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Alfred Burke: Actor best known for his portrayal of the seedy private detective Frank Marker in 'Public Eye'

Tall, lean and intense, Alfred Burke swapped roles as screen villains to make the seedy private detective Frank Marker in Public Eye a television institution for 10 years.

Dressed in a grubby raincoat, down on his luck and struggling to make ends meet, Marker was one of the small screen's first anti-heroes, renting shabby offices and taking on such unglamorous cases as trudging the streets to track down debtors who were little different from himself.

"So much in this character appealed to me when I was first offered the part, particularly as it was set in south-east London, where I was born," said Burke. "And there was the challenge of making something interesting out of a man who had so few definite characteristics."

The world-weary Marker later switched his office from a Victorian attic near Clapham Junction to Birmingham, went to prison after being framed and subsequently moved to Brighton, where the loner found romance with his landlady (the actress Pauline Delany). As the detective taking on assignments to find missing persons, investigate thefts and deal with blackmail and divorce cases – all portrayed with a gritty realism – Frank Marker was the prototype for private eyes subsequently featured in Hazell and Shoestring.

After seven series and 87 episodes of Public Eye (1965-75), Burke showed his acting versatility by taking a wide range of other roles on screen and stage. He had already played the Rev Patrick Bronte in ITV's four-part series The Brontes of Howarth (1973), Christopher Fry's first scripts for television, and toured with his own one-man show about the father of English literature's three famous sisters.

Later, he was seen in Enemy at the Door (1978-80), as the humane Major Oberst Richter, commanding officer of German troops on the occupied Channel Islands during the Second World War, whose civilised manner denoted that he was neither National Socialist nor butcher. By then donning a beard, Burke succeeded in burying a stereotype. "It's terrible how we condemned a whole nation out of hand," he explained.

The actor himself was a conscientious objector during the war and spent those years as an agricultural labourer instead. Born in Peckham, south London, in 1918 to a fur warehouseman whose family had come to Britain from Ireland, Burke left Walworth Central School at 14 and took jobs as an office boy in a railway-wagon repair firm and a steward in a businessmen's club, then worked in a silk warehouse, before winning a scholarship to train at Rada (1937-39).

He had gained acting experience with a local amateur dramatics society and eventually made his professional début at the Barn Theatre, Shere, Surrey (1939), which was affiliated to the famous London Theatre Studio of Michel Saint-Denis and known for its experimental plays. After a season with the Young Vic Theatre company (1947-48), Burke acted in Pablo Picasso's Desire Caught By the Tail at the Watergate Theatre, London (1950), where he worked in the kitchen during a lean spell, spent three years with Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1950-53) and appeared in the West End hit Sailor Beware! (1954).

He landed screen roles in films such as The Constant Husband (1955), Yangtse Incident (1957), The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and Crooks Anonymous (1962). After making his television début in Counsellor at Law (1949), he appeared in many plays and took parts as villains in Danger Man (1961), The Avengers (two roles, 1961, 1966) and The Saint (two roles, 1963, 1964), before fame came in Public Eye.

Burke's later character roles on TV included Long John Silver in an eccentric BBC adaptation of Treasure Island (1977) , a child molester in Tales of the Unexpected (1979), a dying miner in David Mercer's last play, A Rod of Iron (1980), Pitt the Elder in Number 10 (1983) and the Jersey detective's former headmaster killing his victims with hemlock in Bergerac (1987).

Although he acted Giuliano della Rovere in The Borgias (1981), the BBC's attempt to repeat the success of I Claudius, the series, about the impious Pope Alexander VI, was unintentionally hilarious and no match for its illustrious predecessor. Burke also wrote a screenplay, Where Are They Now?, under the name Frank Hanna, which the ITV company Rediffusion produced in 1964.

In contrast to the mild-mannered German officer in Enemy at the Door, Burke played the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann in the film The House on Garibaldi Street (1979). His last screen role was as Professor Armando Dippet, the former headmaster of Hogwarts seen in flashback, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

On stage, he appeared in the West End in Strindberg's The Father alongside Trevor Howard (Piccadilly Theatre, 1964) and Chekhov's The Seagull starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jonathan Price (Queen's Theatre, 1985), and in Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Troilus and Cressida, As You Like It, All's Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. He also played the title role in Pirandello's Henry IV at the 1970 Edinburgh Festival. Just three years ago, aged 90, he acted one of the shepherds in a National Theatre production of Oedipus.

Long years of working in the theatre and taking bit parts on screen meant that the actor was never affected by stardom. "I'm one of life's pessimists," he once said. "I never expected my career to take off. I never expected Public Eye to last more than one series. Fame, if that's what you call it, did not come to me until I was 50. When you have such low expectations as I do, anything nice that happens is a marvellous bonus!"

Burke is survived by his partner of 25 years, Hedi Argent, and the two sets of twins – Jacob and Harriet, and Kelly and Louisa – he had with his wife, Barbara, who also survives him.

Alfred Burke, actor: born London 28 February 1918; married Barbara Bonelle (one son, three daughters); died London 16 February 2011.