This has been coming on for some time. In 2009, when he was sixty-nine, it forced him to pull out of a National Theatre production of Alan Bennett's 'The Habit of Art'. Initially, he put his forgetfulness down to age and was worried it was a sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but doctors gave him the all-clear.
It was six months ago that he realised his days on stage were numbered when he was asked to read for a new play in the West End. “There was a girl in the wings and I had a plug in my ear so she could read me the lines. And after about an hour I thought, 'this can’t work. You can’t be in theatre, free on stage shouting and screaming and running around, with someone reading you your lines'.”
He has got round things to a degree by taking smaller parts, like his non-speaking role in Samuel Beckett’s 'Eh Joe' in Berlin in May last year, in which : "I just sit still, facing the camera, with all the emotions on my face projected and after half an hour, I have to cry." However, just before that in April he said he envisaged playing : "You know, the sort of part where he comes on and says a few words. A role that's played for laughs, like when the phone goes, he doesn't know where it is."
Michael has said he would continue to work in film and television, where he could be fed lines in small takes or read them from an autocue. At the moment he is appearing in Sky Atlantic's Arctic-set whodunit, 'Fortitude' and in the Spring appears in the BBC’s adaptation of 'The Casual Vacancy', JK Rowling’s first novel for adults in which he plays Howard Mollison, the owner of a village delicatessen in the 'apparently idyllic' village of Pagford, which under scrutiny turns out to be hiding darker goings on as the villagers fight for a place on the village council.
What you possibly didn't know about Michael. that he :
* was born in 1940 in Cabra, Dublin during the Second World War, where his mother was a seamstress and father an engineer, who after the War, sought work in the rebuilding of bomb damaged London and moved the family to Mornington Crescent.
* as a boy, on the instigation of his father, became a British citizen while continuing to be brought up as a strict Roman Catholic, attended St Aloysius Boys' College (left) and then a school in Kent, before leaving with no qualifications at the age of fifteen in 1955.
* became an apprentice toolmaker with Vickers Armstrong, then at the age of 18, began to study drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and gained a BA in Classical Acting at the age of 21 in 1961 and along the way acquired a fascination and passion for collecting antique guns, clocks, watches and classic cars.
* made his professional stage début in the 1962 Gate Theatre Dublin's production of 'Othello', playing 'Second Gentleman' and at the age of 23, caught the eye of star-maker, Laurence Olivier, who was recruiting for 'spear carriers' for his new National Theatre Company and was taken on along with the also 'young', Robert Stephens, Derek Jacobi and Frank Finlay.
* after three years at the Old Vic with the National Theatre, was advised by Olivier to gain experience in provincial repertory theatre and 1967 joined the Birmingham Rep and was given the title roles in 'Othello' (right), 'Macbeth' and 'Coriolanus'.
* in 1968-70, on television, played a romantic lead, the swashbuckling Gavin Ker, in the BBC series 'The Borderers' and as a result was asked by 'James Bond' producer, Cubby Brocoli, to audition for the role in 1970, to replace George Lazenby : http://ow.ly/IJwCG
* in 1970s, played comedy as Tom at the Greenwich Theatre in Alan Ayckbourn's 'Norman Conquests' and serious theatre in Harold Pinter's 'Betayal'.
* in 1980, at the age of forty, saw his career take off when he played in John Dexter's stage version of Brecht's, 'The Life of Galileo', of which Peter Hall said he was : "unsentimental, dangerous and immensely powerful" and the Sunday Times : his performance : "a decisive step in the direction of great tragedy... great acting" and fellow actors paid him the rare compliment of applauding him in the dressing room on the first night.
http://ow.ly/IJxWG and starred in Peter Greenaway's controversial film, 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' : http://ow.ly/IJyfE
* was twice awarded the 'Laurence Olivier Theatre Award' in 1986 for 'Best Comedy Performance' for 'A Chorus of Disapproval' and '88 for 'Best Actor in a New Play' for his performance in 'A View from the Bridge'.
* in 1992, played a psychotic general in the Barry Levinson film, 'Toys' and he also starred as Georges Simenon's detective Inspector 'Maigret' in the ITV series : http://ow.ly/IJZ8V
* In 2004, at the age of 64, played the lead role, 'Hamm', in Samuel Beckett's post-apocalyptic play 'Endgame' at the Albery Theatre, London and the following year finally achieved a lifelong ambition to play Falstaff in the National Theatre production of 'Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2'.
* in 2002, played President Lyndon B. Johnson in the tv film, 'Path to War' and was nominated for an Emmy Award for 'Best Actor in a Mini-series or Movie' http://ow.ly/IPdAr and the following year played the principal villain in Kevin Costner's Western film,'Open Range.'
* played Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts's Headmaster, in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' in 2004 and also 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' in 2005 http://ow.ly/IK0F3 and the four succeeding Potter films from 2007-11 and said that when playing Dumbledore, did not "have to play anyone really. I just stick on a beard and play me, so it's no great feat. I never ease into a role—every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. I'm not really a character actor at all."
* said : "I am a theatre actor, but the last ten years I've taken parts in movies because it keeps me in money" and returns to the big screen again when he plays Private Godfrey in the film version of 'Dad’s Army' to be released next year.
* successfully learned, collectively, hundreds of thousands of lines and thrilled his audiences, as :
* Coster Pearmain in 'The Recruiting Officer' and a player in Shaw's 'Saint Joan' at the National Theatre 1963 followed by :
* Diego in Schaffer's 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun' and a player in Frisch's 'Andorra' in 1964
* Eilif in Brecht's 'Mother Courage and Her Children' and Herrick in Miller's 'The Crucible' in 1965
* 'Macbeth' in the Forum Theatre, Billingham in 1968 ; as Andrew in Storey's 'In Celebration' and in the title role in Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus' at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1969
* Weibe in 'The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising' ; Charles in Shaw's 'Major Barbara', Surrey in 'Henry VIII', Hotspur/Warwick/Fluellen in 'When Thou Art King in at the Royal Shakespeare Company 1970
* Guy Holden in 'The Brass Hat' at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford in 1972
* Robin at Greenwich Theatre in 'Not Drowning But Waving in 1973
* a player in Ayckbourn's 'The Norman Conquests,' at the Globe Theatre in 1975
* Simon in Gray's 'Otherwise Engaged' at the Queen's Theatre in 1976
* Jerry in Pinter's 'Betrayal' at the National Theatre and Bertie in 'Alice's Boys' at the Savoy Theatre, in 1978
* Buckingham in Shakespeare's 'Richard III' and Henry in Gray's 'Close of Play' at the National Theatre in 1979
* the title role in Brecht's 'The Life of Galileo', a player in Ayckbourn's 'Sisterly Feelings' and as Roderigo in Shakespeare's 'Othello' at the National Theatre in 1980
* Benedick in Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the National Theatre in 1981
* the title roles at the RSC 'King Lear' and 'Anthony and Cleopatra' in 1982
* Dafydd in Ayckbourn's 'A Chorus of Dissproval' and Von Horvath in Hampton's 'Tales From Hollywood' at the National Theatre in 1983
* Deely in Pinter's 'Old Times' at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1985
* Spules in Ayckbourn's 'Tons of Money' at the National Theatre.in 1986, Jack in Ayckbourne's 'A Small Family Business' in 1987, Sergeant in Pinter's 'Mountain Language' and as Eddie in Miller's 'A View From The Bridge' at the National Theatre in 1988
* the title role in Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya' at Vauderville Theatre, in 1988
* a player in 'Veterans Day' at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, in 1989
* the title role in Shakespeare's 'Othello' and Roland in Ayckbourne's 'Taking Steps' at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1990
* Douglas in Ayckbourne's 'Man of the Moment' at the Globe Theatre, in 1990
* Tom in Hare's 'Skylight' and the title role in Jonson's 'Volpone' at the National Theatre in 1995
* Tom Driberg in Chuchett's 'Tom and Clem' at the Aldwych Theatre, in 1997
* as 'the man' in the U.K. premiere of Reza's 'The Unexpected Man' at the RSC in 1998
* Captain Boyle in O'Casey's 'Juno and the Paycock' at Dublin's Gaity Theatre in 1999
* Shank in Wight's 'Cressida', at the Almeida Theatre/ Albery Theatre, London and played in Pinter's 'The Caretaker' at the Comedy Theatre in London 1n 2000
* Hamm in Beckett's 'Endgame' at the Albery Theatre, London in 2004
* Falstaff in Shakespeare's 'Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2' at the National Theatre in 2005
* a player in Becklett's 'Eh Joe' at the Gate Theatre, Dublin/ Duke of York's, London in 2006
* Hirst in Pinter's 'No Man's Land' at the Gate Theatre, Dublin / Duke of York Theatre, London in 2008.
* once said, with perfect understatement :
"Every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. No real character actor, of course, just me."