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McKern, Leo (1920-2002)

Actor, Presenter

Main image of McKern, Leo (1920-2002)

Born Reginald McKern in Sydney, Australia, Leo McKern moved to England in 1946 and quickly became involved in the theatre with the Old Vic in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Short of stature, bulky and jowly, he was not a natural leading man, but his expressive face and rich, deep voice were a gift for character roles and his talent was such that he made the transition from theatre to television to film and back again with consummate ease.

Despite acute stage fright, particularly as he grew older, McKern played many Shakespearean roles, including Gloucester in King Lear, as well as others from classic theatre, notably Volpone, Uncle Vanya and Peer Gynt. He wrote the stage play Chain of Events in 1957. His television roles were equally varied. He appeared in three episodes of the thought-provoking cult television series The Prisoner (ITV, 1968-69) as No. 2, charged 'breaking' Patrick McGoohan's No.6 "by hook or by crook".

But it is as Horace Rumpole in the phenomenally successful Rumpole of the Bailey (ITV, 1978-1992) that he is most fondly remembered. Rumpole, the hot-tempered, grumpy but loveable barrister with a heart of gold and a liking for claret, captivated millions of viewers each week. The role won McKern international acclaim, lifelong popularity and a secure place in television history.

McKern's film performances were as noteworthy and diverse as his television and stage work. Following a small role (as 'third knight') in Murder in the Cathedral (d. George Hoellering, 1952), he appeared with Peter Sellers in the satirical comedy The Mouse that Roared (d. Jack Arnold, 1958) and with The Beatles in Help! (Richard Lester, 1965). In 1966, he appeared in the historical drama A Man for All Seasons (d. Fred Zinnemann) alongside Paul Scofield, Orson Welles and Robert Shaw among others.

For his role as Frank in Travelling North (Australia, d. Carl Schultz, 1986), McKern won the Best Actor award from the Australian Film Institute and at the Montreal World Film Festival. He was honoured as the Actor of the Year in 1989 at the London Critics Circle Film Awards.

Other critically acclaimed successes were The Shoes of the Fisherman (d. Michael Anderson, 1968), for which he won the Best Actor in a Supporting Role award from the National Board of Review in the USA, Ryan's Daughter (d. David Lean, 1970) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (d. Karel Reisz, 1981). He appeared in film well into the late 1990s.

He married actress Jane Holland in 1946 and had two daughters, actress Abigail (who played alongside her father for a short time in Rumpole of the Bailey) and producer Harriet. McKern died after suffering from a long illness in 2002.

Glen Jones

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