Russell Hunter

Actor best known as Lonely in the television spy series 'Callan'

Saturday 28 February 2004 01:00

Russell Ellis (Russell Hunter), actor: born Glasgow 18 February 1925; married 1949 Marjorie Thomson (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1970 Caroline Blakiston (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1991 Una McLean; died Edinburgh 26 February 2004.

To be best remembered as a cowardly, snivelling, smelly petty criminal might not sound desirable for any actor, but Russell Hunter made his portrayal of Lonely - the unlikely accomplice to a clinical British secret service agent-cum-assassin - in the downbeat television spy series Callan, a model of character acting.

The world-weary Callan, played by Edward Woodward, answered to a string of bosses and had help from his fellow-agents Meres (Peter Bowles in the pilot, Anthony Valentine in the series) and Cross (Patrick Mower), but he found more reliable assistance from Lonely, so-called because, when nervous, he "stunk like a skunk". Although treating him with contempt, Callan looked after his safety and eventually recruited him as a driver.

The series, created in 1967 by James Mitchell as an antidote to the more glamorous The Saint and The Avengers and with a distinctive title sequence showing a swinging lightbulb exploding in slow motion at the sound of a gunshot, took a while to gain a following, but eventually became one of television's most popular dramas. Hunter admitted that he sometimes felt typecast in the role of Lonely. "I take more baths than I might have playing other parts," he once said. "When Lonely was in the public eye I used only the very best toilet water and a hell of a lot of aftershave."

Hunter was also a stage actor all his working life, revered as a legend of Scottish theatre, and demonstrated his versatility when he was later seen on screen in sitcoms such as Rule Britannia (1975) and The Gaffer (1981-83).

Born Russell Ellis in Glasgow in 1925, he spent his early years with his maternal grandparents in Lanarkshire, returned to his unemployed father and cleaner mother when he was 12, and did some acting as an amateur while serving an apprenticeship in a Clydebank shipyard. Turning professional in 1946, under the stage name Russell Hunter, he acted at Perth Rep and the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, and in Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and the Stars at the first Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in 1947. He was also a comedian in summer variety shows.

His first film roles were in Lilli Marlene (1950) and The Gorbals Story (1950), which also featured his first wife, Marjorie Thomson, and he followed them by playing a pilot in the Battle of Britain drama Angels One Five (1951).

After acting Costard in a BBC television production of Love's Labour's Lost (1965), Hunter was cast as Lonely in ITV's "Armchair Theatre" production A Magnum for Schneider (1967), which introduced the secret agent Callan to the screen. Four series followed (1967, 1969-72). Hunter and Edward Woodward reprised their roles in both a 1974 feature film of the same name and, seven years later, in the television film Wet Job, by which time Lonely had gone straight, got married and was running a plumbing company called Fresh and Fragrant.

In between series of Callan, Hunter acted in the Hammer horror film Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and took the roles of Crumbles, Dr Fogg and Dr Makepeace in an ITV production of Sweeney Todd (1970).

Then, in the writer Vince Powell's sitcom Rule Britannia (1975), he played Jock McGregor, one of four shipmates who fulfil a promise to reunite 25 years after going their separate ways. He was the Scotsman to Tony Melody's Englishman, Joe Lynch's Irishman and Richard Davies's Welshman.

Hunter returned to screen comedy in 1981 as the shop steward, Harry, forever on the receiving end of his boss's sardonic humour, in The Gaffer, which starred Bill Maynard as Fred Moffat, managing director of a small light- engineering company perpetually on the brink of disaster. He also appeared in Rab C. Nesbitt's Seasonal Greet (1989), a New Year's Eve television special that was a forerunner to the BBC series about the philosophising, string vest-wearing drunken Scotsman played by Gregor Fisher. Hunter was subsequently seen in the series as a dosser.

By then, his screen roles were fewer, but he remained a prolific stage actor, having already performed across Britain with the Royal Shakespeare Company (under the director Peter Hall) and at the Old Vic, and in the West End of London. He also toured his own one-man stage show, Jock, about the Scottish regiments.

In 1965, Hunter helped to launch the first repertory company at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, which included Brian Cox and Eileen McCallum. He was married for a second time, to the actress Caroline Blakiston, after they both appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.

Last year, he was seen in two award-winning films, Skagerrak (as a priest) and American Cousins, about two US mafia types who take refuge in a Glasgow café. Hunter and his third wife, the actress Una McLean, were due to star in The Kerry Matchmaker, at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, in April.

Anthony Hayward

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