Scofield made few films even after the Oscar for his 1966 portrayal of Tudor statesman Sir Thomas More. He was a stage actor by inclination and by his gifts -- a dramatic, craggy face and an unforgettable voice that was likened to a Rolls Royce starting up or the rumbling sound of low organ pipes.
Even his greatest screen role was a follow up to a play -- the London stage production of "A Man for All Seasons," in which he starred for nine months. Scofield also turned in a performance in the 1961 New York production that won him extraordinary reviews and a Tony Award.
"With a kind of weary magnificence, Scofield sinks himself into the part, studiously underplays it, and somehow displays the inner mind of a man destined for sainthood," Time magazine said.
Actor Richard Burton, once regarded as the natural heir to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud at the summit of British theater, said it was Scofield who deserved that place. "Of the 10 greatest moments in the theater, eight are Scofield's," he said.
Scofield was an unusual star -- a family man who lived almost his entire life within a few miles of his birthplace and hurried home after work to his wife and children. He didn't seek the spotlight, gave interviews sparingly, and at times seemed to need coaxing to venture out, even onto the stage he loved.
But, he insisted in The Sunday Times in 1992, "my reclusiveness is a myth. ... Yes, I've turned down quite a lot of parts. At my age you need to weed things out, but the idea that I can't be bothered anymore with acting -- that's quite absurd. Acting is all I can do. An actor: That's what I am."
Scofield reportedly had been offered a knighthood, but declined.
"It is just not an aspect of life that I would want," he once said. "If you want a title, what's wrong with Mr.?"
In 2001, however, he was named a Companion of Honor, one of the country's top honors, limited to 65 living people.
His temperament, too, was unexpected in an actor who remained at the very top of his profession.
"It is hard not to be Polyanna-ish about Paul because he is such a manifestly good man, so humane and decent, and curiously void of ego," said director Richard Eyre, former artistic director of Britain's National Theatre. "All the pride he has is channeled through the thing that he does brilliantly."
David Paul Scofield was born Jan. 21, 1922, son of the village schoolmaster in Hurstpierpoint, 8 miles from the south coast of England. When he married actress Joy Parker in 1943, they settled only 10 miles north, in the country village of Balcombe, where they reared their son and daughter and where Scofield was in easy striking distance of London's West End theaters.
Scofield trained at the Croydon Repertory Theater School and London's Mask Theater School before World War II. Barred from service for medical reasons, he toured in plays, entertaining troops and acting in repertory in factory towns around the country.
Throughout the 1940s, he worked repertory and in London and Stratford in plays ranging from Shakespeare and Shaw to Steinbeck and Chekhov.
In his 20s, he worked with director Peter Brook, touring as Hamlet in 1955. The collaboration included the stage adaptation of Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory" in 1956, which Gielgud regarded as Scofield's greatest performance.
Scofield's huge success with "A Man for All Seasons" was followed in 1979 by another great historical stage role, as Salieri in "Amadeus."
His later stage appearances included "Heartbreak House" in 1992 and the 1996 National Theatre production of Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman."
Scofield's rare films included Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" in 1974, Kenneth Branagh's 1989 production of "Henry V," in which he played the king of France; "Quiz Show," Robert Redford's film about the 1950s TV scandal in which Scofield played poet Mark Van Doren; and the 1996 adaptation of Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible."
He is survived by his wife and children.