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Today in history… gentle giant actor was war hero

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Fondly remembered for both his film and TV work and his passion for animal conservation, Bill Travers – actor and co-founder of the Born Free Foundation – was born on January 3rd, 1922.

The son of a theatre manager, he grew up in his home town of Sunderland, County Durham, with acting in his blood. His elder sister, Linden Travers, became an actress and made her West End stage debut in 1934, but any plans that Bill, nine years her junior, had to follow in her footsteps were put on hold by the Second World War.

At the age of 18 he enlisted as a private in the British Army and was soon posted to India. His intelligence and innate leadership qualities were recognised and in 1942 he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. Even in wartime it was unusual to advance a private from the ranks to a commission as a junior officer.

His wartime role was dangerous, serving in the Long Range Penetration Brigade of the 9th Gurkha Rifles in Burma, trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. During one mission he was struck down by malaria and asked to be left behind in a native Burmese village so as not to endanger his patrol. After recovering, he disguised himself as a Chinese national – not easy for a man who stood almost 6ft 5ins tall ­– and walked hundreds of miles through jungle territory until he reached the Allied lines.

In 1945 he was promoted to the rank of major and joined Force 136 of the Special Operation Executive (SOE) – a secretive organisation designed to encourage, train and supply resistance fighters in enemy-occupied territory. Major Travers was parachuted into Malaya, where he was responsible for training and tactics with the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army. Had he been captured, he would almost certainly have been executed by the Japanese.

With the war over, Travers left the army in 1947 to pursue his ambition to become an actor. With little formal training, he began working on the stage and got his first small film part in 1949. Several other small supporting roles followed in the booming post-war film industry, but many were uncredited. His breakthrough came in 1955 when the producers of a new comedy film, “Geordie”, were looking for a tall and powerfully-built actor to play the title role.

Travers proved the perfect choice for the unassuming Scots gentle giant who finds himself, almost by accident, winning the gold medal for hammer throwing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The film was a hit and saw Travers contracted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who thought he would be a big star and took him to Hollywood.

Around that time, he met and married Virginia McKenna, his co-star in a 1957 remake of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”. They would go on to make seven films together, playing husband and wife in four of them. Unfortunately, the MGM films performed disappointingly at the box office, but Travers and his new wife were content to return to Britain and a steady flow of film and stage work.

His most famous role came as conservationist George Adamson in the highly successful 1966 film “Born Free”, with McKenna playing his on-screen wife Joy Adamson. The film was not only a huge success but proved life-changing for both its stars, inspiring a lifelong commitment to animal conservation and particularly to improving conditions in zoos around the world.

As well as mainstream films, the couple would make several powerful documentaries promoting conservation. Other animal-themed hit films for Travers came with 1969’s “Ring of Bright Water” and 1973’s “The Belstone Fox”. In his later years he was semi-retired from acting, devoting more time to his conservation work, for which he was awarded an OBE. However, he still made regular cameo appearances in film and on TV, one of his final roles coming in a 1992 two-part episode of “Lovejoy”, set in Scotland.

Bill Travers spent his last three years travelling around Europe’s ‘slum zoos’ with a documentary crew highlighting the often appalling conditions which wild animals endured in captivity. It was challenging work and the zoo owners were often hostile, but as a veteran of the wartime SOE Travers was ‘hard to discourage’ from his aims.

He died in his sleep in Dorking, Surrey, in March 1944, at the age of 72. His conservation work is carried on by his widow (now aged 87) and their son Will Travers (one of their four children), who is chief executive of the Born Free Foundation.

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