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Leo Genn

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Leo Genn
Genn at the 24th Academy Awards in 1952
Leopold John Genn

(1905-08-09)9 August 1905
Died26 January 1978(1978-01-26) (aged 72)
London, England
Alma materSt Catharine's College, Cambridge
  • Actor
  • barrister
Years active1935–1975
Marguerite van Praag
(m. 1933)
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
RankLieutenant Colonel
UnitRoyal Artillery
Battles/warsWorld War II

Leopold John Genn (/ɡɛn/; 9 August 1905 – 26 January 1978) was an English actor and barrister. Distinguished by his relaxed charm and smooth, "black velvet" voice,[1] he had a lengthy career in theatre, film, television, and radio; often playing aristocratic or gentlemanly, sophisticate roles.[1]

Born to a Jewish family in London, Genn was educated as a lawyer and was a practising barrister until after World War II, in which he had served in the Royal Artillery as a Lieutenant-Colonel. He began his acting career at The Old Vic and made his film debut in 1935, starring in a total of 85 screen roles until his death in 1978. For his portrayal of Petronius in the 1951 Hollywood epic Quo Vadis, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Early life and family[edit]

Genn was born at 144 Kyverdale Road, Stamford Hill, Hackney, London, the son of Jewish parents Woolfe (William) Genn and Rachel Genn (née Asserson).[2]

Genn attended the City of London School, having gained scholarships in both classics and mathematics,[3] and studied law at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he became captain of both the football and tennis teams.[3] He went on to study at the Middle Temple, qualifying as a barrister in 1928.[4][2] He finally ceased practising as a lawyer after serving as an assistant prosecutor at the Belsen War Trials.[5]


Theatre career[edit]

Genn originally entered acting, with the Berkley Players (attached to the West London Synagogue),[4] in order to increase his chances of finding prospective clients for his legal work.[3] Actor/manager Leon Lion saw Genn act and offered him a contract.[6] Genn's theatrical debut was in 1930 in A Marriage has been Disarranged at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne and then at the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, London. Lion had engaged him simultaneously as an actor and attorney. In 1933 he appeared in Ballerina by Rodney Ackland. Between September 1934 and March 1936, Leo Genn was a member of the Old Vic Company where he appeared in many productions of Shakespeare. In 1934 he featured in R. J. Minney's Clive of India.

In 1937 he was Horatio in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, in Elsinore, Denmark. In 1938 Genn appeared in the theatrical hit The Flashing Stream by Charles Langbridge Morgan and went with the show to America and Broadway. His many other stage performances included Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, 12 Angry Men, The Devil's Advocate, and Somerset Maugham's The Sacred Flame.

In 1959 Genn gave a reading[7] in Chichester Cathedral. In 1974, a recording of The Jungle Book was released with Genn as narrator and Miklós Rózsa conducting the Frankenland Symphony Orchestra with the music from the film.

Film career[edit]

Genn's first film role was as Shylock in Immortal Gentleman (1935), a biography of Shakespeare. Douglas Fairbanks Jr hired Genn as a technical adviser on the film Accused (1936). He was subsequently given a small part in the film on the strength of a "splendid voice and presence". Genn received another small role in Alexander Korda's The Drum (1938) and was the young man who danced with Eliza Doolittle at the duchess's ball in Pygmalion, a film made in the same year, although he was uncredited.

Screenshot of Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

War service[edit]

With war approaching, Genn joined the Officers' Emergency Reserve in 1938.[6] He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery on 6 July 1940[8] and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1943. In 1944 the actor was given official leave to appear as Charles I d'Albret, the Constable of France, in Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

Genn was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1945.[6] He was part of the British unit that investigated war crimes at Belsen concentration camp and later was an assistant prosecutor at the Belsen war crimes trials in Lüneburg, Germany.[5]


He was in Green for Danger (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948). He was one of the two leading actors in The Wooden Horse in 1950. After his Oscar-nominated success as Petronius in Quo Vadis (1951), he appeared in John Huston's Moby Dick (1956). Genn also appeared in some American films, such as The Girls of Pleasure Island, and Plymouth Adventure (1952), a fictionalised treatment of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. He later starred opposite Gene Tierney in the British film Personal Affair (1953).

He played Major Michael Pemberton in Roberto Rossellini's Era Notte a Roma (Escape by Night, 1960). Leo Genn narrated the coronation programmes of both 1937 and 1953, the King George VI Memorial Programme in 1952, and the United Nations ceremonial opening (in the USA) in 1947.

Genn was a governor of the Mermaid Theatre and trustee of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. He was also council member of the Arts Educational Trust. He was appointed distinguished visiting professor of theatre arts, Pennsylvania State University, 1968 and visiting professor of drama, University of Utah, 1969.

