Friedrich Robert Donat was born on 18 March 1905 in Withington, Manchester, the fourth and youngest son of Ernst Emil (1863-1939), a Polish-born civil engineer, and Rose Alice (née Green, 1864-1964) who came from Whitby in Yorkshire. He attended Ducie Avenue School, Manchester, later moving to the Central High School for Boys. His memories of school were mixed: he was not an outstanding scholar and as a schoolboy he also suffered from a serious stammer.
Outside school one of his principal passions was the cinema, but from an early age he was also enthusiastic about the theatre, staging plays in the garden shed at his home in St Paul's Road. He subsequently became a pupil of the well-known Manchester elocutionist, James Bernard, under whom he received stage-training and elocution lessons which helped him to shed both his stutter and his broad Lancashire accent (although he was to enjoy reviving this in stage and film roles later in life). Under Bernard he also began to develop his famous speaking voice and his gift for reciting verse. His teacher advocated a stage career for the young Robert, who consequently left school at 15; he worked as Bernard's secretary to fund his continued lessons, while taking part in dramatic recitals at venues across the North West of England.
Bernard was keen for Donat to join a Shakespearean company, and in 1921, at the age of 16, he made his first stage appearance with Henry Baynton's company at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham, playing Lucius in Julius Caesar. His real break was to come in 1924, however, when he joined the renowned Shakespearean company of Sir Frank Benson where he stayed for four years. Here he made the transition from apprentice to successful actor, and his vacations from the Benson company enabled him to undertake seasons in provincial repertory theatre. During one of these seasons - after a performance of Masefield's The Witch at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield - Donat proposed to Ella Annesley Voysey, a young actress he had first met in Withington.
The marriage did not take place for two years, and Donat spent the interim period gaining further stage experience. In 1928 he began a year at the Liverpool Playhouse, where he starred in plays by Shaw, Brighouse and Galsworthy among others. In 1929 he moved on to the Festival Theatre in Cambridge under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie. Ella accompanied him as one of the leading actresses, and plays by Euripides, Pirandello, Sheridan, and Shakespeare gave Donat the opportunity to experiment in a wide range of different and challenging leading roles. Here he was also able to try his hand at directing for the first time.
On 6 August 1929, Robert and Ella were married at Wilmslow, Cheshire, and the couple spent their honeymoon in Cornwall. They returned to Cambridge for another year, but then Donat's ambitions to act in London prompted them to move to a small flat in Seven Dials. At first his search for stage work was unsuccessful and dispiriting. He was typecast in romantic roles and his first London appearance was in the sentimental comedy Knave and Quean at the Ambassadors Theatre in 1930. In the following year, however, he succeeded in making his mark on the London stage, as Gideon Sarn in a dramatisation of Mary Webb's novel Precious Bane. His powers were subsequently confirmed in three roles at the 1931 Malvern Festival, where he was a great success, despite having recently suffered his first serious bout of asthma.
Meanwhile Donat took numerous screen tests in the hope that cinema might provide a means of financial support while he pursued his ultimate goal of becoming a great actor-manager. It was an interview with the influential producer and director Alexander Korda which guaranteed his entry into film work. The Hungarian-born founder of London films was keen to recruit casts from leading stage actors during the early 1930s, and he offered Donat a three-year contract. A quick succession of film parts followed: he portrayed an Oxford Undergraduate in Men of Tomorrow (1932), a country bank clerk in That Night in London (1932), and an electricity inspector in Cash (1933). The film which brought him to wider attention was The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), directed by Korda himself, in which Donat played Culpeper. The success of this film led to a Hollywood offer, and in 1934 he travelled to America to play Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. This was to be Donat's only Hollywood role: he disliked the atmosphere of unreality there, and did not enjoy working outside Britain or away from the stage for any length of time.
He developed his stage career throughout the 1930s alongside his extensive film work. At the 1933 Malvern Festival he played the two Camerons in James Bridie's A Sleeping Clergyman. His performance as the dying consumptive and the brilliant doctor was memorable and brought highly favourable reviews. The play was transferred to the West End for a long run. Donat later named this as one of his favourite parts, and he repeated his early success in a revival of the play at the Criterion Theatre in 1947. In 1936 he briefly realised his dream of being an actor-manager when he presented and starred in J.L. Hodson's First World War play Red Night at the Queen's Theatre. Despite poor reviews of the play's pre-London run, Donat took the play to the capital and gave the young John Mills his first West End appearance. Donat went on to appear in three roles at the 1939 Buxton Festival, including the grotesque Croaker in Goldsmith's The Good-Natured Man, an entirely unexpected character part which gave him a much-appreciated comic freedom.
By this time he was well-established as a film star. After the success of Monte Cristo film offers came flooding in, many of them rejected by Donat who was always reluctant to compromise or agree to scripts with which he was less than completely satisfied. He nevertheless created some memorable roles during the 1930s. He starred as Richard Hannay in Hitchock's spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), based on the novel by John Buchan; and in the same year he played the ghost Murdoch Glourie and his modern-day descendant, Donald Glourie, in the comedy The Ghost Goes West. The year 1936 saw him starring opposite Marlene Dietrich in Knight Without Armour, in which he played an expatriate British adventurer in post-revolutionary Russia. The shooting of this film was delayed due to Donat's asthma, an illness which would hinder much of his stage and film work. At this time, however, his film career continued unabated, and his new financial success enabled him to move his family to a large house in Hampstead, and subsequently to a country house (Brambleberry) near Wendover in Buckinghamshire. The Donats had three children, all born during the 1930s: Joanna in 1931, John in 1933 and Brian in 1936.
In May 1938 Donat entered into an agreement with MGM British for six pictures, signing a contract which also allowed for stage work between films. His first two MGM films were memorable: in The Citadel (1938) he played crusading doctor Andrew Manson, and in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) he appeared as schoolmaster Mr Chipping, ageing from 25 to 83 on screen. This was exactly the kind of character part Donat enjoyed, and his performance was masterful, bringing him an Oscar for best actor in 1940.
Further film projects followed during the war years. In 1941 Donat's MGM contract was relaxed to enable him to film The Young Mr Pitt for Twentieth Century Fox. In what was essentially a propaganda film, Donat's Pitt was presented as the Winston Churchill of his age, inciting the country against an earlier Hitler. In contrast, his next film for MGM was the lightweight The Adventures of Tartu, filmed in 1942. His MGM contract was by this time causing him serious difficulties and the company was attempting to limit his stage work. His final film under the agreement was Perfect Strangers, directed by Alexander Korda, in which he and Deborah Kerr played a conventional couple whose lives are transformed by their experiences during the war. By the time of its release in 1945 Donat's contractual battle with MGM had finally been resolved. The case was settled out of court and Donat was released from his contract, leaving him free to undertake new projects.
He did not allow his battle with MGM to stifle his stage work during the war. In early 1943 he played the octogenarian Captain Shotover in Shaw's Heartbreak House at the Cambridge Theatre, and later in the same year he took over the lease of the Westminster Theatre, staging a number of plays there during 1943-45. Most successful was his revival of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1943-44), with an impressive cast and costumes and sets designed by Rex Whistler. A further wartime theatrical venture was Donat's Christmas production of The Glass Slipper, 'the first real children's pantomime' based closely on the Cinderella story, which he commissioned Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon to write. This opened at St James's Theatre in December 1944 and was revived for the 1945-46 Christmas season.
Donat was separated from his family during the war years. In 1940 Ella took the children to the safety of America, and by the time of their return in July 1945 it was clear that the Donats' marriage was over. They were divorced at the end of 1946, by which time Donat had met the woman who would ultimately become his second wife, the actress Renée Asherson. She appeared in Donat's production of The Cure for Love at the Westminster Theatre in 1945. This working-class Lancashire comedy was written by Salford-born Walter Greenwood who became a close friend of Donat. The lead role of Sergeant Jack Hardacre was taken by Donat himself, appearing for the first time in his own theatre.
The following year saw his final venture as an actor-manager when he played Benedick opposite Asherson's Beatrice in his own production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Aldwych Theatre. As a second production Donat chose The Man Behind the Statue by the young Peter Ustinov, a play about Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America from Spanish rule. Initially enthusiastic about the play, Donat became deeply dissatisfied with it during its pre-London production in Manchester. He disagreed with the director, Fabia Drake, and argued with Ustinov himself, who was reluctant to make changes to his play. Following dismal notices, the play was removed, and even Much Ado only had a short run as audiences dwindled. Donat made substantial losses on this season which he had initiated so optimistically.
Returning to film, in 1947 Donat appeared briefly as Charles Stewart Parnell in the key scene of Captain Boycott, but his next major part was the brilliant advocate Sir Robert Morton KC in the film version of Terence Rattigan's play The Winslow Boy (1948). Donat devoted much of the next two years to planning a film version of The Cure for Love, which he produced, directed and starred in. Released in 1950, the film received muted reviews in London, but it proved hugely popular in the provinces, especially the Midlands and the North. This flurry of film activity was crowned in 1950 when Donat won the coveted role of William Friese-Greene, the little-known inventor of the first cinematograph camera, in the star-studded film The Magic Box (1951), which formed the film industry's contribution to the Festival of Britain and involved virtually every British 'name' actor of the time.
During the 1950s, however, Donat's health began to decline seriously. Chronic asthma and bouts of bronchitis had always dogged his career, but by the time he reached his 50s his illness prevented him from taking many roles and forced him into periods of semi-reclusiveness. During these times, he often found a creative outlet in reciting poetry. Renowned for his distinctive voice and his instinctive understanding of poetry, radio broadcasts had always formed a significant strand of his career. He was known to many as the voice behind the Christmas Day Commonwealth radio programmes, but his poetry broadcasts were also very popular and inspired numerous letters of admiration. He also took roles in a number of radio plays, including an American broadcast of Galsworthy's Justice in 1949 (his only part in America apart from Monte Cristo). During the 1950s he returned to poetry, spending many hours making private recordings at home.
In March 1953 he made a return to the theatre in what was to be his last stage role, as Becket in the Old Vic production of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral directed by Sir Robert Helpmann. This performance was one of the highlights of his stage career, and Donat's performance was commanding, despite the presence of oxygen machines in the wings and an understudy prepared to take over until the last minute. Shortly after this he and Renée Asherson were married in a quiet ceremony on 4 May, subsequently moving to 8 The Grove, Highgate.
Donat's film comeback followed in 1954, when he played the Reverend William Thorne in Lease of Life. By this time, however, Donat was frequently ill and depressed. He and Renée separated in spring 1956, when he moved to his final home at 7 Brymon Court, Montagu Square. Two years elapsed before his next and final role, as the Mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, a film starring Ingrid Bergman as English maid Gladys Aylward who became a missionary in China. Donat's ill health was evident on screen and his last line in the film was a poignant one: 'We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell.' He collapsed on set, and died of a stroke in London on 9 June 1958, aged 53.
Donat's career was hampered by asthma and sometimes by his own self-doubt and lack of confidence. He also refused to act in anything which did not excite him, or which failed to meet his exacting standards, and he declined many roles. Nevertheless his stage and screen record is remarkable. He achieved success in a wide range of roles, winning respect and affection from colleagues as well as a substantial fan base among film and theatre goers.