TP McKenna: Actor whose career took him from the Abbey Theatre to numerous character roles on stage and screen

One of Ireland's most prolific actors, TP McKenna found success after moving across the water to Britain, taking character parts on screen and stage for almost half a century. The thick, dark hair eventually turned silver, which combined with McKenna's penetrating eyes to give him a distinctive look in a wide range of roles, from villains and priests to doctors, lawyers and detectives, although he once remarked: "I'm usually cast as a shit."

Thomas Patrick McKenna was born in Mullagh, Co Cavan, in 1929, the son of an auctioneer. He attended Mullagh School and St Patrick's College, Cavan, where he excelled as a soprano in Gilbert and Sullivan operas and gained an interest in drama.

However, on leaving in 1948, his first job was with the Ulster Bank, in Granard, Co Longford. During his six years with the bank, moves to other branches led him to Ireland's capital, where he spent most of his spare time performing with the Dublin Shakespeare Society and the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society.

In 1954, threatened with a further move to a branch in a sleepy, country town, McKenna resigned and pursued professional acting roles. He made his début as John Buchanan in the Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke at the Pike Theatre, Dublin, in 1954, and followed it with a Shakespeare summer season staged by the Anew McMaster company at the city's Gaiety Theatre that year.

McKenna joined the company at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1955 – having made a couple of appearances there already – and took more than 100 roles over the next eight years, as well as gaining experience on Radio Eireann as a disc jockey, before moving to London. By then, he had appeared in nine films shot in Ireland, starting with Broth of a Boy (1959) and including A Terrible Beauty (1960, playing one of Robert Mitchum's henchmen), The Siege of Sidney Street (1960, as an anarchist) and a 1962 adaptation of Brendan Behan's play The Quare Fellow.

His opportunity in Britain came with the opening of the Dublin Theatre Festival's production of Stephen D, in which he played Cranly, at St Martin's Theatre in 1963. "The play was such an enormous success in London, it was startling," McKenna recalled. "The offers literally came pouring in." The director John McGrath immediately gave him a co-starring role in Tom Murphy's BBC play The Fly Sham (1963), and The Strain (1963), by Alun Owen, quickly followed.

At the time, McKenna said he enjoyed playing the anti-hero, although he had a wide range of roles in popular 1960s television dramas such as Dr Finlay's Casebook (two characters, 1964, 1969), The Avengers (three parts, 1964-68), Dixon of Dock Green (1965) and The Saint (two roles, 1966, 1968).

Donning spectacles, he acted a maverick Russian agent in a three-part story in the Callan series (1972 ). The first episode was notable for being almost entirely a two-hander, with McKenna and Edward Woodward (as Callan) holed up alone together in a safe house, snarling and spitting at each other.

The actor also exuded menace when he played two Nazis, an SS commander responsible for executing thousands of Jews, in the mini-series Holocaust (1978) and Himmler in the television film The Scarlet and the Black (1983).

One part he acted, on and off, over a long period of time (1975-82) was the barrister Patrick Canty in the ITV lunchtime series Crown Court, with actors learning two endings and performing the one that was relevant to the real-life jury's verdict.

When McKenna played the Royal Ulster Constabulary Chief Constable Sir John Hermon in the drama-documentary Shoot to Kill (1990), about the Stalker Inquiry into the killings of six unarmed men by the police in Northern Ireland, his real-life alter ego received an out-of-court libel settlement after complaining of bias and inaccuracy, despite the director Peter Kosminsky's attempts to balance all the arguments.

On the big screen, McKenna took the role of the medical student Buck Milligan in Joseph Strick's 1967 version of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, a film that was banned in the actor's native country for being "subversive to public morality".

He was also seen as the war correspondent William Howard Russsell in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), directed by Tony Richardson, and as the doomed, one-armed, local magistrate in the director Sam Peckinpah's disturbing Straw Dogs (1971). Later, he acted alongside Johnny Depp in The Libertine (2004).

There were stage appearances at the Royal Court and with the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Companies, and McKenna made occasional trips back to Ireland for screen and stage work. He played Andrew Wyke in the Anthony Shaffer play Sleuth at both the Opera House, Cork, and the Olympia Theatre, Dublin (1973). He also acted the Irish prime minister in the television drama The Ambassador (1998) and appeared in the television soap opera Fair City (2003-04) as Fr Tom Mitchell, a former priest supporting a victim in a clerical sexual abuse scandal.

McKenna is survived by his daughter and four sons, two of whom, Kilian and Breffni, followed him into acting. His wife, May, died five years ago.

Anthony Hayward

Thomas Patrick McKenna, actor: born Mullagh, Co Cavan 7 September 1929; married 1955 May White (died 2006; four sons, one daughter); died London 13 February 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions