Richard Dysart: Actor who worked with Clint Eastwood and Oliver Stone but became best known as Leland McKenzie in 'LA Law'

Dysart highlighted the need of people like himself to use a hearing aid by wearing one in court as Leland during an age-discrimination case

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The Independent Online

The character actor Richard Dysart crowned a long stage and screen career playing authority figures by starring in LA Law as Leland McKenzie, senior partner of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak. He portrayed two sides of the attorney, effortlessly switching from the ruthless executive to the father figure in an office of smartly dressed lawyers and junior staff.

The television drama, created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, ran from 1986 to 1994, and Dysart appeared in every episode. The publicly and critically acclaimed programme perfectly captured the social concerns of the time, from Aids and abortion to racism and domestic violence.

LA Law also depicted the promiscuous lifestyles of some of the Los Angeles firm's lawyers, including Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) bedding clients, Grace van Owen (Susan Dey) being wooed by her gorilla-suited colleague Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) as she is about to marry another man, Douglas Brackman (Alan Rachins) getting involved with a sex therapist and Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) and CJ Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) sharing a kiss.

Dysart's upstanding character was not left out of the action. Leland's romance with a law student 30 years his junior was followed by a scene in bed with his former enemy Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur), ranked 38th in one magazine's poll of TV's greatest moments.

More seriously, Dysart – who won the 1992 Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series – highlighted the need of people like himself to use a hearing aid by wearing one in court as Leland during an age-discrimination case. "I think we put up with not hearing," said the actor. "We're not part of the lives that are going on around us. It's very sad." By the time he came out of retirement for the 2002 television film LA Law: The Movie, Leland was also seen to have retired.

Dysart was born in Boston, the son of Douglas, a podiatrist, and his wife, Alice (née Hennigar). He was brought up in Skowhegan, Maine. While confined to bed with rheumatic fever for more than a year, he grew to love radio.

After leaving the Gould Academy, Maine, Dysart worked for a radio station before gaining a bachelor's degree in speech communications at Emerson College, Boston, where he acted in plays. He returned there to take his master's after four years in the US Air Force's Office of Special Investigations in Washington.

Moving to New York, he joined the Circle in the Square Theatre, selling tickets and making his professional acting début as an orderly in the Brendan Behan play The Quare Fellow (1958). While he was taking the role of Howie Newsome in Our Town at the same off-Broadway venue the following year, NBC hired him and other cast members for a television production of the Thornton Wilder play.

Other small-screen roles followed while he continued acting on stage. In 1965, he was a founding member of the American Conservatory Theater and toured Connecticut, Illinois and California with its production of Uncle Vanya the following year. He would later appear with George C Scott, another member of the company, in films and on television.

On Broadway, Dysart acted Uncle Fred in All in Good Time (1965), Horace Giddens in a revival of The Little Foxes directed by Mike Nichols and starring Anne Bancroft (1967 and 1968) and Pierre Lannes in A Place Without Doors (1970-71). In 1972 he won the 1972 Drama Desk Outstanding Performance Award for his portrayal of the bigoted dying basketball coach hosting a 20th-anniversary reunion of his victorious small-town Catholic high school team in the original production of Jason Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season (Booth Theatre, 1972-74).

Dysart's first film role, uncredited, was as an accountant alongside Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). He followed it by playing a motel receptionist in Petulia (1968) and a doctor in The Hospital (1971), which both starred George C Scott. He was seen as doctors again in The Terminal Man (1974), Being There (1979, as Peter Sellers's kind-hearted physician), The Thing (1982), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) and Warning Sign (1985).

In the 1995 film Panther, Dysart played FBI director J Edgar Hoover, a real-life character he had portrayed in the 1993 TV film Marilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair. Among other major historical figures he acted, twice, were General Dwight D Eisenhower in Churchill and the Generals (1981) and The Last Days of Patton (1986), and President Harry S Truman in Day One and War and Remembrance (both 1989). Dysart also took the roles of two Hollywood studio bosses in TV films – Jack Warner in Bogie (1980) and Louis B Mayer in Malice in Wonderland (1985).

In Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987), he was the besieged chief executive of a company whose shares are being bought up by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Other roles included a mining company boss battling Clint Eastwood in the Western Pale Rider (1985) and a barbed-wire sales rep in Back to the Future Part III (1990). Dysart, who died of cancer, is survived by his wife, Kathryn Jacobi, an artist whom he married in 1987. His first two marriages ended in divorce.

Richard Allen Dysart, actor: born Boston 30 March 1929; married three times; died Santa Monica, California 5 April 2015.