Veteran stage actress Sian Phillips is forever identified on television as the tarantula mother/empress Livia in the classic BBC series I, Claudius (1976), and as the Reverend Mother in the science fiction epic film Dune (1984). Her broad range of roles went from endearing to downright deadly.
Phillips was born Jane Elizabeth Ailwên Phillips in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, West Glamorgan, Wales, to Sally (Thomas), a teacher, and David Phillips, a steelworker and policeman. Sian was brought up bilingual in both English and Welsh and performed on the Welsh radio station at age 11. She toured extensively for the Arts Council in Wales, in original Welsh plays and in translations from the English classics, before becoming an award-winning television actress in her late teens. She attended the University of Wales and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, making her London debut as Hedda Gabler in 1957. She met and married actor Peter O’Toole two years later and appeared frequently with him on stage, including “Ride a Cock Horse” (1965) and “Man and Superman” (1965), and in the movies Becket (1964), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Murphy’s War (1971) and Under Milk Wood (1971).
While her resonant voice served her well as an announcer, newsreader and narrator at different stages of her career, her severe chiseled looks and arch, regal bearing has entitled her to perform some of the more notable classics, with critically-acclaimed turns in “Saint Joan”, “The Taming of the Shrew” and “The Duchess of Malfi”, being just a few. Her occasional aristocrats have also graced such well-mounted films as Young Cassidy (1965), Nijinsky (1980) and The Age of Innocence (1993). After 20 years of marriage, Sian divorced O’Toole, known for his hard-living ways. Since then, she has continued to delve into her stage work. In the 1980s, Sian began a new phase of her career — the musical. Her participation in such productions as “Pal Joey” (her musical debut), “Gigi” and “A Little Night Music” ultimately led to her acclaimed one-woman cabaret show “Marlene”, a tribute to legendary Marlene Dietrich, which opened to rave reviews in London in 1997. Two years later, she won a Tony Award nomination for this role on Broadway. She was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2000 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to drama.
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