Jerome Willis: Character actor and Shakespearian specialist who was equally at home as the dignified victim or devilish villian
He was often called upon to portray pin-striped blimps on television
Saturday 01 March 2014
Jerome Willis was an unselfish, thoughtful actor, his commanding features and voice lending themselves equally well to playing dignified victims or devilish villains. He was a strong Shakespearean player; his dignity, command and pathos conjured up a haunting spell when he appeared as Hamlet’s father at the Bristol Old Vic in 1999 (doubling up impressively as the First Player). Three years later he was a most noble Gonzalo in The Tempest at Stratford, a fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of his first appearance there in that same play. Along the way, he had been a busy television actor, and triumphed in weekly rep, commercial theatre and on the Fringe: a true all-rounder.
Jerome Barry Willis was born in Balham in 1928. There was music on his mother’s side, a love she passed on to him; indeed, he was named after his grandfather, the celebrated tenor Jerome Murphy. He missed the war by a whisker, starting his National Service with the RAF in Ceylon in 1946, where his vocal talents came in useful on Radio SEAC, which at the time had been taken over by the Allied forces and included a weekly broadcast to the UK.
Two years later he was demobbed and won a place at the Old Vic school. Upon graduation, Willis joined the West of England Theatre Company, but he was there less than a year when Anthony Quayle invited him to join the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company at Stratford, soon to be deemed “the finest Shakespeare company in years.” He made his debut with them in 1952, bringing up the rear as Young Siward, directed by John Gielgud and slaughtered by Ralph Richardson’s Macbeth. The following year, the 21st anniversary of the theatre was marked by Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft starring in Antony and Cleopatra, in which Willis played Scarus. He attended to Quayle’s Othello, too, before joining Ipswich Rep in 1955.
The theatre had been in crisis until a new general manager saved it from closure with a crafty mix of commercial plays, classics and the odd risk-taker slipped in when no one was looking. The company was a strong one that included Clive Revill and Paul Eddington, and Willis in particular constantly impressed critics, first for his “great charm and ability” in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and again for his “attractive enthusiasm” in The Glass Menagerie. They rooted for the little theatre to survive, and were delighted when a production of Moliere’s The School for Wives went off without a hitch despite the leading lady falling sick the evening before the play opened. (In typically gutsy rep-style, a fellow actress managed to be off the book by curtain-up).
From there, Willis went to the Oxford Playhouse, the same year making his television debut in a BBC production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1957). Television roles fast became plentiful, notably when he took part in the BBC’s live 15-part mounting of Shakespeare’s history plays under the banner of “An Age of Kings” (1960). The same year at the New Theatre, Bromley, he played Becket in a Holy Week production of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral with “calm and dignity, avoiding emotion and speaking the beautiful lines with clarity and complete conviction.” The following year he earned his first Shakespearean lead, as Orsino in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic, and in 1964 he was one of 25 British actors invited to spend a summer in Chicago performing Shakespeare at the Ravinia Festival, Willis playing the Dauphin in Henry V.
His theatre work broadened considerably in the 1970s, from directing Eric Sykes in The Button at the Theatre Royal, Brighton and performing to Prince Charles at the opening of Leeds Playhouse with the Christmas comedy Oh Glorious Jubilee (both 1970), to venturing boldly into the dark and dangerous world of the new and strange London Fringe. At the Act Inn, a space at the Duke of Argyll in Brewer Street described by Time Out as “the best fringe theatre in London” several times during its three-year life, Willis and Leonard Rossiter appeared in Abel, Where is Your Brother? (1974), the story of a reunion between Rossiter’s gallant old soldier and Willis as the coward who betrayed him to the enemy to save himself. He was underrated as a comedy player, but did great things with Frank, the boozy lecturer, in Educating Rita at Derby Playhouse in 1983, his Rita a well-matched Angela Bruce.
His busy television schedule was generally in supporting roles, often as a pin-striped blimp. His most high-profile television part was as deputy to Googie Withers’ prison governor in LWT’s engaging Within These Walls (1974-78). Appearing in Doctor Who is any actor’s passport to immortality, though, and Willis certainly earned his elixir playing the villain in the well-remembered corporation vs conservation scare-fest The Green Death (1973), opposite Jon Pertwee.
But it was Shakespearean roles that always best deployed his many gifts, and where he could always be relied upon to speak the verse with, as Hamlet requested, “a temperance that may give it smoothness.”
Jerome Willis, actor and director: born London 23 October 1928; married 1953 Dilys Elstone (four daughters); died London 11 January 2014.
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