Redgrave was born in Bristol, England the son of the silent film actor Roy Redgrave and the actress Margaret Scudamore. He never knew his father, who left when Michael was only six months old, to pursue a career in Australia. His mother subsequently married Captain James Anderson, a tea planter, but Redgrave greatly disliked his stepfather.
He studied at Clifton College and Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was a schoolmaster at Cranleigh School in Surrey before becoming an actor in 1934. There he directed the boys in Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest, but managed to play all the leading roles himself. The 'Redgrave Room' at the school was later named after him.
Redgrave made his first professional appearance at the Liverpool Playhouse on 30 August 1934 as Roy Darwin in Counsellor-at-Law (by Elmer Rice), then spent two years with its Liverpool Repertory Company where he met his future wife Rachel Kempson. They married on 18 July 1935.
Offered a job by Tyrone Guthrie, his first professional appearance in London was at the Old Vic on 14 September 1936, playing Ferdinand in Love's Labours Lost. During the 1936-37 season he also played Mr Horner in The Country Wife, Orlando in As You Like It, Warbeck in The Witch of Edmonton and Laertes to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. His hit of the season was Orlando. Edith Evans was his Rosalind and the two fell very much in love. As he later explained: "Edith always had a habit of falling in love with her leading men; with us it just went rather further." As You Like It transferred to the New Theatre in February 1937 when he again played Orlando.
At the Embassy Theatre in March 1937 he played Anderson in a mystery play, The Bat, before returning to the Old Vic in April, succeeding Marius Goring as Chorus in Henry V. Other roles that year included Christopher Drew in Daisy Fisher's comedy A Ship Comes Home at the St Martin's Theatre in May and Larry Starr in Philip Leaver's comedy Three Set Out at the Embassy in June, before joining John Gielgud's Company at the Queen's Theatre, September 1937 to April 1938, where he played Bolingbroke in Richard II, Charles Surface in The School for Scandal and Baron Tusenbach in Three Sisters.
Other roles included:
- Alexei Turbin in The White Guard (The Days of the Turbins by Mikhail Bulgakov), Phoenix Theatre October 1938
- Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, Phoenix December 1938
- Harry, Lord Monchesney in The Family Reunion (T S Eliot), Westminster Theatre March 1939
- Henry in Springtime for Henry, touring 1939
Second World War
Once the London theatres were re-opened, after the outbreak of war, he played:
- Captain Macheath in The Beggar's Opera, Theatre Royal Haymarket, March 1940
- Charleston in Thunder Rock (Robert Ardrey), Neighbourhood Theatre June 1940; Globe Theatre July 1940
Redgrave joined the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman in July 1941, but was discharged on medical grounds in November 1942. Having spent most of 1942 in the Reserve he managed to direct Lifeline (Norman Armstrong) starring Frank Pettingell at the Duchess Theatre in July; and The Duke in Darkness (Patrick Hamilton) starring Leslie Banks at the St James's Theatre in October, also taking the role of Gribaux.
Resuming his stage career he played/directed:
- Rakitin in A Month in the Country (Turgenev), St James's Theatre March 1943
- Lafont in six matinees of Parisienne, a comedy by Henry Becque, translated by Ashley Dukes, (Redgrave also directed and managed) co-starring Sonia Dresdel, St James's Theatre June 1943
- Blow Your Own Trumpet, a comedy by Peter Ustinov, (directed), Playhouse Theatre August 1943
- The Wingless Victory, a period romance by Maxwell Anderson, (directed) starring Rachel Kempson as Faith Ingalls, Phoenix Theatre September 1943
- Harry Quincey in Uncle Harry, a thriller by Thomas Job, (also co-directed with William Armstrong) with Beatrix Lehmann as Leslie Quincey and Rachel Kempson as Lucy Forrest, Garrick Theatre March 1944
- Colonel Stjerbinsky in Jacobowsky and the Colonel, a comedy by Franz Werfel, adapted by S N Behrman, (Redgrave also directed) with Rachel Kempson as Marianne, Piccadilly Theatre, June 1945
- Title role in Macbeth, Aldwych Theatre December 1947; National Theater, New York (NY debut, with Flora Robson as Lady Macbeth) 31 March 1948
- Captain in The Father (August Strindberg) directed by Dennis Arundell with Freda Jackson as Laura, Embassy Theatre November 1948; and Duchess Theatre January 1949
- Etienne in A Woman in Love (also co-adapted with Diana Gould and directed) with Margaret Rawlings as Germaine, Embassy April 1949
- Berowne in Love's Labours Lost
- Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer
- Rakitin in A Month in the Country
- His first Hamlet, which he also played at the Zurich Festival, the Holland Festival and at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, June 1950
Redgrave joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company at Stratford upon Avon and for the 1951 season appeared as Prospero in The Tempest as well as playing Richard II, Hotspur and Chorus in the Cycle of Histories, for which he also directed Henry IV Part Two. After appearing as Frank Elgin in Winter Journey at the St James's April 1952, he rejoined the Stratford company in 1953 (together with his actress wife Rachel Kempson) appearing as Shylock, King Lear and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, also playing Antony when the company transferred to the Princes Theatre in November 1953 before touring to Holland, Belgium and Paris.
