Norman Lugard Beaton was born in Georgetown Guyana, to William Beaton, a civil servant, and Ada. Beaton attended Queen's College in Guyana until he was expelled for truancy and bad grades. He was given a second chance at the Government Teachers' Training College and graduated with distinction. Beaton taught and played with the calypso band The Four Bees before leaving Guyana for London in 1960.
He took a job in the shipping department of a bookshop until his wife and children arrived in London. He then landed a job as a teacher in Liverpool, becoming the first black teacher to be employed by the Liverpool Education Authority.
Beaton soon became frustrated with his job as a teacher and began writing plays, his first play was the musical Jack of Spades, which centred on the doomed relationship between a black man and a white woman. The moderate success of this play gave Beaton enough confidence to give up teaching to concentrate on the theatre. He moved first to Bristol and then to Sussex where he played the leading role in a musical he had written, Sit Down, Banna at the Connaught Theatre. This was the beginning of his acting career.
In the early seventies, Beaton began to perform in plays in London's West End, in 1970 he played the role of Ariel in Shakespeare's The Tempest, which he described in his autobiography as "the most important role of my acting career." In 1975, he helped to establish the Black Theatre of Brixton. In 1976, Beaton broke into television in the series The Fosters; however it was his 6 year run (starting in 1988) on Desmond's as the title character that would become his most well known. In 1991 he appeared as a guest on the Bill Cosby show, he also appeared in several movies including The Mighty Quinn (1989). After years of hard living began taking its toll on his health, he flew back to Guyana in 1994, where he collapsed at the airport and died a few hours later at the age of 60. He is survived by 5 children from 3 marriages.