Niall MacGinnis is not as well known outside of Europe, but he was a wonderful character actor whose variety of roles matched his great gift for characterization and the look beyond just makeup that he projected. He was educated at Stonyhurst College and Trinity College, Dublin. He obtained a basic medical education which qualified him as a house (resident) surgeon during World War II in the Royal Navy. But after the war he decided to pursue acting. He worked in stage repertoire and stock companies and moved on to do significant stage work at the Old Vic Theatre in London, where John Gielgud was director and Shakespeare has a particular focus. MacGinnis had the burly look of a farm hand with a large head and curly hair falling away from a progressively receding hairline. He could portray a broad enough accent – or little at all, as the case might be – which could entail any part of the British Isles.
He moved on to film work in 1935 when British sound cinema was hitting its stride. He met young but well experienced director Michael Powell, who was eager to sell his script for an intriguing film to be shot on the furthest island from the north coast of the UK, Foulda. Alexander Korda was impressed and optioned the production of this script forThe Edge of the World (1937), and MacGinnis got the nod as the central protagonist, Andrew Gray. Soon after in 1938, MacGinnis worked with Old Vic mentor and director Gielgud for a role in an early TV production of the play “Spring Meeting” (1938). As the war years ensued and before his own service, MacGinnis did several war effort films, most notably asked by Powell to take the role of a German U-boat cook in 49th Parallel(1941). The film sported a great ensemble cast, including Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, and was shot in Canada where the drama unfolded, but it lacked the drive to keep the story vital. MacGinnis shone as the good-natured peasant who loved food and had no use for Nazi strictures and warring on the world. Luckily for Powell, the movie with its flag waving spirit was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
By the late 1940s, MacGinnis was donning historical garb for what would be some of his most familiar roles. Olivier remembered him and gave him small but standout roles in both his Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948). At about that time MacGinnis began associations with American film actors and production money coming over to Britain, the first being with Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge in Christopher Columbus(1949). He finally came to American shores with an appearance on Broadway in “Caesar and Cleopatra” in late 1951 through April of 1952. In 1952 back in England, he had a supporting role as the Herald in a screen version of the story of Thomas a’ Becket titledMurder in the Cathedral (1951). Interestingly, he was also in the much better known and Hollywood-financed Becket (1964), as one of the four murderous barons. When MGM came back to England to follow up its previous visit and subsequent huge hit, Ivanhoe(1952), with Knights of the Round Table (1953), MacGinnis had a brief but again noticeable role as the Green Knight, bound by loss of combat to Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe. The next year brought one of his rare lead roles, an exemplary one in every measure. As Luther in Martin Luther (1953), MacGinnis joined a mostly British cast in a US/West German co-production and American director Irving Pichel with West German and historical scenery topped with a first rate script with American and German co-writers. It received two Oscar nominations.
Into the later 1950s, MacGinnis held to a steady diet of sturdy movie roles, usually supporting but always memorable because of his great acting skill. Historically, he went further back in time with several films of epic Ancient Greece, first as King Menelaus inHelen of Troy (1956), an American/Italian co-production with Robert Wise directing. That same year he stayed on the continent for another epic, this time Alexander the Great(1956) with American director Robert Rossen in an US/Spanish co-production that enlisted another first tier British cast, centered on box office idol Richard Burton, along with former co-star Freddy March. MacGinnis finally made it to Mount Olympus – that is, playing Zeus – in the rousing US/UK co-production of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), certainly best remembered for the stop motion animation magic of Ray Harryhausen.
Yet, MacGinnis’ perhaps best remembered role – certainly to discriminating fans of horror/fantasy – was that of two-faced Dr. Julian Karswell, jocular magician – but deadly serious cult leader and demon conjurer (loosely based on the outrageous English social rebel and occultist Aleister Crowley). The film Curse of the Demon (1957) (the American cut was renamed “Curse of the Demon”) was a stylishly atmospheric and convincingly spooky outing directed by Val Lewton, the protégé of Hollywood veteran film directorJacques Tourneur, best known for Cat People (1942). Based on M.R. James‘ Edwardian ghost story, “Casting the Runes,” the film is now considered a classic of the genre with MacGinnis, sporting a devilish goatee, having fun with his split personality but also effectively betraying his inward fear of the powers he has unleashed. He easily stole the show from co-star Dana Andrews, as the stubborn American psychologist almost done in by the demon he does not believe exists.
Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, MacGinnis kept to up a fairly steady stream of varied historical and contemporary movie roles, always noticeable, and in some of the high profile films of the period, including: Billy Budd (1962), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and the Cinerama adventure Krakatoa: East of Java (1968). There were some TV spots as well to showcase his character-molding talents into the year of his passing to round out a body of over 75 screen appearances.
– IMDb Mini Biography By: William McPeak
The above IMDB entry can also be accessed online here.