At the Apollo in June 1955 he played Hector in Tiger at the Gates, appearing in the same role at the Plymouth Theater, New York in October 1955 for which he received the New York Critics Award. While in New York he directed A Month in the Country at the Phoenix Theatre in April 1956, and directed and played the Prince Regent in The Sleeping Prince at the Coronet Theater in November 1956.
Returning to London in January 1958 he appeared as Philip Lester in A Touch of the Sun (N C Hunter) at the Saville Theatre — Best Actor in the Evening Standard Awards 1958 — before rejoining the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company in June 1958, to play Hamlet and Benedick, also playing Hamlet with the company in Leningrad and Moscow in December 1958 (while his wife Rachel Kempson played Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing and Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet).
At the Queen's Theatre in London in August 1959 he played HJ in his own adaptation of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. His play was later to be successfully revived on Broadway in 1962, with Wendy Hiller and Maurice Evans, while the 1984 London revival featured his daughter, Vanessa Redgrave, along with Christopher Reeve and Dame Wendy Hiller, this time in the role of Miss Bordereau.
- Jack Dean in The Tiger and the Horse by Robert Bolt (which Redgrave also co-presented, directed by Frith Banbury), Queen's Theatre August 1960
- Victor Rhodes in The Complaisant Lover by Graham Greene, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, November 1961 - 101 performances
Returning to England, in July 1962 he took part in the Chichester Festival Theatre's opening season, playing the title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to the Astrov of Laurence Olivier who also directed.
Alongside John Dexter's Chichester staging of Saint Joan, Olivier'sUncle Vanya was first revived in Chichester in 1963 before transferring to the Old Vic as part of the nascent National Theatre's inaugural season, winning rave reviews and Redgrave's second win as Best Actor in the 1963 Evening Standard Awards. "In Redgrave's Vanya you saw both a tremulous victim of a lifetime's emotional repression and the wasted potential of a Chekhovian might-have-been: as Redgrave and Olivier took their joint curtain call, linked hands held triumphantly aloft, we were not to know that this was to symbolise the end of their artistic amity.": Michael Billington
Redgrave played (and co-presented) Lancelot Dodd MA in Arthur Watkyn's Out of Bounds at Wyndham's Theatre in November 1962, following it at the Old Vic with his portrayal of Claudius opposite the Hamlet of Peter O'Toole in 22 October 1963. This Hamlet was in fact the National Theatre's official opening production, directed by Olivier, but Simon Callow has dubbed it "slow, solemn, long", while Ken Campbell vividly described it as "brochure theatre.".
In January 1964 at the National he played the title role in Hobson's Choice, which he admitted was well outside his range: "I couldn't do the Lancashire accent and that shook my nerve terribly - all the other performances suffered." While still at the National in June 1964 he also played Halvard Solness in The Master Builder, which he said 'went wrong'. At this time he had incipient Parkinson's disease although he did not know it.
On a happier note, in May–June 1965 Redgrave directed the opening festival of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, including directing and playing Rakitin in A Month in the Country (co-starring with Ingrid Bergman as Natalya Petrovna), and Samson in Samson Agonistes (co-starring with Rachel Kempson as Chorus). He again played Rakitin in September 1965, when his production transferred to the Cambridge Theatre in London.
At the Mermaid Theatre in July 1971 he played Mr Jaraby in The Old Boys (William Trevor) and had an unfortunate experience: "My memory went, and on the first night they made me wear a deaf aid to hear some lines from the prompter and it literally fell to pieces - there were little bits of machinery all over the floor, so I then knew I really couldn't go on, at least not learning new plays."
Nevertheless, he successfully took over the part of Father in John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, also touring Canada and Australia in the role in 1972-73. International touring continued in 1974-75 with a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Hollow Crown, visiting major venues in the US and Australia, while in 1976-77 he toured South America, Canada and the UK in the anthology, Shakespeare's People.
Michael Redgrave's final theatre appearance came in May 1979 when he portrayed Jasper in Simon Gray's Close of Play, directed on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre by Harold Pinter. It was a silent, seated role, based on Gray's own father who had died a year before he wrote the play. As Gray has said: "Jasper is in fact dead but is forced to endure, as if alive, a traditional English Sunday, helpless in his favourite armchair as his three sons and their wives fall to pieces in the usual English middle-class style, sometimes blaming him, sometimes appealing to him for help and sobbing at his feet for forgiveness, but basically ignoring him. In other words I had stuck him in Hell, which turns out to be 'life, old life itself'."
Film and television
Redgrave first appeared on BBC television at the Alexandra Palace in 1937, in scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Notable television performances include voice-overs for The Great War (a history of the first World War using stills and 'stretched' archive film) and the less successful Lost Peace series (BBC Television, 1964 and 1966). Of the latter, Philip Purser wrote: "The commentary, spoken by Sir Michael Redgrave, took on an unremittingly pessimistic tone from the outset." 
