Judith Olivia Dench (Judi) was born in York, England on December 9, 1934.
Her parents, Dr. Reginald and Olave Dench, were both enthusiastic amateur
actors, and her siblings Peter and Jeffery also acted in local productions.
Her parents first took Judi to see a performance when she was four years old
and she laughed so hard they feared she would make herself ill so they left
early. (Apparently convinced they had over-reacted they brought her back the
next night.) A year later she made her drama debut, playing the role of a
A spirited child, Judi drew on the walls of her bedroom, dressed the
family cats in doll clothes and wreaked such havoc playing in the yard her
father’s partner had to ask her to stop — she was disturbing the patients.
At 13 Judi entered The Mount school, a private Quaker school in York. She
later said she was attracted chiefly by the school’s uniforms, but whatever
her reasons, the choice proved to be a congenial one. She appeared in
several school productions, including Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s
Dream” and “Richard II.” Because The Mount discouraged competitiveness
Judi alternated her role as Queen in the latter play with that of lady-in-waiting.
She credits her lifelong distaste for competitiveness to The Mount, but it
is likely that the Mount’s Quaker tenets simply reinforced a selfless spirit
that was already present.
Judi has always dated her professional debut from 1957, when the city of York
revived medieval mystery plays. She played the Virgin Mary.
Her brother Jeffery, six years her senior, attended The Central School of
Speech and Drama in London and his enthusiasm helped fire Judi’s interest in
a drama career. She did not want to act, however — she wanted to be a
designer. After leaving The Mount she studied theatre design for a few
months, then saw a production of “King Lear” whose spare, stunning design
convinced her she lacked the necessary imagination. Rather half-heartedly,
by her account, she applied to The Central School and was accepted.
Though she loved being in London, seeing as many plays as she could and
enjoying the company of classmates, Judi did not see in herself the potential
her teachers did. Only after she performed a mime on the spur of the moment
(she had forgotten to prepare the assignment) and received glowing praise
from the instructor did she begin to think she might have the talent for a
career in acting.
It is likely that her instructors recognized her potential much sooner. In
her early days at Central she had a small speaking voice. Rather than
suggest she try another field, two faculty members worked with her for a year
to develop her voice. They — and she — succeeded. Her voice has been
called many things since then, but never “small.”
When Judi graduated from Central her awards and prizes included the Gold
Medal and the prize for outstanding student of the year. Michael Benthall of
the Old Vic immediately cast her as Ophelia in his production of “Hamlet.”
Her performance received less than rave reviews and when the Old Vic went
on tour to the U.S. Benthall took her along, but not as Ophelia.
She survived this blow, enjoyed the tour, observed other actors from the
wings and learned. Upon returning to England she began the succession of
stage roles that amazes with its size, range, and difficulty.
Always delighted by the prospect of an especially demanding role, Judi
tackled not only most of Shakespeare (including playing — to enthusiastic
reviews — the roles of both mother and daughter in “The Winter’s Tale”), but
Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, Wilde, Wycherley, and dozens of other playwrights.
In the 1960’s she twice visited Africa, taking Shakespeare to places where
his plays had never been seen. In 1969-70 she toured Japan and Australia
with the Royal Shakespeare Co.
In 1969 Judi found herself in a Stratford pub chatting companionably with RSC
colleague Michael Williams. What had been a casual friendship quickly
deepened. When Judi and others from the RSC went to Japan and then
Australia on tour, Michael flew from England to Australia to see her and the
courtship continued. Overcoming her reservations about combining career and
family Judi married Michael in Feb. 1971. Their daughter Tara Cressida Frances,
known as Finty, was born in Sept. 1972.
With Finty’s birth Judi suggested that she retire from acting, but Michael
encouraged her to continue. She tailored her schedule so she was able to
spend ample time with Finty. Always family-oriented, Judi suggested that she
and Michael make a home for her mother (her father had died) and Michael’s
parents, and this they did for twelve years.
Though the stage has always been her first love, Judi began television work
early in her career and she won BAFTA’s “Most Promising Newcomer”Award
for her appearance in “Four in the Morning” (1965). She received BAFTA’s
“Best Actress Award” for her portrayal of a troubled daughter in the four-part
drama, “Talking to a Stranger” (1966).
Though she was a much-respected actress, she became widely known only when
she and Michael played opposite each other in the sitcom “A Fine Romance”
(1980-84). Michael reflected that the audience, said to number 14 million
people, greatly outnumbered any they could have reached with stage
performances. Her performances continued to impress and dazzle her audiences throughout the Eighties. In 1988, she became Dame Judi Dench, DBE in honor
of her contributions to the arts.
In 1991 Dame Judi joined veteran actor Geoffrey Palmer and “A Fine Romance” writer Bob Larbey to make six episodes of what was to be a one-season sitcom,
“As Time Goes By.” The series was received with such enthusiasm seven more
seasons were filmed and a ninth was filmed in late Spring, 2002. That will be the series’ final season.
During the Nineties, Dame Judi also performed more and more on audio tapeand many of these are now available. Productions included drama, poetry and novels. Her stage performances included 1995’s “Absolute Hell” and “A Little Night
Music” for which she was the first person to receive two Olivier Best Actress Awards in the same year.
Her film career started slowly. Put off in her early 20’s by one director’s
assessment at an audition: “Miss Dench, you have every single thing wrong
with your face,” Dame Judi made few films (with small roles) until she burst onto
the international scene with her stunning portrayal of Queen Victoria in
“Mrs. Brown.” Her Oscar nomination for Best Actress brought her attention,
soon followed by an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Queen Elizabeth the
First in “Shakespeare in Love.” She was nominated for an Oscar the next year
for her role in “Chocolat.” By that time she had played M in the three latest
James Bond films, with Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond getting the rough edge of
her character’s tongue.
In the summer of 1999 Dame Judi took the David Hare play “Amy’s View”from
a successful run in London’s West End to a successful 16-week run on Broadway.
Smitten Americans stopped her on the streets, applauded her in restaurants,
packed cinema plexes where her films appeared and, in city after city, voted
“As Time Goes By” their favorite Britcom. She received the 1999 Best Actress
Tony Award for her emotional performance as Esme Allen.
When Michael Williams died of cancer in January 2001, Dame Judi had been at home for several months caring for him. Finding that, for her, grief produced
energy, she threw herself into three films, making them almost simultaneously
— “The Shipping News,” “Iris” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In the
fall of 2001 she returned to the stage in a revival of the Ferber-Kaufman
play “The Royal Family”, and as that play’s run drew to a close she
sandwiched in filming sessions on the newest Bond film, “Die Another Day”. As
early 2002 saw the release of these new films, Dame Judi’s most recent performances were already receiving praise from critics as well as the public.
She won the BAFTA Film Best Actress Award for IRIS and was again nominated for Oscar’s Best Actress, also for IRIS. Along with Dame Maggie Smith, she began a sell-out run in David Hare’s new play “The Breath of Life”in the Fall of 2002.
One thing is for sure, the future will be a busy one for Dame Judi — and a most enjoyable one for all of her admirers all around the world as we continue to reap
the benefits of her incomparable and inspiring talent. To quote BAFTA Fellowship Tribute host, Stephen Fry, we are truly “Denched in glory” and we thank her
for this …
Compiled by: Delda W. with Chris M. February 6, 2002