son of a Romeo (a truck driver) and Malene (a caterer) Harewood. Education: Attended London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Career: Actor, 1991–.

Memberships: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, associate.

Addresses: Office—c/o Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, 62-64 Gower St., London WC1E 6ED, United Kingdom.

Harewood has also appeared in the film version of The Merchant of Venice, a 2004 production that featured Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons in the leading roles. He was eager to explore new roles as an actor, perhaps even as the first black James Bond. "My dream role would be to play a villain in Lord of the Rings—but there's another movie where they didn't seem to want to cast any black actors," he said in Independent interview from 2003. "This country refuses to—or cannot find the energy to—produce a black international film star."

Selected works


The Hawk, 1993.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen, 1995.

The Merchant of Venice, 2004.

Strings, 2004.


Romeo and Juliet, London.

Antony and Cleopatra (toured), 1995-97.

Othello (toured), 1997-98.

Badnuff, London, 2004.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, London, 2005.


The Vice, BBC-TV, 1999.

Always and Everyone, BBC-TV, 1999-2002.

Babyfather, BBC-TV, 2001-02.



Back Stage, March 21, 1997, p. 52; April 17, 1998, p. 49.

Daily Post (Liverpool, England), October 6, 2001, p. 2.

Express (London, England), October 28, 2002, p. 32.

Financial Times, May 6, 1998, p. 16.

Independent (London, England), May 12, 1998, p. 14; May 31, 2003, p. 5.

Mirror (London, England), April 6, 2001, p. 32; February 16, 2002, p. 6.

New Statesman, September 19, 1997, p. 40.

Times (London, England), January 20, 2000, p. 38.

Variety, March 17, 1997, p. 62; April 20, 1998, p. 55.

—Carol Brennan

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