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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Obituary: Leo McKern
Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey
Leo McKern made the part of Rumpole his own
In the minds of huge television audiences across the globe, Leo McKern will forever be associated with the role of the cigar-puffing, poetry-spouting, Rumpole of the Bailey.

As Rumpole, McKern became an international television star, both in his adopted English home, and as far away as his native Australia.

Leo McKern
The distinctive features of Leo McKern

Born in Sydney in 1920, McKern was first an engineering apprentice and then an artist before joining the Australian Army during World War II.

He made his stage debut in Sydney in 1944, but it was not until he moved to England after the war that his theatrical career took off.

McKern took the part of Forester in Love's Labours Lost at London's Old Vic in 1949. Despite the impediments of a glass eye and strong Australian accent, he became a regular performer both there and at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford.

Huge body of work

As well as performing many of the Bard's major roles, McKern took on such diverse characters as Volpone, Uncle Vanya and Peer Gynt.

Leo McKern also brought his distinctive features to film, marking up some notable credits after his 1952 debut appearance in Murder in the Cathedral.

Leo McKern in interview
McKern found acting more frightening the more he did

From the chaos of the Beatles' film Help! in 1965 to the drama of A Man For All Seasons (1966), Ryan's Daughter (1970) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), this Australian immigrant became celebrated for his British body of work.

More recently he appeared in the award-winning Travelling North (1987) and co-starred with Alec Guiness in Monsignor Quixote (1989).

Although he appeared in the British series The Prisoner in the late 1960s and in Space:1999 in 1975, it was not until 1977 that Leo McKern made his most indelible mark on television.

Commitment and cynicism

Author John Mortimer created Horace Rumpole with only one actor in mind, and as the blustering, grumbling barrister, McKern did not disappoint.

Rumpole had all the commitment and cynicism we require of our television heroes, but with his sidelong looks and interior monologues, McKern gave us a more colourful and complicated character than the average legal eagle.

He can coo like a dove, roar like a lion, sing like an angel and curse like, well, as only Australians can

Critic Tyrone Guthrie on McKern's acting versatility

With magisterial mock grandeur and imperiousness, McKern brought an intelligent, acerbic style to the character that was applauded by audiences and critics alike.

John Mortimer had to continually persuade McKern back into the role, after the actor complained that his character was becoming irrevocably intertwined with Rumpole's, and called his television fame an "insatiable monster".

Stage fright

Mortimer swore that no one else would be donning the barrister's robes, and McKern complied with Rumpole-like truculence.

Despite being held in such high esteem, McKern was convinced that being short and stocky made him unattractive to audiences and suffered throughout his life from huge stage fright.

Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey
Leo McKern in his most famous role
To fellow actor, his daughter Abigail, he admitted that the older he got, the more difficult it became to get through a performance.

Nevertheless, the career of Leo McKern lasted half a century and encompassed a rich body of work.

This will inevitably be capped by the enduring vision of the belligerent but wily barrister indulging in unorthodox courtroom antics, then nipping into Pommeroy's wine bar, before disappearing home to "She who must be obeyed".

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