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Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)


Main image of Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)

Although Leonard Rossiter (born in Liverpool on 21 October 1926) will forever be associated with two of British television's greatest comic creations, Rupert Rigsby and Reginald Perrin, the actor himself disliked being labelled a 'comic actor'. With his mobile features and an ability to reel out vast amounts of dialogue at a rapid pace, Rossiter was an actor with tremendous screen presence, at least as effective in drama as he was in comedy.

Gaining stage experience in repertory with companies in Preston and Wolverhampton, and later at the Bristol Old Vic, Rossiter made his small screen debut in the television play Story Conference (BBC, tx. 13/3/1956).

He continued with several small roles in one-off dramas until he won a short-lived regular role in early 1963 in Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78). He won his first television leading role as a Yorkshire miner suffering a mental breakdown in David Mercer's The Buried Man (ITV, tx. 12/2/1963).

Rossiter began to make his mark as a comic actor in three satirical sketch series, Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life (BBC, 1964-65), BBC-3 (BBC, 1965-66) and At the Eleventh Hour (BBC, 1967-68). He also appeared in the 'The Lead Man Cometh' episode (tx. 21/1/1964) of Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74); he later reappeared in the episode 'The Desperate Hours' (tx. 3/4/1972).

Notable lead roles from this period include 'Semi-Detached' (tx. 1/5/1966), a televised version of one of Rossiter's early theatre successes, in Theatre 625 (BBC, 1964-68); the political thriller Death is a Good Living (BBC, 1966), as an assassin; the race relations drama 'Drums Along the Avon' (tx. 24/5/1967) in The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70); the crime drama Thick as Thieves (ITV, tx. 29/2/1972), which won HTV the Royal Television Society's award for Best Regional Production; and Johnny Speight's comic drama If There Weren't Any Blacks You'd Have to Invent Them (ITV, tx. 3/3/1974).

Rossiter disliked long-running series (he had turned down a long-term contract for Z Cars), but the role of Rigsby in Rising Damp proved too tempting. That rare commodity, an ITV comedy of lasting worth, Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78), set entirely within the boarding house of the obnoxious Rigsby, was situation comedy at its best (courtesy of writer Eric Chappell), and gave Rossiter a role he obviously relished.

If his performance as Rigsby had not already linked him inextricably with comedy in the public mind, his performance in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79) sealed the matter. As the middle-aged executive undergoing a mid-life crisis, Rossiter, ably served by David Nobbs' clever, imaginative scripts, ensured that Perrin joined Rigsby in the pantheon of great British comedy characters. The dire belated follow-up, The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1996), only demonstrated how essential Rossiter's performance was to the earlier programmes' success.

His success in television comedy led to a series of ten fondly remembered Cinzano commercials, co-starring Joan Collins, between 1978 and 1983. These were also intended for the cinema, a medium he otherwise only sporadically engaged with. He was however to offer a small number of memorable performances in British films, from brief roles in John Schlesinger's A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963), through to two for Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Barry Lyndon (1975). Later films included Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital (1982) and the lead role in the Ray Galton and Alan Simpson scripted short film Le Petomane (d. Ian MacNaughton, 1979).

After Perrin, straight roles on television became less frequent, although notable exceptions include Machinegunner (ITV, tx. 24/7/1976), as a debt collector involved with building speculators; 'Fearless Frank, or Tit-bits from the Life of an Adventurer' (tx. 4/10/1978) in Play of the Week (BBC, 1977-79), based on the once-banned memoirs of Frank Harris; and the industrial-relations drama 'The Factory' (tx. 22/12/1981) in Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) .

Two further comedy series, The Losers (ITV, 1978), with Rossiter as wrestling promoter Sydney Foskett, and Tripper's Day (ITV, 1984), as supermarket manger Norman Tripper, failed to match either the quality or popular success of his earlier sitcom work.

On 5 October 1984, Rossiter died from a massive heart attack midway through the run of Tripper's Day. Two plays transmitted posthumously served to illustrate what an accomplished actor he had been - Shakespeare's 'The Life and Death of King John' (tx. 24/11/1984) as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle (BBC, 1978-85) and The Moon Over Soho (BBC tx. 18/8/1985), in which he played the editor of a sleazy film magazine.

John Oliver

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Selected credits

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Leonard Rossiter's first great sitcom role as seedy landlord Rigsby

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