Robert Beatty graduated with a B.A. from the University of Toronto and started in amateur dramatics with the Hamilton Player’s Guild. For a while, he made a living as a cashier for a gas and fuel company. In order to further hone his acting skills, he made his way to London in 1936 (on the advice of Leslie Howard) to train for acting at RADA. He made his theatrical debut in “Idiot’s Delight” at the Apollo, and from there obtained regular work on both stage and screen in bit parts and walk-ons, eventually making his breakthrough on radio as a broadcaster for the BBC. He was famously on hand, reporting eyewitness accounts of the London Blitz for the Overseas News Service during the war years.
On the strength of this, Beatty was promoted to more substantial film roles, beginning with San Demetrio London (1943), in which he played a brash, alcoholic American sailor mellowed by his good-natured British crewmates in the best ‘stiff-upper-lip’ tradition. This seemed to set the tone for his future screen personae, for he was henceforth typecast as tough, down-to-earth Canadians or Americans, many of them cops or gumshoes in low budget potboilers. That notwithstanding, he had his share of quality assignments as well, notably as loyal friend to IRA fugitive James Mason in Odd Man Out (1947); as a plausible Lord Beaverbrook in The Magic Box (1951); as Lieutenant William Bush, best friend and second-in-command to Gregory Peck’s Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951); and as a washed-out heavyweight prizefighter in The Square Ring (1953). Throughout his career, Beatty’s stock-in-trade was masculinity, dependability and forthrightness.
Immensely popular on radio, Beatty provided the voice for private eye Philip Odell in a long-running series for the BBC “Light Programme” between 1947 and 1961. From the late 1950’s, he also became increasingly prolific on television and as a narrator of documentaries. If his face was not yet recognisable enough, he appeared in commercials for a hair care product. For two years, Beatty starred in his own half-hour series, Dial 999 (1958), as a Canadian mountie seconded to Scotland Yard. On the big screen he was cast as Dr. Ralph Halvorsen in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Towards the end of his lengthy career, he gave one of his finest performances, a thoroughly convincing impersonation of President Ronald Reagan in the documentary-drama Breakthrough at Reykjavik (1987).