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Citing memory issues, Michael Gambon exits stage: 'It breaks my heart'

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Michael Gambon

Michael Gambon, the esteemed theater actor best known for playing Professor Dumbledore in six Harry Potter films, is retiring from the stage due to the practical complications of short-term memory loss. “It’s a horrible thing to admit, but I can’t do it,” the 74-year-old actor told London’s Sunday Times Magazine. “It breaks my heart. It’s when the script’s in front of me and it takes forever to learn. It’s frightening.”

In 2009, Gambon had to be hospitalized twice during the London National Theatre production of The Habit of Art, episodes that were caused by panic attacks related to forgetting his lines. Gambon told the Times Magazine that when he read for a new West End play about six months ago, he realized that the inconvenience had become a real obstacle. “There was a girl in the wings and I had a plug in my ear so she could read me the lines,” the actor said. “After about an hour I thought: ‘This can’t work. You can’t be in theater, free on the stage, shouting and screaming and running around, with someone reading you your lines.'”

Gambon’s doctors have assured him that he has no signs of Alzheimer’s.

Since his difficulties with the 2009 play—which he pulled out of—Gambon has performed in plays that require minimal dialogue. In Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, which he did in 2010, he played an old writer listening and reflecting to his old tape recordings. His most recent stage performance, in a 2014 Berlin production of Beckett’s Eh Joe, featured no lines at all. “It was brilliant,” he said. “I just had to do a range of facial expressions.”

Though Americans know him best for Harry Potter, Gambon is a legend of the British stage, with three Olivier Awards to his credit. He also starred in films like Gosford Park and The King’s Speech, as well as television programs such as the BBC’s beloved presentation of The Singing Detective.

Gambon has no intention of retiring from acting on the screen—“You’ve got to go to work, haven’t you?” he told the magazine. He currently stars in Fortitude, and he’ll appear in HBO’s upcoming adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.