You could call it the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
On Sept. 9, 1957, 22-year-old drama school graduate Judi Dench made her professional stage debut in Liverpool, England, playing Ophelia in an Old Vic Company production of Hamlet. It wouldn’t take long for her name to become known in the theater, as she racked up credits in the works of Shakespeare and Anton Chekov over the next decades. Eventually, she also segued into musicals, TV, and film (including as James Bond’s flinty boss M). Dench, now 82, has received seven Oscar nominations (winning one) and is a bona fide movie star.
In 1988, for her contributions to the profession, she was honored as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The Dame moniker most certainly stuck, as evidenced by Robin Williams, who opened the Best Supporting Oscar envelope in 1999 by declaring, “There is nothing like a Dame!”
While on the phone with EW to talk about her new movie, Victoria & Abdul, Dench reminisced about her very earliest days as an actress. “I was cast as Ophelia and we opened out of town for one week, just to take the fright off it, which I must say was very nice,” she said. “September the 9th, 1957. Sixty years on Saturday.”
She paused and then let out a full-hearted laugh. “I can’t quite believe it, even as I say the words. Directed by Michael Benthall. John Neville played Hamlet. And the Old Vic had done a five-year plan, which was to produce every play of Shakespeare’s. And they only repeated one of those plays, which was Hamlet. In the first year, it was done with Richard Burton, and in the last year, it was with John Neville. And I was cast as Ophelia.”
She continues, “It was absolutely thrilling. This was the only thing I wanted to do — play characters in Shakespeare for the Old Vic. It simply couldn’t be any better.”
Dench explains that — not unlike an actor being hired for a Star Wars film today — she was not allowed to tell anyone the news of her casting. “I just had to tell my parents, but I did keep it a secret from everyone else, just as I was told to.”
Enjoy these black and white photos featuring Dench from that 1957 Old Vic production of Hamlet.
Dench’s new movie Victoria & Abdul opens on Sept. 22. She also appears in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, in theaters Nov. 10.