Two milestones stand out in Mr. McCowen’s rich theatrical career. The first was “Hadrian VII,” by Peter Luke, in which he portrayed the fictional Pope Hadrian. He first played the role in London in 1968 and earned a Tony Award nomination when he played it on Broadway the next year.
Even more significant was “St. Mark’s Gospel,” a one-man show that proved to be successful both in London and on Broadway. As he told The New York Times in 1984, he found the prospect of a solo performance daunting but irresistible.
“I wanted to be an entertainer, not an actor, when I was young,” Mr. McCowen said. “I wanted to be Jack Benny, and I’m still dazzled, still fascinated, by the audacity of a Judy Garland or a Lena Horne or a Frank Sinatra going out there all by themselves and holding an audience’s attention.”
He had turned to the Bible as a possible source of theater in 1976, when he was searching for a challenging new stage vehicle. He found it when he began reading the Gospel According to Mark.
“I started learning little passages to see if it would come alive, and instantly realized it was absolutely right,” he told The Times in 1990. “The style had a blunt, astringent quality which suited me. And it was a Gospel of action, not teaching, one which had plenty of episodes and dwelt on none for too long.”
He began a daily routine of memorizing the Gospel’s verses, a few every day, for nearly a year and a half, and gave his first public performance in 1978. On a bare stage, in casual clothes, he brought the Gospel to life, embodying multiple characters, including Mark himself, Pontius Pilate and Jesus.
In his 1980 memoir, “A Double Bill,” Mr. McCowen noted that Mark had “constructed his Gospel with the skill of a great dramatist.”
He performed the show in London and then in New York in 1978, where he received his second Tony nomination. He also took “St. Mark’s Gospel” to the White House, where the audience included President Jimmy Carter. He returned the show to New York for a limited Off Broadway run in 1990.
Writing in The New Yorker in 2010, Adam Gopnik recalled Mr. McCowen’s Jesus as “a familiar human type — the Gandhi-Malcolm-Martin kind of charismatic leader of an oppressed people, with a character that clicks into focus as you begin to dramatize it.”
“He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty,” Mr. Gopnik wrote. “He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design.”
Alexander Duncan McCowen was born on May 26, 1925, in Tunbridge Wells, England. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and worked with several repertory theaters before making his London debut in 1950 in Chekhov’s “Ivanov.” His first movie role was in “The Cruel Sea” (1953), a British war film starring Jack Hawkins.
In 1959, Mr. McCowen became a member of the Old Vic Company. Maggie Smith joined at the same time, and Judi Dench was also a member. He appeared in “Richard II” and “Twelfth Night,” among other plays, all the while feeling overshadowed by the stage pillars of an earlier generation, notably John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.
“They were like giants to me,” he told the British newspaper The Independent in the early 1990s, “not just gigantic performances, but they appeared to be actually physically larger than life. I think they cast a wicked spell on my generation, the big three, because most of us just assumed we couldn’t do it too.”
He left the Old Vic in 1961 and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962. A hallmark of his early years with the troupe was Peter Brook’s celebrated production of “King Lear,” in which Mr. McCowen played the Fool alongside Paul Scofield in the title role. (Thirty years later, after a long absence from Shakespeare, he returned to play Prospero at Stratford-upon-Avon in a Shakespeare company production of “The Tempest” directed by Sam Mendes.)
After his success with “Hadrian VII” — he gave more than 500 performances — Mr. McCowen went on to star in Christopher Hampton’s play “The Philanthropist,” which became a runaway hit in London in 1970 but was less successful on Broadway, where it ran for only 64 performances. Nevertheless, he received another Tony nomination and won a Drama Desk Award.
His theater credits also included the 1973 London premiere of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” in which he played a psychiatrist who tries to treat a pathological young man who blinds horses, and Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” in which he co-starred with Diana Rigg.
In 1984, Mr. McCowen undertook another one-man show, “Kipling,” a collaboration with the playwright Brian Clark, which had its premiere in London and moved to Broadway later that year. He had long been fascinated with Rudyard Kipling, and in a Times interview shortly before the show’s Broadway opening, he called him “the greatest English literary entertainer since Dickens.”
“What I have tried to do,” Mr. McCowen said, “is peel away all those layers of respectability to get back to the violent, self-opinionated little boy that was always bursting out.”
London theatergoers also saw Mr. McCowen in T. S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party,” Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” among other plays. He returned to Broadway in 1992 in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” Frank McGuinness’s play about three hostages in Beirut (Mr. McCowen, Stephen Rea and James McDaniel) who go to extreme lengths to try to keep their sanity in close confinement.
In addition to Father Mumford, his nephew, Mr. McCowen’s survivors include a sister, Jean, as well as two nieces and another nephew. His partner, the actor Geoffrey Burridge, died from complications of AIDS in 1987. Mr. McCowen had homes in London and in Sandgate, Kent, England.
As much as an earlier generation of great actors haunted him, Mr. McCowen told The Independent, so did his father, a shopkeeper who had never gone to college and who felt intimidated by the theater.
“I think I’ve made a journey in my life, both in private and professionally,” Mr. McCowen said. “Certainly I started as a young actor using the fact of being an actor to get into disguise. I was clever at disguising my voice, putting on heavy makeups and shrinking into another character.
“But I was very overawed by my father, and I think I was in disguise from him,” he went on. “I adored him, but I didn’t think I was the son he wanted.
“He towered in my private life, rather like the image I had of the giants of the stage. I look at his photograph now and I see he was quite a little man, and I wonder what on earth all that was about.”
Because of an editing error, an obituary on Wednesday about the actor Alec McCowen misstated the surname of the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “King Lear” in which Mr. McCowen played the Fool. He is Peter Brook, not Brooks.
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