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McKern in Ryan's Daughter (1970)
16 March 1920
|Died||23 July 2002 (aged 82)|
|Education||Sydney Technical High School|
|Height||5 ft 7 in (170 cm)|
|Children||2, including Abigail McKern|
|Awards||Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (1987)|
Reginald "Leo" McKern, AO (16 March 1920 – 23 July 2002) was an Australian actor who appeared in numerous British, Australian and American television programmes and films, and in more than 200 stage roles. Notable roles he portrayed include Clang in Help! (1965), Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons (1966), Tom Ryan in Ryan's Daughter (1970), Paddy Button in The Blue Lagoon (1980), Dr. Grogan in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Father Imperius in Ladyhawke (1985), and the role that made him a household name as an actor, Horace Rumpole, whom he played in Rumpole of the Bailey. He also portrayed Carl Bugenhagen in the first and second installments of The Omen series.
Reginald McKern (who was known as "Leo" from a young age) was born in Sydney, New South Wales, the son of Vera (née Martin) and Norman Walton McKern. He attended Sydney Technical High School. On leaving school, he initially worked in a factory, where at the age of 15, he suffered an accident which resulted in the removal of his left eye. He first worked as an engineering apprentice, then as an artist, followed by service as a sapper with the Australian Army's Royal Australian Engineers during World War II. In 1944, in Sydney, he performed in his first stage role.
Having fallen in love with Australian actress Jane Holland, McKern moved to the United Kingdom to be with her; they married in 1946. He soon became a regular performer at London's Old Vic theatre and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (now the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) in Stratford-upon-Avon, despite the difficulties posed by his glass eye and Australian accent.
McKern's most notable Shakespearean role was as Iago in Othello, in 1952. In 1955 he appeared in "The Burnt Flower Bed" by Ugo Betti directed by Peter Hall at the Arts Theatre Club in London. He played Big Daddy in Peter Hall's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Comedy Theatre in 1958 and went on to play the German ambassador in another Peter Hall production, Brouhaha starring Peter Sellers at the Aldwych Theatre. He originated the role of Common Man in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons in the West End in 1960, but for the show's Broadway production appeared as Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, a role he would reprise for the 1966 film version. He also portrayed Subtle in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist in 1962. In 1965, he played the eponymous villain in Bolt's The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew, and Disson in Harold Pinter's Tea Party.
McKern's film debut was in Murder in the Cathedral (1952). His other more notable film appearances included the science-fiction classics X the Unknown (1956), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), the World War I drama King and Country (1964), Help! (1965), the Academy Award-winning adaptation of A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), Ryan's Daughter (1970), Massacre in Rome (1973), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), The Omen (1976), The Blue Lagoon (1980), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) and Ladyhawke (1985). He was presented with the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Travelling North (1987). In Monsignor Quixote (1985), he co-starred as Sancho Zancas opposite Alec Guinness as Father Quixote.
One of McKern's earliest television roles was in the 1950s black-and-white series The Adventures of Robin Hood (as Sir Roger DeLisle, usurper of the Locksley manor and lands, and Herbert of Doncaster, a corrupt moneylender). During the 1960s, he was one of several Number Twos in the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed TV series The Prisoner. Along with Colin Gordon, McKern was one of only two actors to play Number Two more than once. He first played the character in the episodes "The Chimes of Big Ben" and "Once Upon a Time", and later reprised the role in the final episode, "Fall Out". The filming of "Once Upon a Time" proved to be a particularly intense experience for McKern; according to one biographer, the stress caused him to suffer either a nervous breakdown or a heart attack (accounts differ), forcing production to stop for a time. In 1976 McKern narrated and presented The Battle of the Somme, a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary produced to mark the 60th anniversary of World War I battle. He played the Earl of Gloucester in the Granada Television production of King Lear (1983) with Sir Laurence Olivier. In 1983 also starring in most episodes of the mini-series 'Reilly, Ace of Spies' as 'Zaharov', director of Vickers with Sam Neill.
Rumpole of the Bailey
In 1975, McKern made his first appearance in the role that would make him a household name as an actor, Horace Rumpole, whom he played in Rumpole of the Bailey, originally an episode of the BBC's Play for Today. A series of the same name, comprising 44 episodes, was produced for ITV between 1978 and 1992. According to Rumpole's creator, author John Mortimer, McKern "not only played the character Rumpole—he added to it, brightened it and brought it fully to life."
Although he enjoyed the role, McKern expressed doubts about its popularity and the extent to which his life was becoming intertwined with Rumpole's. "McKern was often unhappy, decrying his television fame as an "insatiable monster". He stressed that his Peer Gynt was a greater performance and lamented: "If I get an obit in any paper, they will say, '.. of course, known to millions as Rumpole.'" In the later series, his daughter Abigail McKern joined the cast as Liz Probert.
