British Icon of the Week: Tom Courtenay, the 'Swinging Sixties' Actor Who's Still Going Strong

(Photo: Getty Images)
Sir Tom Courtenay has a supporting role in The Railway Children Return, a British family movie opening in select theaters Friday (September 23). We're taking the opportunity to make him our British Icon of the Week with this celebration of 10 things we appreciate and find interesting about him. 
1. He starred in the iconic British film Billy Liar.
Released in 1963, it's considered a key movie of the British New Wave era, which brought gritty storytelling and more authentic working-class characters onto the screen. Courtenay plays the title character, an undertaker's assistant who dreams of a more glamorous life as a writer while juggling no fewer than three girlfriends. It's a comedy, but one with an edge.

2. He also starred in 1965's equally iconic Doctor Zhivago.
Courtenay picked up an Oscar nomination for his performance in director David Lean's classic historical romance. He plays Strelnikov, a Russian idealist who marries Julie Christie's heroine Lara, but isn't her true love.  Strelnikov's extreme views become more entrenched as the epic 193-minute movie progresses, giving Courtenay a chance to show his dark side.

3. He briefly moonlighted as a pop star.
In 1963, Courtenay released the single "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" on the famous British record label Decca. He had originally sung it in a stage play called The Lads. Interestingly, "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" was written by actor-musician Trevor Peacock, whom you may know as Jim Trott in The Vicar of Dibley.

4. He also starred in one of the best British films of the last decade: 45 Years.
Directed by Andrew Haigh, this poignant romantic drama centers on a couple who realize their marriage isn't quite as rock-solid as they thought as they celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Courtenay and co-star Charlotte Rampling both won awards at the Berlin Film Festival for their beautifully moving performances. 

5. He reunited with Haigh for AMC's The North Water.
Released last year, this five-part miniseries is a psychological thriller that takes place during a 19th-century whaling expedition in the Arctic. Appearing opposite Jack O'Connell, Colin Farrell, and Stephen Graham, Courtenay plays a rich and rather brusque ship owner called Baxter. Courtenay said at the time that he enjoyed being able to use his native Hull (northern English) accent for the role.

6. He won a BAFTA award for Unforgotten.
Courtenay gave a riveting performance in the first season of the ITV/PBS Masterpiece series about cold case murders. His character, a seemingly mild elderly gent caring for a wife with dementia (Gemma Jones), becomes ever more sinister as the story develops.

7. He has an impishly playful sense of humor.
During an interview with The Guardian, Courteney revealed that while shooting the 2007 fantasy movie The Golden Compass, he couldn't resist ribbing his co-star Daniel Craig.
"Nicole Kidman was there and I said: 'I'm going to play a little trick on him,'" Courtenay recalled. "So I started to say about how I'd turned down Bond because I wasn't prepared to do the gym work. And do you know? – and I thought it was so charming – he was a little bit bothered. He believed me. So I thought: 'What a lovely bloke,' and said: 'Daniel, I'm pulling your leg.'"
8. He's not afraid to make fun of himself, either.
Can you imagine having your pizza delivered to you by a "Sir?" Well, thanks to this skit Courtenay filmed for 45 Years, now you can...

9. He starred in the original The Dresser movie.
Courtenay and co-star Albert Finney both earned Oscar nominations for their work in this touching 1983 film about a grand, aging actor and his deeply devoted assistant. Courtenay had originated the role of Norman, the actor's assistant, on-stage in Manchester and picked up a Tony nomination when the play transferred to Broadway.

10. He doesn't sugarcoat anything.
When he was interviewed by BAFTA a few years ao, Courtenay was asked to share some advice to aspiring actors. His response? "Don't do it" because you've got to be "very lucky" to make it in such a tough industry. In fairness, he did go on to share a few practical tips, too.

Do you have a favorite Tom Courtenay performance from over the years?