MCKERN, LEO

Australian Actor

Trained and critically acclaimed in theatre, a successful character actor in movies, Australian performer Leo McKern made his most indelible mark in television. In the mind of many audiences, he became irrevocably intertwined with the title character of Rumpole of the Bailey. the irascible British Barrister created by author John Mortimer. Starring as the wily, overweight, jaded-but-dedicated defense attorney for seven seasons, McKern brought an intelligent, acerbic style to the character which was applauded by critics, audiences and creator Mortimer and ascribed to the character just as the character was inscribed on McKern's acting persona. More than once McKern vowed he would not return to the series because of the inevitable typecasting. Yet, he was always persuaded otherwise by Mortimer who himself vowed that no one but McKern would play the role of Horace Rumpole.

The program, which began in 1978 in the U.K. and was soon exported to the United States via PBS's Mystery! series featured McKern as an attorney who profoundly believed in a presumption of innocence, the validity of the jury system and the importance of a thorough defense. It was an unabashedly civil liberties position. In the course of each show the character typically dissected the stodgy and inefficient machinations of fellow barristers, judges and the legal system in Britain. His resourcefulness and unorthodoxy matched U.S. television's Perry Mason, but with his askew bow tie and white wig, his sidelong looks and interior monologues, Rumpole was more colorful and complicated.

As the program was shown around the world through 1996 McKern could not escape what he called the "insatiable monster" of television which blotted out memories of earlier performances. But that did not stop the Australian periodical The Bulletin from naming McKern one of Australia's top 55 "human assets in" 1990. And in fact television did offer McKern another distinctive, if more transitory, role much earlier than Rumpole. In The Prisoner, a British drama aired in the United Kingdom and the United States in the late 1960s, McKern was one of the first authority figures to repress the hero.

The Prisoner, still a cult classic dissected on many web sites and Internet chat groups, was created by the then enormously popular actor Patrick McGoohan and was intended as an indictment of authoritarian subjugation of the individual. McGoohan in the title role was kept prisoner in a mysterious village by the State, represented most forcefully by the person in charge of the village called "number 2". Engaging in a battle of wills and wits with Number 6 (McGoohan), Number 2 typically died at episode's end to be replaced by a new 2 the next week. McKern played Number 2 in the series' second program, "The Chimes of Big Ben," and helped set the tone of serious banter and political conflict. Killed at the end of the episode, his character was resurrected at the end of the series the next season in "Once upon a Time and Fallout" to demonstrate a change of position in favor of the hero and opposed to the State. Not completely unlike Rumpole, McKern's Number 2 was a system insider who understood principles better than the rest of the establishment (if only belatedly).

The Prisoner was ostensibly a science fiction program as well in its use of fantastic technology to keep Number 6 from escaping. The science fiction motif also informed a TV guest appearance McKern made some years later in the U.S. program Space: 1999 which aired in 1975. In that episode, "The Infernal Machine," McKern is again part of a larger entity, this time not the "state" but a living spacecraft. As the companion of "Gwent," McKern mediates with human beings (notably Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, recent Mission: Impossible veterans) on a lunar station. His character is slightly cynical, critical, bantering and attached to the entity he serves, like the later Rumpole. These roles in McKern's decades of television experience are notable on three levels: their connection to general recurring themes, their development of a recognizable, familiar character function and their demonstration of the actor's particular talents. For instance, the "Companion" episode on Space 1999 evokes both the "Companion" episode on the original 1967 Star Trek in which Glenn Corbet's character is kept alive by fusion with an alien presence, and the ongoing Trill character of "a symbiotic fusion of two species" on Deep Space Nine. In addition, the threatening power of the state and of technology of The Prisoner prefigured a reliable theme of the popular 1996 program The X Files.

The Rumpole role is the one most connected with a number of recurring character functions on television. The deep commitment covered by a veneer of cynicism is a staple of police officers and other investigators throughout U.S. television history. The belief in the civil liberties of the individual is the core of lawyer programs such as Perry Mason of the 1960s and Matlock of the 1990s. The rumpled insider "only by virtue of superior competence" was the essence of Columbo of the 1970s. The British Rumpole is a rather more complex example of a U.S. television perennial.

However well written, though, the Rumpole role would not have the cachet it has among fans if not for the actor. Critics cite his intelligence, energy and remarkably flexible baritone as the heart of the character. McKern's varied multi media career--from movies such as the lightweight Beatles' Help to the epic Lawrence of Arabia to plays such as Othello--may not be remembered by most fans, but the depth of talent required for such diversity is critically acknowledged in reviews of Rumpole of the Bailey.

-Ivy Glennon

 


Leo McKern
Photo courtesy of Leo McKern

LEO MCKERN. Born Reginald McKern in Sydney, Australia, 16 March 1920. Attended Sydney Technical High School. Married: Joan Alice Southa (Jane Holland), 1946; children: Abigail and Harriet. Engineering apprentice, 1935-37; commercial artist, 1937-40; served in Australian Army Engineering Corps, 1940-42; debut as actor, 1944; settled in the United Kingdom, 1946; participated in tour of Germany, 1947; appeared at Old Vic Theatre, London, 1949-52 and 1962-63, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1952-54, and at the New Nottingham Playhouse, 1963-64; has appeared in numerous films and television productions, including the popular Rumpole of the Bailey series, 1978-92. Officer of the Order of Australia, 1983. Address: Richard Hatton Ltd, 29 Roehampton Gate, London SW15 5JR, England.

TELEVISION SERIES

1967-68 The Prisoner
1978-92 Rumpole of the Bailey
1983 Reilly--Ace of Spies

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1967 Alice in Wonderland
1979 The House on Garibaldi Street
1980 Rumpole's Return
1985 Murder with Mirrors
1992 The Last Romantics

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)

1965 The Tea Party
1968 On the Eve of Publication
1983 King Lear
1985 Monsignor Quixote
1988 The Master Builder
1993 A Foreign Field

FILMS (selection)

All for Mary, 1955; X the Unknown, 1956; Time Without Pity, 1957; The Mouse That Roared, 1959; Mr Topaze, 1961; The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1962; Hot Enough for June, 1963; A Jolly Bad Fellow, 1964; King and Country, 1964; The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders, 1965; Help!, 1965; A Man for All Seasons, 1966; Nobody Runs Forever, 1968; Decline and Fall...of a Birdwatcher!, 1968; Ryan's Daughter, 1971; Massacre in Rome, 1973; The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, 1976; The Omen, 1976; Candleshoe, 1977; Damien--Omen II, 1978; The Blue Lagoon, 1980; The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1983; Ladyhawke, 1984; The Chain, 1985; Travelling North, 1986; On Our Selection, 1995.

STAGE (selection)

Toad of Toad Hall, 1954; Queen of the Rebels, 1955; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958; Brouhaha, 1958; Rollo, 1959; A Man for All Seasons, 1960; The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew, 1965; Volpone, 1967; The Wolf, 1973; The Housekeeper, 1982; Number One, 1984; Boswell for the Defence, 1989, 1991; Hobson's Choice, 1995.

PUBLICATION

Just Resting, 1983.

 

See also Rumpole of the Bailey