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Obituaries

Leo McKern, 82; Character Actor Brought Rumpole to Life

July 24, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leo McKern, a distinguished character actor who was indelibly identified with the short, round and irascible English barrister of television's "Rumpole of the Bailey" series, died Tuesday in Bath, England, after a long illness. He was 82.

McKern starred in the series based on the Rumpole stories of writer and former barrister John Mortimer. Created for British television and imported to the United States in 1980 as part of PBS' "Mystery!" series, it ran on and off for seven seasons, ending in 1995.

Critics agreed that the fleshy-faced actor with the supple baritone so fully inhabited the role of defense lawyer Horace Rumpole--a more colorful, curmudgeonly and British version of Perry Mason--that it was impossible to conceive of any other actor fitting the part.

"Leo comes from Sydney, and Australians are born with one great advantage: They have almost no respect for authority," Mortimer once said. "Rumpole's disdain for pomposity, self-regard and the soulless application of the letter of the law without regard for human values came naturally to him."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 01, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 381 words Type of Material: Correction
Rumpole's drink--A July 24 obituary of actor Leo McKern mistakenly said that his character on the television series "Rumpole of the Bailey" favored cheap burgundies. In fact, Horace Rumpole favored clarets.
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McKern left school at 15 to help support his family during the Depression. The youngest of three sons, he was hired as an apprentice engineer in a refrigerator factory where his father and brothers also worked.

He had not worked there long when he was struck in the eye by a piece of steel. Doctors operating with red-hot needles botched the surgery to repair his retina. He recalled that the operation was not painful, "but you hear the hiss and smell your eye cooking."

He lost the eye and replaced it with one of glass. He was fond of tapping it with a pencil during rehearsals to unnerve his fellow actors, or burying it in a mound of spaghetti and then complaining loudly to the waitress for befouling his food with such an unappetizing object.

His daughter Abigail, who also played a barrister in "Rumpole," once described him as "a spoilt 5-year-old" with "incredible presence."

He studied at a commercial art college before being drafted into the Australian army in 1940. While in the service, he requested a 10-day leave to marry a woman he had met at the art school, but failed to return for 20 days. Faced with severe punishment, he concocted a story that his bride had run off with an American serviceman. He managed to squeeze out some tears while telling his tale of woe to the commanding officer.

The officer found his story so convincing that he gave McKern a small fine instead of locking him up.

"I think I decided then that I'd become a full-time actor," McKern told London's Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1996.

His wife eventually did desert him for another man--McKern's best friend, whom he described as "a much nicer bloke than me." After the marriage ended, he met a Sydney stage actress, Jane Holland, and married her in 1946.

Three years later, he made his London stage debut as Forester in Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" with London's historic Old Vic Company. Soon after, he was playing Guildenstern to Michael Redgrave's Hamlet, also at the Old Vic.

He worked steadily in London theater through the next two decades, while also amassing a solid string of film credits in roles ranging from Thomas Cromwell in "A Man for All Seasons" to a cult leader in the Beatles' "Help."

Yet it was television that brought him the widest acclaim.

McKern started his television career in 1967 with a role as the repressive "No. 2" in "The Prisoner," the British drama starring Patrick McGoohan that became a cult classic.

Later, he was featured in the series "Reilly--Ace of Spies" and several television movies.

"Rumpole" evolved a few years after he finished the 1970 movie "Ryan's Daughter." He had come across a Rumpole story and was impressed by the vivid characters and the quality of Mortimer's writing.

"Why don't you write a short series, say six?" he asked Mortimer.

Mortimer wrote the scripts, London's Thames Television bought the rights, and the show debuted in 1978.

"Rumpole of the Bailey" offered a raucous view of the British legal system, from the petty bickering within Rumpole's law office to the incompetent "darlings" on the bench at Old Bailey, the central criminal courthouse in London.

The main character was a rumpled, exasperating, acerbic specialist in bloodstains and murder, who was always jowl-deep in a controversial defense of a pornographer, say, or a devil worshiper. His motto: "Never plead guilty."

He spouted poetry at the wrong moments, and relished quaffing the cheapest burgundy available--usually "Chateau Fleet Street" or "Chateau Thames Embankment."

He was always in conflict, particularly with his indomitable wife, Hilda--"She Who Must Be Obeyed." Yet McKern made him an endearing crank, as "lovable as a grumpy old panda," a Wall Street Journal critic said.

After the series ended, the classically trained actor returned to the stage. In 1999, he was preparing for a Sydney Opera House performance of the 18th century comedy of manners "She Stoops to Conquer," when he remarked on how difficult it was to leave Rumpole behind.

"I don't know how many years it is since I did the last Rumpole, but that's all people talk about or remember," he complained.

On Tuesday, Mortimer paid tribute to McKern, calling him "a wonderful actor who not only played the character but added to it, brightening it and bringing it fully to life."

He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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