Leonard Rossiter (21 October 1926 – 5 October 1984) was an English actor. He had a long career in the theatre but achieved his greatest fame for his television comedy roles, most notably starring as Rupert Rigsby in the ITV series Rising Damp from 1974 to 1980, as well as a film version, and Reginald Perrin in the BBC’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin from 1976 to 1979.
Leonard Rossiter (21 October 1926 – 5 October 1984) was an English actor. He had a long career in the theatre but achieved his greatest fame for his television comedy roles, most notabl
Early life and stage work
Rossiter was born on 21 October 1926 in Wavertree, Liverpool, the second son of Elizabeth (née Howell) and John Rossiter. The family lived over the barber shop owned by his father. He was educated at the Liverpool Collegiate School (1939–46). His ambition was to go to university to read modern languages and become a teacher. However, his father, who served as a voluntary ambulanceman during the Second World War, was killed in an air raid in 1942 and Rossiter had to support his mother. He therefore could not take up the place he had been offered at Liverpool University. Instead he did his National Service as a sergeant, initially in the Intelligence Corps, then in the Army Education Corps, spending much of the time in Germany writing letters home for other soldiers. After being demobbed he worked for six years as an insurance clerk in the claims and accident departments of the Commercial Union Insurance Company.
From childhood he was an apparently unlikely but in fact enthusiastic and capable sportsman in football, cricket, tennis and later squash.
Rossiter joined the Wavertree Community Centre Drama Group and made his first appearance with the Adastra Players in Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. The local critic said that he “was particularly outstanding, his one fault being a tendency to speak too fast on one or two occasions”. He gave up his insurance job to enrol in Preston repertory theatre and became a professional actor at the comparatively late age of 27. He made his professional stage debut in Joseph Colton’s The Gay Dog in Preston on 6 September 1954.
He later became assistant stage manager there, and then went on to Wolverhampton and Salisbury repertory companies. In his first 19 months in the business he played some 75 roles. He said later: “There was no time to discuss the finer points of interpretation. You studied the part, you did it and then you studied the next part. I developed a frightening capacity for learning lines. The plays became like Elastoplast, which you just stuck on and then tore off. It was the perfect preparation for rehearsing situation comedy on television at the rate of one episode a week.”
In 1957–58 he played in the musical Free as Air and then toured in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. He joined the Bristol Old Vic and was there for two years, from 1959 to 1961, a time he described as “the bedrock of his career”, followed by other stage work, in, among other plays, The Strange Case of Martin Richter, Disabled, The Heretic, The Caretaker and Semi-Detached (in New York). His performance in the premiere of Michael Blakemore’s stage production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1969 met with critical acclaim:
Rossiter broke into film roles with Billy Liar (1963), in which he plays the title character’s boss. He established himself as a respected actor in films as well as on stage, and then began to make his presence felt on television as well, with an intermittent role as Detective Inspector Bamber in the police series Z-Cars, as well as guest roles in series as diverse as Steptoe and Son (“The Lead Man Cometh”, 1964; “The Desperate Hours”, 1972) and The Avengers “(Dressed to Kill”, 1963). Among his early film credits were four films directed by Bryan Forbes, namely King Rat (1965), The Wrong Box (1966), The Whisperers (1967) and Deadfall (1968).
In 1968 he played Mr Sowerberry in the film version of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! and took one of the few speaking supporting roles in 2001: A Space Odyssey as the Russian scientist Smyslov. He worked with Stanley Kubrick again in Barry Lyndon (1975), in which he appeared as Captain John Quin. In the same year as 2001 he appeared in Nigel Kneale’s television play The Year of the Sex Olympics, part of BBC 2’s Theatre 625, one of his four appearances in the series.
In Rising Damp, on ITV, Rossiter played Rigsby, the lecherous landlord of a house converted into seedy bedsits, reprising the role from the successful stage version, The Banana Box. While he was in Rising Damp he also took the lead role in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, adapted by David Nobbs from his own comic novels and aired on the BBC. Rossiter was given a surprise tribute on This Is Your Life in 1975. He also appeared in the short films The Waterloo Bridge Handicap (1978), and the Galton and Simpson-scripted Le Pétomane (1979). Rossiter also played Frank Harris in the 1978 BBC Play of the Week: “Fearless Frank, or, Tidbits From The Life Of An Adventurer”.
From 1978–83, Rossiter performed in ten commercials for Cinzano. The iconic series of adverts was created by film director Alan Parker and, at Rossiter’s suggestion, used an old music hall joke where he spills a drink over his wife (played by Joan Collins). In the Channel 4 programme The 100 Greatest TV Ads (2000) Terry Lovelock, the director of two of the commercials, said that Rossiter used to refer jokingly to Collins as “The Prop”.
In the animated adaptation of The Perishers (1978) Rossiter provided the voice for Boot the dog. He reprised Rigsby for a film version of Rising Damp in 1980, thus achieving the distinction of playing the same role on stage, television and film. His last television role was as the supermarket manager in another ITV sitcom, Tripper’s Day (1984). He continued to make a steady stream of film appearances, including a role in Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982).
Rossiter also played the title role in the BBC Television Shakespeare production of The Life and Death of King John (1984). His last film appearance was in Water (1985
by simon schofield