In 1987, investment firm Smith Barney selected McKern to succeed John Houseman as its spokesman. At the same time, Smith Barney's corporate advertising department decided to change the format of its television advertisements, the first of which featuring McKern airing in September 1987. McKern's advertisements were not as popular with the viewing public as Houseman's, and in 1989, Smith Barney switched to a campaign featuring the voice of American actor George C. Scott. In the 1990s, McKern appeared in a series of advertisements for Lloyds Bank, widely shown on British television, in which he portrayed a character reminiscent of Rumpole.
Suffering in his final years from ill health McKern moved into a nursing home near Bath in Somerset in 2002, where he died a few weeks later at the age of 82. His body was cremated at Haycombe Cemetery in Bath.
He frequently travelled between England and Australia both to visit family and friends, and to appear in various films and plays. As he was frightened of flying, he booked tickets to travel on cargo ships. This gave him time and peace to read scripts and contracts, with the added benefit of feeling he was on holidays.
McKern and his wife Jane Holland had two daughters.
- Murder in the Cathedral (1952) – Third Knight
- All for Mary (1955) – Gaston Nikopopoulos
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955, TV Series) – Herbert of Doncaster / Sir Roger de Lisle
- X the Unknown (1956) – Police Inspector McGill
- Time Without Pity (1957) – Robert Stanford
- Confess, Killer (1957) – Lt Kolski
- A Tale of Two Cities (1958) – Attorney General
- Web of Evidence (1959) – McEvoy
- Yesterday's Enemy (1959) – Max
- The Mouse That Roared (1958) – Benter, Leader of the Opposition
- The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959) – (uncredited)
- Scent of Mystery (1960) – Tommy Kennedy
- Jazz Boat (1960) – Inspector
- Saturday Playhouse (1960, Episode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner") – Sheridan Whiteside
- Mr. Topaze (1961) – Muche
- The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) – Bill Maguire
- The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1962) – Dr. Clitterhouse
- The Inspector (1962) – Brandt
- Doctor in Distress (1963) – Harry Heilbronn
- Hot Enough for June (1964) – Simoneva
- A Jolly Bad Fellow (1964) – Professor Kerris Bowles-Ottery
- King & Country (1964) – Captain O'Sullivan
- The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) – Squint
- Help! (1965) – High Priest Clang
- Alice in Wonderland (1966, TV Movie – Jonathan Miller's 1966 television adaptation) – Duchess
- A Man for All Seasons (1966, both Cromwell and Common Man in original play) – Thomas Cromwell
- The Prisoner (1967, Episodes: "The Chimes of Big Ben", "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out") – Number Two
- Assignment K (1968) – Smith
- Nobody Runs Forever (1968) – Flannery (uncredited)
- Decline and Fall... of a Birdwatcher (1968) – Captain Grimes
- The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) – Cardinal Leone
- Ryan's Daughter (1970) – Thomas Ryan
- Massacre in Rome (1973) – General Kurt Mälzer
- The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) – Professor Moriarty
- Play for Today (1975, Episode: "Rumpole of The Bailey") – Horace Rumpole
- Space: 1999 (1976, Episode: "The Infernal Machine") – Companion / Voice of Gwent
- The Omen (1976) – Carl Bugenhagen (uncredited)
- Candleshoe (1977) – Harry Bundage
- Damien: Omen II (1978) – Carl Bugenhagen (uncredited)
- Rumpole of the Bailey (1978–1992, TV Series) – Horace Rumpole
- The Nativity (1978, TV Movie) – Herod the Great
- The Blue Lagoon (1980) – Paddy Button
- The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) – Dr Grogan
- Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983) – Basil Zaharoff
- King Lear (1983) – Earl of Gloucester
- The Chain (1984) – Thomas
- Murder with Mirrors (1985) – Inspector Curry
- Ladyhawke (1985) – Imperius
- Monsignor Quixote (1987) – Sancho Zancas
- Travelling North (1987) – Frank
- A Foreign Field (1993) – Cyril
- Dad and Dave: On Our Selection (1995) – Dad (Joseph) Rudd
- Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999) – Bishop Maigret (final film role)
- Leo McKern Biography (1920–2002)
- "Australian letters", Sun Books, 1: 1963, 1957, retrieved 18 September 2011
- "World War Two Nominal Roll". World War Two Nominal Roll. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
- "SNIPPETS". Canberra Times (ACT : 1926–1995). 29 June 1989. p. 11. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
- Fairclough, Robert (2002). The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series. I Books. ISBN 978-0-7434-5256-4.
- 'Battle of the Somme' television documentary, BBC (1976), British Film Institute catalogue (2020). https://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b6f275c56
- Goldman, Ari L. (24 July 2002). "Leo McKern, 82, Veteran Actor Who Gave Voice to 'Rumpole'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
- "Expat". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 9 November 2012.
- Smith Barney In Ad Change – New York Times, 16 September 1987
- "It's An Honour search". Australian Honours search. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
- Daniel, Mark (2005). Cranks and Gadflies: The Story of Ukip. Timewell. ISBN 978-1857252095.