Leo McKern, the actor who made Rumpole a lawyer we could love, dies at 82

By Louise Jury,Media Correspondent
Monday 23 December 2013 03:56

Leo McKern, the Australian-born actor who became famous for the most English of roles in Rumpole of the Bailey, has died aged 82. He had been ill for some time and died at a nursing home near his home in Bath.

McKern enjoyed a long career in films and on stage after his early employment as an engineering apprentice was ended by an accident in which he lost his left eye. He won critical acclaim for his role of Thomas Cromwell in the film version of A Man for All Seasons in 1966 and enjoyed spells at the Old Vic and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was in his fifties by the time he won the public's heart as the crumpled, combative Rumpole, a character created by the writer and barrister Sir John Mortimer.

Sir John led the tributes yesterday, describing McKern as "a very private man who never failed in his public performances". He said: "He was a wonderful actor. He not only played the character Rumpole, he added to it, brightened it and brought it fully to life."

Writing in 1994, Sir John said McKern was "shapeless, lovable and could make you laugh and cry."

The actress Patricia Hodge, who worked with McKern on Rumpole, said: "The example he set was not just as an actor but as a man. He took his work seriously but never himself."

Lawyers joined the praise. The human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson QC said: "His great achievement was to create a lawyer the world could love."

Yet McKern only discovered acting at the age of 20 when boredom in his work as an army clerk led him to join an amateur theatre group. He met his wife, the actress Jane Holland, and followed her to England. They married in 1946 and had two daughters, Abigail and Harriet.

Holland's agent refused to take McKern on to his books because of his glass eye, but he decided to prove himself regardless. His screen performances included The Mouse That Roared, the Beatles' film Help! and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders. But in 1970, disillusioned, he returned to Australia.

Within two years he was back and in 1975 played Rumpole for the first time in a television play based on the Mortimer novels. The production was a hit and the reference to his screen wife, Hilda, as "she who must be obeyed" became part of the nation's vocabulary.

McKern played the role on ITV over the next decade and a half, despite his aversion to repeat series. "With Rumpole one comes to be reconciled to the fact that it isn't half a bad thing to be stuck with," he once said. The film Monsignor Quixote with Sir Alec Guinness was intended as his swansong in 1985, but he was tempted back from Australia again for the "absolutely final" Rumpole series.

In later years he suffered poor health but continued to work until a couple of years ago.

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