There were many stormy scenes in the life of Sir Robert Stephens who

died at the weekend. But there were also many great performances, and

even one with the Prince of Wales, remembers William Russell

WINE, women, song, and some wonderful performances, as well as a few

best forgotten, marked Robert Stephens' see-saw career as an actor and

his life as a man.

More recently, his career had taken a dramatic upswing and before his

death on Sunday, 64-year-old Sir Robert was visited by the Prince of

Wales. The Prince was one of the last visitors to see Sir Robert alive.

The two had struck up a friendship in 1993 due initially to their

shared love of Shakespeare. Sir Robert was executive producer of The

Prince's Choice, a series of new recordings in which the Prince selected

his favourite Shakespearean speeches.

Along with his son Toby and the Prince -- as Prince Hal -- Sir Robert

recorded a scene from Henry IV Part One with Sir Robert as Falstaff. Of

his last work, partly recorded at Highgrove, the Prince's

Gloucestershire home, Sir Robert said: ''I suppose that our greatest

delight has been to persuade Prince Charles to play Hal to my


Sir Robert met the Prince after the actor gave a performance as

Falstaff at a Buckingham Palace reception. The Prince later visited Sir

Robert in hospital when he suffered a severe foot infection in May 1993,

when he was appearing as King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company in

Stratford, and later watched one of his performances.

Sir Robert was impressive on stage but his personal life was as

dramatic as any part he played. Colourful and unashamedly libidinous,

women found him irresistible. His life was one long succession of broken

hearts, discarded mistresses, one-night stands, and former wives. He

revealed all in his autobiography, Knight Errant, a book so frank about

his sexual conquests some consider it the work of a cad.

Stephens was unrepentant. Women had written so much about their

affairs in kiss-and-tell books it was time men turned the tables, he

said. But in any case, he was never a gentleman in the social sense. He

was an actor, a true vagabond, a man who lived for the moment, whose

passions were extreme.

He could, as some critics suggested, have simply been spicing up the

book to make it sell, but the reality seems that he believed, if he

wanted to share his career as a Casanova with the world, it was his

business. Certainly the book does not detract from the image of a man

blessed with an engaging, entertaining and larger than life personality;

a man unique in being a hell raiser who went to Hell -- and came back.

Robert Stephens was arguably the finest male actor of his generation

for whom at one point all things seemed possible. When he was married to

Maggie Smith they were the golden theatrical couple of the day. The

marriage ended after eight years. By then, his once handsome features

were ravaged by drink, and he was reduced to appearing in supporting

roles in poor films. Then suddenly, four years ago, the roue reformed, a

great star actor was reborn.

His performances in the 1991-92 Stratford season as Falstaff in Henry

IV, Parts One and Two, proved the turning point. He was judged best

actor in the 1992 Olivier Awards, and in 1993 his Lear was equally

memorable. When he was knighted last March it was an accolade deserved.

Just two months earlier he married for the fourth time. His bride was

the actress Patricia Quinn, his companion for 20 tempestuous years. But

his lifestyle had taken its toll. Last October he had a liver and kidney

transplant operation, but even in hospital he remained an unrepentant

hedonist, giving interviews and holding court.

Never conventionally handsome, he undoubtedly had sex appeal. He had

affairs with Margaret Leighton, 11 years his senior, with Lady Antonia

Fraser, while she was still married to Sir Hugh Fraser, with the actress

Judith Stott, former wife of the comedian Dave Allen, and the actress

Tammy Grimes, who was married at the time to Christopher Plummer.

Not that he fell for every woman. He ran a mile when Marlene Dietrich

made clear she fancied him. She told him he was ''a very silly young

man.'' Later he agreed. Nor were his conquests all famous. John

Mortimer, in whose play, The Wrong Side of the Park, Stephens starred,

learned from Knight Errant that the actor had enjoyed a wonderful time

with their dentist's receptionist, one ''Carmen Rollers.''

During the early 1970s he had a steamy affair with a television

make-up girl called Daphne, and while married to Maggie Smith with their

secretary, Sheila Pickles.

Robert Stephens, born in Bristol, son of a labourer and a chocolate

packer, appears to have had a miserable childhood. His mother once

confessed she had tried to abort him with a crochet hook. He discovered

he could act at a local boy's club and left home aged 17 to attend drama

school in Bradford. There he met his first wife, Nora Simmonds. They

married two years later and had a son, Michael Christopher, after which

Nora went home to Londonderry.

Stephens met his second wife, the actress Tarn Basset, in 1953 while

touring in a play called Not A Clue, and they married in April 1956. It

lasted 11 years, during which, after the usual hardships in repertory,

he enjoyed his first success in John Osborne's An Epitaph for George

Dillon at the Royal Court. But that success brought disaster.

The production moved to New York and Stephens, earning 600 dollars a

week, found himself on the loose in a city of pleasures. Even the birth

of their daughter, Lucy, did not end his philandering. Basset, however,

put up with it all until he met Maggie Smith, or ''Madame Schmidt'' as

she named her, when he joined Olivier's newly reformed National Theatre


In 1964 he starred to great acclaim as Atahaulpa the Inca king, in

Peter Shaffer's Royal Hunt of the Sun. Towards the end of 1966 Maggie

Smith became pregnant and Tarn decided enough was enough. He married

Maggie Smith the following year and they had two sons, of whom the

younger, Toby Stephens, is one of the RSC's leading men.

The marriage, fuelled on pills, booze and nervous tension, was

tumultuous, not helped by the fact that Olivier, who had made him an

associated director of the National Theatre, resented his protege.

In 1971 he and Maggie Smith starred in Private Lives in the West End,

hoping in vain working together might save their marriage. Smith, whose

performance was savagely attacked by the critics, took the huff, and

left Britain to work at Stratford, Ontario, taking their sons

Christopher and Toby with her. Stephens took refuge in drink.

In 1975 he met Patricia Quinn. It was a turbulent relationship, but it


''I have been fortunate and I have been fulfilled,'' he wrote. ''Think

of me as a tree that has nearly been axed through but the sap has found

a way to work its way up. The tree, miraculously, still stands.''

On Sunday that tree, its roots damaged by years of dissipation,

finally fell, but it was a glorious tree.