Bates, the eldest of three brothers, was born in Allestree, Derby, England, the son of Florence Mary (née Wheatcroft), a homemaker and a pianist, and Harold Arthur Bates, an insurance broker and a cellist. Both of his parents were amateur musicians, and encouraged him to pursue music, but by age 11, young Bates already had determined his life's course as an actor, and so they sent him for dramatic coaching instead. He was educated at the Herbert Strutt Grammar School (amalgamated in 1973 with two secondary modern schools and renamed Belper High School, which has now become Belper School) in Belper, Derbyshire and later earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he studied before leaving to join the Royal Air Force.
In 1956, he debuted on stage in the West End, as Cliff in Look Back in Anger, a role he had originated at the Royal Court and which made him a star. He also played the role on Broadway. Four years later, he appeared in The Entertainer, his first film role. Bates worked for the Padded Wagon Moving Company in the early 1960s while acting at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York City. He soon starred in Whistle Down the Wind, Phillipe de Broca's King of Hearts, and in the Bernard Malamud film The Fixer, which gave him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Bates was handpicked by director John Schlesinger to star in the film Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) in the role of Dr. Daniel Hirsh. Even though he wanted the part very much, Bates was held up filming The Go-Between (1970) for director Joseph Losey and also became a father around that time, so he had to pass on the project, with regrets. The part then went first to Ian Bannen who balked at kissing and simulating sex with another man, and then to Peter Finch, who earned an Academy Award nomination.
Bates starred in such international films as Georgy Girl, Far From the Madding Crowd, Zorba the Greek, The Go-Between, Nijinsky, An Unmarried Woman and Women in Love (in which, along with Oliver Reed, he became the first actor to do frontal nudity in a major studio motion picture) but he consciously decided to concentrate on a few well-defined roles, rather than to take everything that came his way. On television, his parts ranged from classic roles such as The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978) to Guy Burgess in An Englishman Abroad (1979), and from The Rose as Mary Rose Foster's (Bette Midler) personal manager (1983) to a Russian spy in Pack of Lies (1987) and to the storyteller in the 2000 version of the Arabian Nights.
Bates played Antonius Agrippa in the 2004 TV film Spartacus, but died before it debuted. It was dedicated to his memory and that of writer Howard Fast, who wrote the original novel that inspired the film Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick. On stage, Bates had a particular association with the plays of Simon Gray, appearing in Butley, Otherwise Engaged, Stage Struck, Melon, Life Support and Simply Disconnected, as well as the film of Butley and Gray's TV series Unnatural Pursuits.
Bates was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1996, and was knighted in 2003. He was an Associate Member of RADA and was a patron of The Actors Centre, Covent Garden, London from 1994 until his death in 2003 (previous Patrons: Lord Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness).
Bates was married to the actress Victoria Ward from 1970 until her death in 1992. The Bateses had twin sons born in 1971, the actors Benedick Bates and Tristan Bates. Tristan died suddenly in 1990 during an asthma attack. The Bateses are also survived by granddaughter, Chatto Bates, Benedick's daughter.
In the later years of his life, Alan Bates's companion was his lifelong friend, actress Joanna Pettet, his co-star in the 1964 Broadway play Poor Richard. They divided their time between New York and London.
In May 2007 several articles were published with people from Bates's past with assertions that he had engaged in longtime relationships with men, including ten years relationship with fellow actor Peter Wyngarde, five years relationship with Gerard Hastings and two years relationship with Olympic skater John Curry.
The posthumous publication of Donald Spoto's book, Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates, is the only authorized biography of Alan Bates and is intended to remain so. It was written with the full and complete cooperation of his son Benedick Bates and younger brother Martin, Michael Linnit, Rosalind Chatto and more than one hundred other interviews. Bates had gay relationships throughout his life, including actor Nickolas Grace, Peter Wyngarde and John Curry, to whom he was devoted for over a decade, through the figure skater's death from AIDS. Even after the change of British anti-sodomy laws, the need to preserve his public image left him terrified of exposure. Bates rigorously avoided interviews and questions about his personal life, and even denied to his lovers that there was a gay component in his nature. Throughout his life Bates sought to be regarded as more of a ladies' man, or at least as a man who, as an actor would could appear attractive to and attracted by women.
Tristan Bates Theatre
Sir Alan and his family set up the Tristan Bates Theatre at the Actors' Centre in Covent Garden, in memory of his son, Tristan, who died at the age of 19. Tristan's twin brother, Benedick, is a vice-director.
- 2002 Best Actor Tony and Drama Desk, for Fortune's Fool
- 2000 Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award for Unexpected Man
- 1983 Variety Club Award for A Patriot for Me
- 1975 Variety Club Award for Otherwise Engaged
- 1971 Evening Standard Best Actor Award for Butley
- 1972 Best Actor Tony for Butley (a performance he recreated in the film version of the same name, Butley in 1974)
- 1959 Clarence Derwent Award for A Long Day's Journey Into Night
- Alan Bates Biography. filmreference.com. Retrieved on 2007-09-15.
- Karen Rappaport. Alan Bates Biography. The Alan Bates Archive. Retrieved on 2008-04-11.
- BBC - Derby - Around Derby - Famous Derby - Sir Alan Bates biography
- Spoto, Donald. "Alan Bates's Secret Gay Affair with Ice Skater John Curry", The Daily Mail, 19 May 2007. Retrieved on 2007-09-15.
- Spoto, Donald (2007). Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0091797357.
- Karen Rappaport. News. The Alan Bates Archive. Retrieved on 2007-09-15.
- Albany Trust Homosexual Law Reform Society (1984). GB 0097 HCA / Albany Trust. AIM25. British Library of Political and Economic Science. Retrieved on 2008-04-10.
- Michael Billington. "Sir Alan Bates", The Guardian, 29 December 2003. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- About Tristan Bates Theatre. Tristan Bates Theatre. Retrieved on 2007-11-08.