Globe Theatre Story

Who was Sam Wanamaker?

  On the anniversary of his birth, we take a look at the extraordinary life of one visionary man: our founder Sam Wanamaker

4 minute read

Sam Wanamaker was born on 14 June 1919, in Chicago, Illinois in the United States.

His love affair with the idea of the Globe began in 1933 when as a 14-year-old he attended the Chicago World Fair, an international celebration in which Britain’s contribution was a mock reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre.

By 1936, Sam – now a drama student – was performing in Shakespeare’s plays having joined the Blackfriars Company who were playing at the Great Lake’s World Fair in Cleveland, Ohio in which another replica of the Globe had been built. This early experience significantly influenced his entire career.

In 1940, Sam married Canadian actress Charlotte Hollander, and they later had three daughters together: Abby, Zoë, and Jessica Wanamaker.

After a period in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II, Sam returned to the US where he received his ‘big break’ on Broadway at the age of 27 playing opposite Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Lorraine. Within two weeks he took over direction of the play and became a huge success. After producing, directing, and acting in several Broadway plays, he moved to Hollywood where he directed and acted in a clutch of films….

A man stands next to a board with a list of play titles.

Sam at the Great Lakes Festival, Cleveland Ohio in front of a replica Globe donated by the British Government. He played Shakespeare here for the first time.

A poster of a woman looking over her shoulder at a man.

Cover of the Picturegoer for Give Us This Day, 1949. Credit: Picturegoer.

A man is buried to his neck in gravel, behind bars.

Sam buried in liquid concrete during the filming of Give Us This Day, 1949. Credit: Mirrorpix.

In 1949 Sam paid his first visit to the UK, narrowly escaping being blacklisted by the US Government in the McCarthy Trials. Whilst filming Give Us This Day, he went to look for the original site of the Globe theatre, as he was such a fan of Shakespeare. To his disappointment, all he found was a plaque on a brewery wall early that was not even correctly positioned. In a statement in an affidavit, he says:

‘I was shocked to find that the site was in fact a rundown redundant riverside industrial area. I was particularly saddened, as by this time, the concept of Globe reconstructions had taken a stronghold in the US, and this was part of and contributed to a great revival and interest in Shakespeare and America’s English language heritage…’

A man wearing thick-framed glasses stands by a plaque marking the location of the original Globe Theatre

The plaque was the only thing to commemorate the fact that once upon an Elizabethan time Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse stood there.

Sam returned to the UK in 1951 for another film and stayed to produce, direct, and star in Clifford Odets’ Winter Journey with Sir Michael Redgrave. He decided to remain in Britain. Sam had his own theatre company in Liverpool, taking over the Shakespeare Theatre. There, he created the first arts and performance centre in Britain. He also continued his acting career, performing as Iago with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Othello opposite Paul Robeson.

A man stands in the shadows

Sam as Iago in Othello, 1959. Photographer: Lord Snowdon.

In 1960, Sam returned to the US to star in Macbeth in Chicago, and on Broadway in A Far Country, a play about Sigmund Freud. He then acted in, and directed, over a dozen television shows for major US networks, as well as acting and directing in over 50 films including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Superman IV, Baby Boom and Guilty by Suspicion opposite Robert De Niro. He also participated in two long-running TV series, Holocaust and his own series, The Berengers.

Sam also directed opera, notably War and Peace for the opening of the Sydney Opera House, two new Sir Michael Tippett operas at Covent Garden (King Priam and Icebreak), as well as Forza del Destino. He directed Pavorotti’s debut in Aida in San Francisco and Tosca in San Diego, as well as staging the 25th Anniversary Gala of the Lyric Opera House in Chicago.

A group of men sit around a table, with a model plan of buildings

Sam in a meeting about the Bankside redevelopment, 1971.

Fuelled by his earlier disappointing discovery on his first visit to the UK in the late 40s and a love of Shakespeare, Sam set out to build a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre on Bankside. In 1971 Sam founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust, and International Shakespeare Globe Centre – the final attempt to build a faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe close to its original Bankside, Southwark location. He also established the Shakespeare’s Globe Museum.

Sam at the Globe Reconstruction Conference, 1973. Photographer: John Price.

A strip of black and white photographs of a man stood by a model theatre

Sam in front of the Globe model, 1989. Photographer: Paul Mellor.

While many had said that the Globe reconstruction was impossible to achieve, Sam persevered for over twenty years, overcoming a series of monumental obstacles. At the Royal unveiling of two sections of the Globe in June 1992, Sam saw clearly that his life had come full circle.

In July 1993, Sam Wanamaker was made an Honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen, in recognition of the remarkable contribution that he had made to relations between Britain and the United States and, of course, for all he has done on behalf of the Shakespeare Globe project.

A man stands before a group of people talking, with two wooden bays behind him

Sam unveils the first two bays of the construction, 1992.

Sadly, Sam did not live to see the Globe completed, he died on 18 December 1993.

The Globe was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in June 1997.

We all have much to thank Sam and his determination for.

A man leans his cheek upon his hand, smiling.

Thank you, Sam. Photographer: Tom Boutling.