Willoughby Goddard: Rotund actor often cast as a baddie

Thursday 01 May 2008 00:00

Willoughby Goddard used his rotund figure most effectively in portraying archetypal screen baddies for 40 years. The actor even openly acknowledged himself as "one of the fatties in the business". He will be best remembered by many who grew up during the 1950s and 1960s as Gessler, the villainous Austrian governor who was the Swiss hero's enemy in The Adventures of William Tell (1958-59).

Goddard's carefully measured hamming up of his performance ensured that Landburgher Gessler's humiliation was complete as the crossbow-firing Tell (played by Conrad Phillips) constantly outwitted the evil tyrant in a quest to rid Switzerland of Austrian occupation.

The actor relished playing a character who would stop at nothing to capture and kill his arch-enemy, in one of ITV's earliest children's adventure series, based on the 14th-century story by Johann von Schiller. The blustering Gessler's tactics included using assassins disguised as resistance heroes and trying to turn the Swiss against their outlaw leader by framing him for crimes he had not committed.

Goddard's performance was made the more chilling for the fact that Gessler was clearly modelled on a Hitler-era military governor, in a children's programme that drew parallels between the Austrian occupation of Switzerland 600 years earlier and the Nazis' more recent actions in Europe.

Born in Bicester, Oxfordshire in 1926, Goddard was a keen swimmer as a child and set a record for swimming the Isis. On leaving school, he set his sights on the stage and, with no drama-school training, made his professional début at the Oxford Playhouse as the Steward in Saint Joan (1943), before joining the repertory company at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre.

He first appeared in the West End as Mr Holmes in Jack Roffey's whodunit No Other Verdict at the Duchess Theatre (1954), where he subsequently played Gowing in an adaptation of George and Weedon Grossmith's satire The Diary of a Nobody (1955).

Over the next few years, Goddard made a big reputation for himself. On stage, he played Cardinal Wolsey in the original production of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (Globe Theatre, 1960), although he did not act in the play on Broadway. He rectified that on being perfectly cast in the role of Mr Bumble when Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! opened in New York (Imperial Theatre, 1963-64). The actor also proved to be a definitive Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, taking the role on tours with Prospect Productions (1968, 1972-74) and with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1979 and Aldwych Theatre, 1980).

Goddard had already played Mr Bumble in a 13-part BBC serialisation of Oliver Twist (1962) on television, a medium where his face had become familiar in classic serials, as Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1956), Mr Creakle in David Copperfield (1956), Mr Rumbold in The History of Mr Polly (1959) and the Rev Mr Chadband in Bleak House. After his role in The Adventures of William Tell, he also appeared in popular action series such as Danger Man (1961), The Avengers (1961, 1969) and The Saint (1969), before becoming a regular in two crime dramas.

He was the civil servant Sir Geoffrey Norton, the only link with the outside world for two criminologists working in – and confined to – a special government department, in The Man in Room 17 (1965-66). Then came a similar role, as Sir Jason Toovey, head of the Department of Public Prosecutions, home to the investigator and title character, in The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder (1969, 1971).

But such was Goddard's range that he was just as adept at comedy – appearing alongside Charlie Drake in the sketch shows Drake's Progress (1957-58) and The Charlie Drake Comedy Hour (1972), as well as an episode of the sitcom The Worker (1970) – and he played the art thief Tun-Ju in a story in the children's fantasy series Ace of Wands (1970).

His last regular screen role was in Porterhouse Blue (1987), Channel 4's award-winning adaptation of Tom Sharpe's satire about an archaic Cambridge University college, in which he played Professor Siblington, memorably seen gazing up at inflated condoms floating among the spires. He revived one of his greatest performances, as Cardinal Wolsey, for his last television appearance, in God's Outlaw (a historical drama about William Tyndale, 1988).

Many of his other character roles were as judges, doctors and clergymen. Similarly, in the cinema he was cast as a squire in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and an innkeeper in Joseph Andrews (1976), two of his rare film appearances.

Anthony Hayward

Willoughby Wittenham Rees Goddard, actor: born Bicester, Oxfordshire 4 July 1926; married 1950 Ann Phillips (one son); died 11 April 2008.

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