But he also accepted roles in a fair share of clinkers, in which he made vivid sport of some hoary clichés — as the evil bigot hiding behind religiosity in “Skeletons” (1997), for example, one of his more than 40 television movies, or as the somber emperor of the galaxy who appears as a hologram in “Starcrash,” a 1978 rip-off of “Star Wars.”
One measure of his stature was his leading ladies, who included Glenda Jackson as Lady Macbeth and Zoe Caldwell as Cleopatra. And even setting Shakespeare aside, one measure of his range was a list of the well-known characters he played, fictional and non, on television and in the movies: Sherlock Holmes and Mike Wallace, John Barrymore and Leo Tolstoy, Aristotle and F. Lee Bailey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alfred Stieglitz, Rudyard Kipling and Cyrano de Bergerac.
His television work began in the 1950s, during the heyday of live drama, and lasted half a century. He starred as the archbishop in the popular 1983 mini-series “The Thorn Birds,” appeared regularly as an industrialist in the 1990s action-adventure series “Counterstrike,” and won Emmy Awards in 1977 for portraying a conniving banker in the mini-series “Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers” and in 1994 for narrating “Madeline,” an animated series based on the children’s books.
In the movies, his performance in “The Sound of Music” as von Trapp, a severe widower and father whose heart is warmed and won by the former nun he hires as a governess, propelled a steady parade of distinctive roles, more character turns (and mere paydays, he acknowledged) than starring parts, across a formidable spectrum of genres. They included historical drama (“The Last Station,” about Tolstoy, and “The Day That Shook the World” about the onset of World War I); historical adventure (as Kipling in John Huston’s rollicking adaptation of “The Man Who Would Be King,” with Sean Connery and Michael Caine) romantic comedy (“Must Love Dogs,” with John Cusack and Diane Lane); political epic (“Syriana”); science fiction (as Chang, the Klingon general, in “Star Trek VI”); and crime farce (“The Return of the Pink Panther,” in which, opposite Peter Sellers’s inept Inspector Clouseau, he played a retiree version of the debonair jewel thief originally portrayed by David Niven).
He won a belated Oscar in 2012 for the role of Hal, a man who enthusiastically comes out as gay after a decades-long marriage and the death of his wife, in the bittersweet father-son story “Beginners.”
“Simply stupendous,” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote of that performance, in one of many prominent reviews that treated it as a triumphant valedictory. At 82, he was the oldest person ever to win an Academy Award in a competitive category.