His first major film role was in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). Redgrave also starred in The Stars Look Down (1939), with James Mason in the film of Robert Ardrey's play Thunder Rock (1943), and in the ventriloquist's dummy episode of the Ealing compendium film Dead of Night (1945).
His first American film role was opposite Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. In the 1950s, he starred in the films The Browning Version (1951), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Dambusters (1954), and 1984 (1956).
- The Lady Vanishes (1938)
- The Stars Look Down (1939)
- The Big Blockade (1940)
- Kipps (1941)
- Thunder Rock (1942)
- The Way to the Stars (1945)
- Dead of Night (1945)
- The Captive Heart (1946)
- Fame is the Spur (1947)
- Mourning Becomes Electra (1947)
- Secret Beyond the Door... (1948)
- The Browning Version (1951)
- The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
- The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954)
- The Night My Number Came Up (1955)
- Mr. Arkadin (1955)
- The Dam Busters (1955)
- Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)
- 1984 (1956)
- Time Without Pity (1957)
- The Quiet American (1958)
- Law and Disorder (1958)
- Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)
- The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)
- The Innocents (1961)
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
- The Hill (1965)
- The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
- Alice in Wonderland (1966)
- Heidi (1968) (TV)
- Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
- Battle of Britain (1969)
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
- David Copperfield (1969)
- Connecting Rooms (1970)
- The Go-Between (1970)
- Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)
Redgrave wrote four books:
- The Actor's Ways and Means Heinemann (1953)
- Mask or Face: Reflections in an Actor's Mirror Heinemann (1958)
- The Mountebank's Tale Heinemann (1959)
- In My Mind's I: An Actor's Autobiography Viking (1983) ISBN 0670142336
His plays include The Seventh Man and Circus Boy, both performed at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1935, and his adaptations of A Woman in Love (Amourese) at the Embassy Theatre in 1949 and the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers at the Queen's Theatre in 1959.
Honours and appointments
He was also appointed Commander of the Order of the Dannebrog, Denmark in 1955; was First President of the English Speaking Board, 1953; President of the Questors Theatre, Ealing, 1958; and Hon DLitt (Bristol), 1966.
The Redgrave Theatre in Farnham, Surrey, 1974-1998, was named in his honour.
Michael Redgrave was married to the actress Rachel Kempson for 50 years from 1935 until his death. Their children Vanessa, Corin and Lynn Redgrave, and their grandchildren - Natasha and Joely Richardson; Jemma and Luke Redgrave; and Carlo Nero - are also involved in theatre or film as actors (except Luke Redgrave).
He died in a nursing home in Denham, Buckinghamshire, in 1985, from Parkinson's disease, the day after the 77th anniversary of his birth.
The 1996 BBC documentary film Michael Redgrave: My Father, narrated by Corin Redgrave, and based on his book of the same name, discusses Michael's bisexuality in some depth.
Rachel Kempson recounts that, when she proposed to him, Redgrave said that there were "difficulties to do with his nature, and that he felt he ought not to marry". She said that she understood, it didn't matter and that she loved him. To this, Redgrave replied "Very well. If you're sure, we will".
During the filming of Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door... (1948), Redgrave met Bob Michell. They became lovers, Michell set up house close to the Redgraves, and he became a surrogate "uncle" to Redgrave's children (then aged 11, 9 and 5), who adored him. Michell later had children of his own, including a son he named Michael.
During one of Corin's visits to Michael, the latter said "There is something I ought to tell you". Then, after a very long pause, "I am, to say the least of it, bisexual". Corin helped his father in the writing of his last autobiography, and encouraged him to acknowledge his bisexuality in the book. Michael agreed to do so, but in the end he chose to remain silent about it.
A card was found among Redgrave's effects after his death. The card was signed "Tommy, Liverpool, January 1940", and on it were the words (quoted from W. H. Auden): "The world is love. Surely one fearless kiss would cure the million fevers".
- Who's Who in the Theatre 17th edition, Gale (1981) ISBN 0810302157
- Theatre Record and its annual Indexes
- The Great Stage Stars by Sheridan Morley, Angus & Robertson (1986) ISBN 0207149704
- Michael Redgrave: My Father, 1996 BBC documentary film narrated by Corin Redgrave, based on his book of the same name; produced and directed by Roger Michell
- The Great Stage Stars, Sheridan Morley
- The Great Stage Stars, Sherdan Morley
- The Great Stage Stars, Sheridan Morley, and Who's Who in the Theatre 1981
- State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945 by Michael Billington, Faber (2007) ISBN 9780571210343
- The National: 1963-1997 by Simon Callow, Nick Hern Books (1997) ISBN 1854593234
- The Great Stage Stars, Sheridan Morley
- The Great Stage Stars, Sheridan Morley
- An Unnatural Pursuit and Other Pieces by Simon Gray, Faber (1985)
- Halliwell's Television Companion Third Edition, Grafton Books (1986)
- Roe, William P., "Glimpses of Chiswick's Development, 1999,ISBN 0 9546512 2 6, page 94