Olaf Pooley: Versatile character actor, especially adept at portraying restrained menace, who also wrote, directed and painted

In his later years he was able to fulfil his dream of being a painter, even if, as his father had feared, he never managed to make a living from it

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The Independent Online

The inspirational Olaf Pooley, who has died at the age of 101, was, in the words of his daughter, the actress Kirstie Pooley, “a very special force, an extraordinary man who lived his life the way he wanted right to the very end”. A commanding and prolific actor on stage, screen and radio, he was also a fine painter, an occasional director and an under-appreciated writer.

He was the son of a headmaster – his parents had met as students in Paris. His mother was the great granddaughter of the Danish painter Pietro Krohn, and Pooley studied painting at the Chelsea School of Art and at the Académie Colarossi in Paris under the tutelage of Marcel Gromaire, but his father’s warnings about the financial risks of being a painter led him to train at the Architectural Academy in Bedford Square. Soon bored, he appealed to his uncle, Sir Ernest Pooley, the future chairman of the Arts Council, and was assigned work as a set designer at Pinewood Studios.

A great deal of Pooley’s art has a nightmarish, fantastical quality that expresses his horror of war. He believed all his life that it was morally wrong to kill another human being, and when called up for military service, declared himself a conscientious objector and volunteered for the Fire Brigade, only to be discharged on medical grounds and posted to the Market Theatre Company, one of a number of outfits sponsored by the government to keep Britain’s spirits up during the Second World War.

From there he joined the company at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as an actor and set designer, debuting in Uncle Vanya in 1943, as one critic wrote, “looking like the most respected deacon who ever adorned a nonconformist chapel”. He met his future wife, Irlin Hall, when they appeared in a production of Macbeth at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1944.

While he was building a strong following as a member of the BBC Radio Repertory Company, his stage reputation grew as a stylish performer capable even in smaller roles of striking character sketches, such as in William Douglas Home’s colonial drama The Iron Duchess (Cambridge Theatre, 1957). He could be “repellently brilliant”, as in The Platinum Set (Saville, 1950), elegantly villainous in Dial M for Murder (Westminster, 1952), or brooding and sinister as the dictator of a Caribbean island in Flashpoint (Richmond, 1952).

He played the traitor Chorley Bannister in the original production of Coward’s Peace in Our Time at the Theatre Royal, Brighton in 1947, which imagined a Nazi occupation of Britain, and with the London Mask Theatre Company starred in the premiere of JB Priestley’s Summer Day’s Done (Princes, Bradford, 1949).

A couple of years after playing the crusading juror in Twelve Angry Men (Queens, 1962), he was at the other extreme, full of restrained menace, in an interesting melodrama from Ted Willis, A Murder of Crows (New Theatre, Bromley), in which he played a Victorian Svengali-style doctor who takes brainwashing to the extreme by emptying a young girl (Tessa Wyatt) of her entire personality in order to build a new being.

Pooley was rarely a leading man on television and film (although he did play the 150-year-old lead in the 1966 children’s serial The Master), but his supporting roles numbered well over a hundred, and included seven appearances on the BBC’s Sunday Night Theatre in the 1950s. He achieved immortality by appearing in both Star Trek and Doctor Who: in the latter, he was terrific as the professor in charge of a project to drill into the earth’s crust with fatal disregard for environmental concerns, in one of the series’ strongest stories, the epic “Inferno” (1970). After he emigrated to the US in the 1980s, his guest appearances on television ranged from King Lear to Hill Street Blues.

Pooley guest-directed at Rada, taking his production of Arms and the Man on tour to Norway in 1963, and for his last production cast a young Anthony Hopkins in the lead. He also directed one film, the well-remembered children’s drama The Johnstown Monster (1971).

His first film script, The Bay Window, clearly inspired by Les Diaboliques (1955), was released in 1971 as The Corpse. A fascinating study of a repressed English family headed by a sadistic father (played by Pooley’s close friend Michael Gough) who is murdered by his wife and daughter, it was a shrewd use of the horror genre to make a personal statement, but has unjustly fallen into obscurity. Pooley ploughed a similar furrow in his screenplay for The Godsend (1980); he also did a great deal of uncredited script-doctoring in Hollywood, initially at the request of Sophia Loren and her husband, the producer Carlo Ponti.

In his later years he was able to fulfil his dream of being a painter, even if, as his father had feared, he never managed to make a living from it. His work was exhibited at galleries in London, Paris and Mallorca. He was an adored figure at his professional base, the Santa Monica Artists Studio, visiting up to four times a week, only giving up driving at the age of 99 and branching out into pastels at the age of 100. He could still play two sets of tennis in his early eighties. His would have been a life well-lived even at a fraction of the great age he reached. He was an exemplar, tireless in exploiting each of the generous range of creative gifts he possessed.

Ole Krohn Pooley, actor, painter, writer, designer and director: born Parkstone, Dorset 13 March 1914; married 1946 Irlin Hall (marriage dissolved; one daughter, one son), 1982 Gabrielle Beaumont (marriage dissolved); died Santa Monica, California 14 July 2015.