Personal life and death[edit]

On 14 May 1933, Genn married Marguerite van Praag (1908–1978), a casting director at Ealing Studios. They had no children.

Genn died in London on 26 January 1978.[9] The immediate cause of death was a heart attack, brought on by complications of pneumonia. He is buried in Etretat Churchyard, Seine-Maritime, France.

2023 A historical marker for Leo Genn was placed on the building he was born in by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, U.K. Branch and AJEX.

The text reads:

(Lt Col.) Leo Genn, RA, Croix de Guerre

Jewish Prosecutor - Bergen Belsen War Crimes Trials

Famous actor and soldier (1905–78) was born in this house

"When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous..." Proverbs 21:15

Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, U.K. Branch and AJEX

Leo Genn military officer, prosecutor at Belsen War Trials, famous British movie actor.
Leo Genn marker on house he was born in.

Selected filmography[edit]


  • 1930 A Marriage Has Been Disarranged, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Royalty Theatre
  • appearances in: No 17; Tiger Cats; Champion North; While Parents Sleep; Clive of India
  • 1931 O.H.M.S.
  • 1934–36 Old Vic Company:
1934–35 Old Vic Season
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Henry IV Part 2
  • Major Barbara
  • Hippolytus by Euripides
  • The Two Shepherds by Sierra
  • Othello
  • The Taming of the Shrew, Sadler's Wells
  • Saint Joan, Old Vic/Sadler's Wells
  • Richard II
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Hamlet
  • Shakespeare Birthday Festival- 23 April 1935
  • Last Night of Shakespeare Season: scenes from Hamlet, Richard II, Taming of The Shrew, 20 May 1935
1935–36 Old Vic Season
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth
  • Richard III
  • King Lear
  • Saint Helena by R.C. Sherriff
  • Peer Gynt
  • The School for Scandal
1936–37 Old Vic Season
  • Twelfth Night
  • Henry V
1937–69 Later Work


  • 1955 Omnibus: "Herod"
  • 1955 Screen Director's Playhouse: "Titanic Incident"
  • 1960 Mrs. Miniver with Maureen O'Hara as Mrs Miniver and Leo Genn as Clem Miniver, CBS
  • 1961 The Defenders
  • 1961 The Jack Paar Show, (himself)
  • 1961 The Life of Adolf Hitler written & directed by Paul Rotha, commentary by Leo Genn & Marius Goring
  • 1962 The Unseen Valley directed by Stephen Peet, Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind, BBC
  • 1962 An Act of Faith, a BBC documentary on Coventry Cathedral, narrated by Leo Genn
  • 1963 Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre: "Commander Tony Gardiner"
  • 1963 The Merv Griffin Show, (himself)
  • 1964 "The Thirty Days of Gavin Heath", an episode of The Virginian, Leo Genn as Gavin Heath
  • 1965 The Cat's Cradle by Hugo Charteris, an instalment of The Wednesday Play, BBC Television
  • 1967 Saint Joan
  • 1969 Strange Report
  • 1969 The Expert
  • 1970 Howards End (with Glenda Jackson), an instalment of Play of the Month BBC Television
  • 1971 The Persuaders! "The Long Goodbye"
  • 1973 The Movie Quiz
  • 1973 Jackanory, narrating on three episodes
  • 1974 The Zoo Gang



  1. ^ a b "Leo Genn, British Actor, 72, Dies;. Van With the Black Velvet Voice'". The New York Times. 27 January 1978. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 17 August 2022.
  2. ^ a b John Arthur Garraty; Mark Christopher Carnes (1999). American National Biography. Oxford University Press. p. 841. ISBN 978-0-19-512787-4.
  3. ^ a b c "Leo Genn, British Actor, Dies 72: Man with the black velvet voice". New York Times. 27 January 1978.
  4. ^ a b Genn, Leopold John. The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History. 27 January 2011. p. 317. ISBN 9780230304666.
  5. ^ a b "Forgotten trials: the other side of Nuremberg". HistoryExtra. Retrieved 4 January 2020.
  6. ^ a b c "Obituary: Leo Genn" The Daily Telegraph 27 January 1978
  7. ^ "Search Online". West Sussex Past. Archived from the original on 10 January 2016. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  8. ^ "No. 34926". The London Gazette (Supplement). 16 August 1940. p. 5079.
  9. ^ John A. Willis (1979). John Willis' Screen World. Crown. pp. 234–5. ISBN 9780517538357.
  10. ^ BBC Genome: Ashenden – Secret Agent 1914-1918: The Hairless Mexican (1966)
  11. ^ BBC Genome: Ashenden – Secret Agent 1914-1918: Giulia Lazzari (1967)

External links[edit]