David Tree (15 July 1915—4 November 2009) was an English stage and screen actor from a distinguished theatrical family whose career in the 1930s included roles in numerous stage presentations as well as in thirteen films produced between 1937 and 1941, among which were 1939's Goodbye Mr. Chips and two of producer Gabriel Pascal's adaptations of Shaw classics, 1938's Pygmalion, in which he portrayed Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and 1941's Major Barbara, in which he was Charles Lomax.
A native of Inner London's Hampstead area, Ian David Parsons was the son of theatre critic Alan Parsons and actress Viola Tree, the daughter of renowned Victorian actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The young performer's first exposure to the stage came at the age of six, when he played a bear in his mother's 1921 revival of The Tempest at the Aldwych Theatre and continued through his childhood years, as exemplified by his portrayal, at eleven-and-a-half, of Lieutenant Spicer in a January 1927 juvenile production of Quality Street. Taking as his stage name the famous surname from his mother's side of the family, he spent a year studying drama at the Old Vic where, in his words, he "played spear carriers and said 'Hail Caesar!' a lot", such as in September 1934's production of Antony and Cleopatra. Joining the repertory company at Oxford Playhouse, he remained there, on and off, for three seasons and, by March 1937, was at Embassy and Savoy Theatres, playing Mago in The Road to Rome. In 1938, he was Robin in Only Yesterday at the Intimate during February, Ferdinand in The Tempest and Feste in Twelfth Night at Regent Park's Open Air during June–July, Edgar Malleson in Serena Blandish at the Gate during September, and Gerald in Ma's Bit O'Brass at the Q during October. In 1939 he had a notable success portraying Mervyn Brudge in Little Ladyship at the Strand during February and, during March, played Christopher Hatton in Drake at the Coliseum for King George's Pension Fund for Actors.
David Tree entered films in 1937 and played a string of character parts in films such as that year's Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel as well as the role of Freddy in the following year's Pygmalion, a film which had special significance for him since it was his grandfather, Herbert Beerbohm Tree who, three years before his death in July 1917, originated the role of Henry Higgins in the play's initial English-language performance on April 11, 1914. In a sentimental gesture, the film's producer, Gabriel Pascal, cast Beerbohm Tree's daughter, Viola Tree in the cameo role of social reporter Perfide, thus giving David Tree one final opportunity to work with his mother. Ill with pleurisy, she died at the age of 54, five weeks after Pygmalion's 6 October 1938 London premiere.
Having supported Robert Donat in 1937's Knight Without Armour, he fulfilled another such role as a young fellow teacher of Donat's Academy-Award-winning Mr. Chips in 1939 and, in 2009, seventy years after the film's original run, he was purported to be its last known living cast member. At the start of the wartime 1940s, he had four releases, French Without Tears, Return to Yesterday, Just William and Major Barbara but, shortly after putting his promising film career on hold to aid the war effort, lost his left hand in an explosion during service with Special Operations, while training French resistance fighters in the wilds of Scotland. The war came to an end during his extended recovery and, mindful of the effect of such an injury upon a performing career, he chose to retire from acting and pursue life as a gentleman farmer. Having inherited a Victorian School house and three cottages in East Herts, he converted them to handsome dwellings. Since the property included the wall of 15th-century house known as Baas Manor, he combined the cottages, creating Baas Manor Farm. Having met Mary Vick of Rickmansworth on an underground train on the last day of the war, he introduced himself and, within a short time, asked her to marry him. Starting a farm where none had been before, they raised, in turn, bees, ducks, cows and Landrace pigs, the descendants of which he exhibited at the Royal Show where he broke all records by winning 1st prize in every category. From the mid 1960s he was a leading commercial lily grower and humorously chronicled his successes, failures and adventures as a postwar farmer in the autobiography, Pig in the Middle (Michael Joseph, 1966, reprinted by Noble Books, 2006). The book became the basis for the 1975–78 sitcom The Good Life, for which he received no royalties or credit, except for recognition from cast member Felicity Kendall. In 1961 he became a founding member of the Hoddesdon Society "set up to protect the town from tower blocks and excessive development that did not fit in with its historic architecture", remaining the Society's president for a number of years.
In 1973, his friend, director Nicolas Roeg, persuaded him to return to the screen in Roeg's horror film Don't Look Now, playing a cameo role as the ineffectual headmaster. The Tree family manor provided the exterior and interior for the opening sequences as did his lake, where the red anoraked girl drowns. David Tree remained deeply contented in his homelife, his sixty-three-year marriage and his passionate interest in gardening, natural history, ecology, history and the career of his renowned grandfather, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He died at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the Herts village of Welwyn three-and-a-half months after his 94th birthday, leaving his wife, Mary, daughters Belinda, Gay and Vicken (married to sculptor Anthony Gormley), and son James. Another daughter, Susie, died in 1989.
David Tree is fondly remembered in the autobiographies of fellow performer James Mason (Before I Forget, Hamish Hamilton, 1981), with whom he appeared in the supporting cast of Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and actor-turned-documentary-maker Kenneth Griffith (The Fools Pardon, Little, Brown and Company, 1994).
Additional notes by Bryan Hewitt, source Who's Who in the Theatre 1951-1952