Ballard Berkeley went from a successful if somewhat undistinguished career as a theatrical leading man to a long and lucrative career in movies and television playing memorable character roles and closed it out with a part on television that made him famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Margate, Kent, England, in 1904, he was the son of a theatrical manager with the family name Blascheck. He aspired to an acting career and made his London theatrical debut in 1928. Berkeley was the understudy to the lead in Counsel's Opinion (the play that became the movie The Divorce of Lady X). He also appeared with Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire in Stop Flirting and, over the next decade did a string of appearances opposite some of the top leading ladies of the day, including Dame Edith Evans and Fay Compton. His work as a theatrical leading man, however, was rather forgettable in the eyes of most critics, next to the actresses with whom he worked. But the movies beckoned after the advent of sound, and from 1930 -- with London Melody and The Chinese Bungalow -- Berkeley regularly appeared in features, often in leading or major supporting roles. His performances may have been fine, but the movies he did failed to have a major impact; the most widely seen of the early features was The Saint in London (1939), part of a series of films about the fictional Leslie Charteris-created sleuth. His career was interrupted at that point by the outbreak of the Second World War, rather ironically, considering the path of his subsequent career. Berkeley didn't serve in combat or even in the armed forces, but worked as a special constable, often in tandem with his fellow thespian Jack Hulbert. His presence was a big boost to the morale of their fellow officers, as he would organize entertainment in his off-duty hours.
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Berkeley sole wartime film appearance was a small but memorable part, as the HMS Torin's engineer-commander, in Noel Coward and David Lean's In Which We Serve (1942). And in 1947, after the war's end, he made his New York stage debut in the musical comedy Under the Counter. But theater receded in significance as part of his career during the postwar era, as Berkeley moved into character roles in film playing army officers (and, later -- and more notably -- retired army officers), police inspectors, and the occasional villain. During the 1950s, he also increasingly began to be seen on television as that medium took root in England, especially in crime programs like Dixon of Dock Green and action-adventure series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, and The Invisible Man. He remained busy on both the big and small screens and became a popular and familiar presence in British entertainment. Finally, in the mid-'70s, as he reached his own seventies, he was cast in the perfect role, a part that took advantage of his comically officious, Colonel Blimp-ish persona, which he cultivated in his portrayal of many a military officer, and also of his advancing age: Major Gowen on Fawlty Towers. As one of the long-standing residents at the broken-down hotel owned by Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), the Major -- who sometimes seemed comically disoriented -- was the most memorable of the guests whose presence vexed Fawlty, and Berkeley brought a great deal of humanity to the role without ever losing the opportunity for a laugh. And the series' success in America made him a familiar name to television viewers across the Atlantic for the first time. He continued working for another nine years, right up to his death in 1988, even making it into National Lampoon's European Vacation. Most of his appearances were in productions aimed at British viewers, such as The Wildcats of St. Trinian's (1980), alongside such long-serving acting talents as Michael Hordern and Thorley Walters, in what was the last of the "St. Trinian's" films. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi