Alan Bates was the son of Harold Bates, an insurance broker, and of Florence Wheatcroft Bates, and was the eldest of three brothers. His parents were amateur musicians and encouraged him to become a pianist, but by the age of eleven he had decided to be an actor. Alan studied acting with Claude W. Gibson while attending the Herbert Strut Grammar School at Belper in Derbyshire. He then won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, after which he spent two years in the Royal Air Force, then joined the new English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre.
Alan Bates first came to public notice as a young working class hero in Look Back in Anger, and his first major film role was opposite Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960). He was nominated for a best actor Academy Award for The Fixer (1969). He won a best actor Tony Award in 2002 for his role in Ivan Turgenev's Fortune's Fool on Broadway.
In 1970, he married the actress Victoria Ward, and their twin sons, Tristan and Benedick, were born in 1971. Tristan died of an asthma attack at the age of nineteen, while working as a model in Japan, and Victoria died in 1992. Their other son, Benedick, is a successful young actor.
Alan Bates was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1995 and knighted at the end of 2002. He died of pancreatic cancer.