James Laurenson obituary

<span>Laurenson as Prof George Amory in the ITV series Endeavour, 2017.</span><span>Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock</span>
Laurenson as Prof George Amory in the ITV series Endeavour, 2017.Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

Primarily a stage actor of good grace, authority and a fine baritone voice, James Laurenson, who has died aged 84 after suffering with Parkinson’s disease, was a familiar face on television, stretching from a short-stay run as the Rev Peter Hope in Coronation Street in 1968 through to Sir John Weir, the physician royal, in The Crown (2016).

He had arrived on a boat from New Zealand in the early 1960s – as many artists did from those islands, and Australia, at that time – and by 1964 was treading the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and London.

At the end of the 1960s he joined the touring Prospect Theatre Company in their 1969 visit to the Edinburgh festival, where Ian McKellen became an overnight sensation playing both Shakespeare’s Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II, a play not produced professionally at that time for more than 300 years.

In Edward II, Laurenson played the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, who meets an untimely end (eventually) from a viciously wielded red-hot poker. That followed scenes of erotic intensity, culminating in a passionate kiss with McKellen, who regarded the scene as a particular bonus for the festival run and an extended season of both plays at the Piccadilly theatre in London, buoyed by an ecstatically appreciative Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times. The kiss was not particularly remarked upon in the theatre (censorship had been abolished in 1968), but caused a ripple of outrage nationwide when the plays were televised in 1970: the first gay kiss on the box.

In the 1990s, after his first marriage broke up, Laurenson moved from London to Frome, in Somerset, and resumed a happy relationship with the RSC’s founding director, Sir Peter Hall, who much admired his work in Hall’s Indian summer of seasons at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Among the generous pick of fine performances there, I would highlight his wryly stoical Vladimir to Alan Dobie’s quietly resigned Estragon in Waiting for Godot, one of the best revivals of that milestone play I have seen, directed by Hall, who had staged the first British production in 1955; and a delightfully hangdog Sir Peter Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s great comedy The School for Scandal, directed by Jamie Lloyd in 2012.

The Beckett transferred happily to the Ambassadors in London, where Laurenson’s biggest, splashiest West End role had been that of the producer Julian Marsh in Gower Champion’s famous 1983 Broadway version of one of the best backstage movies, 42nd Street.

Restaged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, by Lucia Victor, one year later, Marsh/Laurenson’s two most famous lines did not zing with the Broadway pizazz of the original (“Musical comedy – the greatest words in the English language!” is catnip on Broadway, less so here); and his imprecation to the suddenly elevated understudy, Peggy Sawyer, “You’re going to go out a youngster, but you’ve gotta come back a star!”, was played with an almost carefully inflected beseeching as opposed to Jerry Orbach’s gargantuan, Shakespearean command.

Still, though he had no grounding in musical theatre, and could not sing that well, Laurenson was praised by Michael Billington for conveying “the right impression of a sober-suited Caligula gradually thawing into a human being”.

He was born in Marton, on New Zealand’s north island, to Amy (nee Monk) and her husband, Stanley Laurenson, a seed salesman in the agricultural environs, and a lay Methodist preacher with a penchant for amateur dramatics. James appeared in school plays at Marton district high school before further developing his thespian tendencies at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, where he was directed in several productions, including the title role of Macbeth, by the crime novelist Ngaio Marsh; Marsh was, in effect, the inspiration and founder of professional theatre in New Zealand.

The move to Britain was propelled by winning a grant from the New Zealand government to go to Lamda in London for a year. He started out at the RSC as a messenger in Henry VI (David Warner as the king) in 1964 and then Guildenstern – Michael Williams was Rosencrantz – in the gamechanging Warner Hamlet of 1965.

He was Longaville in John Barton’s exquisite RSC 1965 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost and a charming Orlando to Charlotte Cornwell’s Rosalind in a 1977 revival of As You Like It by Trevor Nunn; the Dauphin and the rabble-rouser Jack Cade in the Alan Howard Henry VI trilogy (1978), directed by Terry Hands; and a memorable Cassius – opposite Ben Kingsley’s Brutus – in a 1979 Julius Caesar.

He twice appeared in Hamlet, though not as the prince: he was a brisk and disarming Claudius in the Almeida production by Jonathan Kent at the Hackney Empire, with Ralph Fiennes and Francesca Annis in 1995; and a marvellous, unusual double of the Ghost (mesmeric, quietly spoken) and the Player King (relishing oratorial extravagance) in Nicholas Hytner’s 2010 National Theatre production with Rory Kinnear.

Other revivals of note include that of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at the Haymarket in 1997, with Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins, in which he and Annette Crosbie played, superbly, terror-struck neighbours seeking sanctuary; and a Donmar Warehouse 2000 revival of Peter Nichols’s Passion Play, a coruscating comedy of adultery entwining two intersecting couples – Laurenson and Cherie Lunghi, and Martin Jarvis and Cheryl Campbell – with a disruptive catalyst played by Nicola Walker. Michael Grandage’s production confirmed the modern classic status of a compelling black comedy.

Related: Waiting for Godot, Theatre Royal, Bath

Laurenson’s film career did not include any blockbusters, but he popped up regularly after his debut in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) as a minister. He had two decent roles, in Sidney Hayers’ Assault (1971), in which he was a doctor attending to rape victims who becomes a prime suspect; and as the deceased father of Bob Geldof’s Pink in Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd – the Wall (1982), who revisits his unhappy childhood.

Other movies included A House in the Hills (1993) with Michael Madsen, the French/British crime film Three Blind Mice (2003) with Edward Furlong and Emilia Fox, Lone Scherfig’s One Day (2011), scripted from his own novel by David Nicholls, with Anne Hathaway and Patricia Clarkson, and Scherfig’s The Riot Club (2014), written by Laura Wade – based on her terrific play Posh, an expose of the Bullingdon private club in Oxford (dis)graced by David Cameron and Boris Johnson – with Sam Claflin and Max Irons as undergraduate tearaways ultimately answerable to their college president, played by a spoilsport authoritarian, Laurenson.

It was interesting that Laurenson, a kind and patient man, often excelled at playing baddies. One of them was the glowering Friedrich, Elector of Brandenburg, in Heinrich von Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg, directed by Neil Bartlett for the RSC and the Lyric Hammersmith in 2002. You would not want to cross him in that mood, or mode. He had the rare knack, though, of playing ugly in the nicest possible way.

Laurenson married the blissfully eccentric character actor Carol MacReady in 1970. They divorced in 1997, and he then married the art teacher Cari Haysom, who survives him along with his son from the first marriage, Jamie, a film producer, and three grandchildren, Nancy, Connie and Stanley.

• James Philip Laurenson, actor, born 17 February 1940; died 18 April 2024