He was born in Sale, Cheshire, to Methodist parents; his father owned a small furniture shop. At Manchester Grammar School his affinity for Sir Thomas More first developed. After leaving school aged sixteen, he worked in an insurance office, which he disliked; after studying in the evening for five weeks he passed three A-levels and went on to attend the University of Manchester, from which, after a year, he undertook wartime service, initially as a pilot officer candidate in the RAF (air-sickness preventing him from continuing past training) from 1943 to 1946. He then served as an Army officer in West Africa until 1947, when he returned to the University of Manchester and spent three years completing his honours degree in History. Following this, he took a teaching diploma from the University of Exeter. For many years he taught English and history at Millfield School and only became a full-time writer at the age of 33 when his play The Flowering Cherry was staged in London in 1958, with Celia Johnson and Ralph Richardson.
Although he was best known for his original play A Man for All Seasons - a depiction of Sir Thomas More's clash with King Henry VIII over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon - which won awards on the stage and in its film version, most of his writing was screenplays for films or television.
Bolt was known for dramatic works that placed their protagonists in tension with the prevailing society. He won great renown for A Man for All Seasons, his first iteration of this theme, but he developed it in his existential script for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In Lawrence, he succeeded where several before him had failed, at turning T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom into a cogent screenplay by turning the entire book on its head and making it a search for the identity of its author, presenting Lawrence as a misfit both in English and Arab society.
It was at this time that Bolt himself fell foul of the law, and as part of the Committee of 100 was arrested and imprisoned for protesting against nuclear proliferation. He refused to be "bound over" (i.e., to sign a declaration that he would not engage in such activities again) and was sentenced to one month in prison because of this. The producer of the Lawrence film, Sam Spiegel, persuaded Bolt to sign after he had served only two weeks. Bolt later regretted his actions, and did not speak to Spiegel again after the film was completed.
Later, with Doctor Zhivago, he invested Boris Pasternak's novel with the characteristic Bolt sense of narrative and dialogue - human, short and telling. The Bounty was Bolt's first project after a stroke, which affected not only his movement, but his speech. In it, Fletcher Christian takes the "Lawrence" role of a man in tension with his society who in the process loses touch with his own identity. The Mission was Bolt's final film project, and once again represented his thematic preoccupations, this time with 18th-century Jesuits in South America.
Bolt's final produced script was Political Animal, later made into the TV movie Without Warning: The James Brady Story (1991), about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan and the struggles of his press secretary, James Brady, to recover from a near-fatal gunshot injury he received in the process. Bolt was initially reluctant to make the film, but after meeting Brady he felt he could relate to Brady's struggles with a cerebral injury; thus, a lot of his own experiences recovering from his stroke found their way into the script.
Bolt was married four times, twice to British actress Sarah Miles. His first wife was Celia Ann "Jo" Roberts, by whom he had three children: Sally (died 1982), Ben, and Joanna. They divorced in 1963. He was married to Miles from 1967 until 1976; Bolt had his fourth child, Thomas, with Miles. In the early 1980s, he had a short-lived third marriage, to the actress Ann Queensberry (former wife of David Douglas, 12th Marquess of Queensberry), before remarrying Sarah Miles in 1988, with whom he remained until his death in 1995.
Bolt wrote several plays for BBC Radio in the '50s, as well as several unproduced plays, so this list is incomplete. Many of his early radio plays were for children, and only a few (see below) were adapted for the stage.
The Last of the Wine (1955) - A play showcasing the reactions of ordinary Englishmen to the advent of nuclear armageddon, one of Bolt's pet political issues. One of Bolt's radio plays which Bolt tried to adapt to the stage. However, the play was either never performed or performed a few times and then cancelled. Wine has never been published or performed since. First broadcast late March, or early April 1955 on the BBC Third Programme.
Mr Sampson's Sunday (1955) - First broadcast by the BBC Home Service and reviewed by J. C. Trewin in the Listener 21 July 1955.
The Critic and the Heart (1957) - Bolt's first professionally produced work, it involves Winifred Blazer, a middle-aged spinster whose life is ruined by the arrival of a mean-spirited art critic. It was a very modest success, with a two-week run at the Oxford Playhouse. Bolt was never satisfied with this play, and later re-wrote it, retitled Brother and Sister, in a version produced in 1967 with Flora Robson.
The Drunken Sailor (1958) - Broadcast on the BBC in March 1958 and reviewed in the Listener by Roy Walker 20 March 1958.
Flowering Cherry (1958) - concerns a middle aged man, an insurance salesman dissatisfied with his life who retreats into his fantasies of owning a cherry orchard. His erratic behaviour alienates family and friends and threatens his financial ruin. Ran on the West End starring Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson (succeeded by Wendy Hiller) to success but mixed reviews. Many critics felt it too closely resembled Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and had a brief but unsuccessful run on Broadway starring Hiller and Eric Portman.
The Tiger and the Horse (1960) - is the first of Bolt's plays to develop his themes of individualism, society, authority, and politics. It concerns an ageing college professor, John Dean, who is running for Vice-Chancellor of a prestigious university, but finds his election undermined by his daughter's love affair, a political petition, and his wife's deteriorating mental state. The play starred Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, among others, and was directed by Frith Banbury.
A Man for All Seasons (1960) - involves Sir Thomas More's conflict with Henry VIII over the latter's break with the Catholic Church. Adapted from a radio play Bolt had written in 1954, it is generally regarded as Bolt's finest work - and certainly his most successful. The BBC production was reviewed in the Listener on 5 August 1954. The play develops in full his themes of individuality versus society and authority as corrupt. The strain of Brechtianism which would pervade many of his later works is first present here, in the character of the 'Common Man', who both narrates and takes part in the action as various minor characters. The original run starred Paul Scofield as Thomas More, as well as Keith Baxter as Henry VIII, George Rose as the Common Man, Leo McKern as the Common Man in the West End production and Thomas Cromwell in the Broadway show (a role originated in London by Andrew Keir and later taken over by Thomas Gomez), and Albert Dekker as the Duke of Norfolk. It was a huge critical and commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, has had several revivals, and was made into an equally acclaimed film in 1966.
Gentle Jack (1963) - an unusual work by Bolt, a comedy contrasting humanity's material world with nature. A banker, Jacko, is sent to the countryside on vacation, and becomes influenced by a Nature spirit who convinces him to abandon his office life and live in a state of nature, indulging in base pleasures such as murder, sex, and general mischief. Jacko, however, is torn between his desire to inhabit both the "Natural" and "Logical" Worlds. It was one of Bolt's few unsuccessful plays; Bolt, who considered the play his best work for the stage, regretted this, feeling that perhaps he had not articulated his points well enough. The play starred Kenneth Williams, Michael Bryant, Siân Phillips, Edith Evans, Timothy West and Bernard Kay in its run; the play has not been professionally produced since.
The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew (1964) - a children's play, involving a heroic knight, Oblong Fitz-Oblong, sent to slay a vicious dragon on a far-away island, leading him to face off with the crooked Baron Bolligrew, who controls the island, and an evil wizard he recruits to help him. The work contains many of Bolt's favourite themes of integrity and honour - as well as Brechtian devices which fit naturally within the story's fantasy setting. The show was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company for a showing at Christmastime, 1964. Among the original cast were John Normington as Fitz-Oblong, Michael Jayston as the play's narrator, Bolt perennial Leo McKern as the title character, and Terence Rigby and a young Malcolm McDowell in supporting roles. A revival in the late 1960s featured Roy Kinnear as Fitz-Oblong. Paul Scofield provided a voice recording for the dragon. Like A Man for All Seasons, the play had been written for the BBC, and in 1995 was re-written into a children's book. The play was extremely popular, and throughout the 1960s/70s, it had a yearly revival at Christmas in Britain. In the early 60s, the Augsburger Puppenkiste puppet theatre produced the play for German television in six sequels titled Der kleine dicke Ritter.
Vivat! Vivat Regina! (1971) - Bolt's most successful show after A Man for All Seasons, a historical account of the reigns of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I of England, comparing and contrasting the personalities and reigns of the two female rulers. Highly successful, it ran for several months on Broadway, earning several Tony nominations. The original cast included Eileen Atkins as Elizabeth and Bolt's wife Sarah Miles as Mary. The play has experienced several revivals, most notably a 1985 Off-Broadway production starring Geraldine Page as Elizabeth.
State of Revolution was Bolt's final produced play, though he wrote several others that were never published or produced. He spent much of the mid-to-late 1970s working on a play about portrait artist Augustus John (famous for a series of portraits of T. E. Lawrence), but his work on The Bounty, and later his failing health, forced him to abandon it.
Bolt may be best remembered for his work on film and television screenplays. His work for director David Lean garnered him particular acclaim and recognition, and Bolt tried his hand at directing with the unsuccessful Lady Caroline Lamb (1972). While some criticised Bolt for focusing more on the personal aspects of his protagonists than the broader political context (particularly with "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Man for All Seasons"), most critics and audiences alike praised his screenplays. Bolt won two Oscars, two BAFTA Awards, and won or was nominated for several others.
Lawrence of Arabia (with Michael Wilson) (1962) - despite disputes between Wilson and Bolt over who contributed what to the script, Bolt provided most of the film's dialogue and the interpretation of the characters while Wilson provided the story and outline. Wilson was uncredited, and Bolt alone was nominated for, but did not win, an Academy Award. Bolt and Lean refused to recognise Wilson's contribution to the film, and Wilson was not credited until 1995.