Among the many gifted actors who have graced Disney live-action motion pictures over the years, one in particular looms largely and menacingly in the collective memory of fans. He is Robert Newton, who starred as the charismatically wicked Long John Silver in Disney’s first live-action film Treasure Island, based on the classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Born June 1, 1905, in Shaftesbury, England, Robert was the son of respected painter and member of the Royal Academy, Algernon Newton. Robert began his career as a stagehand at the age of 15 with the Birmingham Repertory Company, quickly working his way up to a walk-on part in Henry VI. In 1923, he toured South Africa in Bulldog Drummond and, the following year, made his London stage debut in London Life at Drury Lane.
He caught the eye of Noel Coward in 1928, while performing in Her Cardboard Lover with Tallulah Bankhead and Leslie Howard. He made his way to New York, where he replaced Laurence Olivier in Coward’s Private Lives in 1931.
Robert returned to London in 1932, where he ran the repertory Shilling Theatre while appearing in such West End hits as The Greeks Had a Word For It in 1934 and “Hamlet” at the Old Vic in 1937. Around the same time, he turned his focus to motion pictures and, by the late 1940s, became a leading box-office attraction in Britain, with such memorable roles as Bill Sykes in the 1948 film Oliver Twist.
He made his American motion picture debut that same year in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, starring Burt Lancaster, and the Los Angeles Times reported that “Hollywood has finally got hold of Robert Newton, one of Britain’s most versatile actors.”
Other motion pictures included Androcles and the Lion, The High and the Mighty, Gaslight, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Around the World in 80 Days, and many more.
Adept at portraying cunning villains, Robert’s thunderous voice and rolling, wild eyes, mesmerized audiences when Treasure Island, shot on location in Britain, premiered in 1950. The one and only role he ever played for Disney proved to be his most popular, leading the actor to numerous subsequent “shiver-me-timbers” performances.
“Treasure Island belongs to Robert Newton,” critic Leonard Maltin wrote in his book The Disney Films. “Rereading Stevenson, one finds that Newton is Long John. “Indeed, Newton was so powerful as Silver that he found himself locked into the characterization, repeating it in an Australian-filmed feature, Long John Silver, a TV series of the same name, and similar roles such as the title role in Blackbeard the Pirate. Newton’s trouping may have been ham, but his performance remains in the memory long after everything else has been forgotten.”
Robert Newton passed away on March 25, 1956, in Beverly Hills, California.