Freddie Jones, who has died aged 91, was the best sort of old-fashioned actor, a comic tragedian, eccentric and full-hearted, with something of both Donald Wolfit and Dickens’ Vincent Crummles about him. Indeed, his most famous stage role was that of Ronald Harwood’s affectionate near-portrait of Wolfit in The Dresser (1980), an old ham called “Sir” who faces disaster in the mirror while preparing to play King Lear. And he memorably embodied the extravagant Crummles in a television Nicholas Nickleby of 1977.
If Jones sometimes emulated Wolfit, his real hero was Wilfrid Lawson, a bibulous character actor who could break your heart on the instant, and he always welcomed the comparison. Yet, to the general public, he was never a name in lights, his career was patchwork and he suffered the indignity of outright failure in a role that should have been a triumph, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, when he returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991, three decades after his debut in 1962.
Instead, he achieved a recognition of sorts as Sandy Thomas, the estranged father of a vicar, in the long-running soap Emmerdale, a role he unashamedly, and gratefully, enjoyed in the twilight of his years, from 2005 to 2018. For an actor who could cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war with the best of them, he was surprisingly mild and unambitious, tall and courteous, bearded and ruddy-faced, one who declared that, “My life springs from my wife, my family, my work and my whisky.”
He was born and raised in Dresden, Stoke-on-Trent, one of two sons of Charles Jones, an electrical porcelain thrower and his wife, Ida (nee Godwin), and attended the nearby grammar school in Longton, which he hated. As a boy scout, he appeared in a show at the old Theatre Royal in Hanley. On leaving school to work at Creda, the home appliances store, in Blythe Bridge and then for 10 years as a lab assistant at a chemical factory in Tamworth, he immersed himself in amateur dramatics at the old Shelton rep and other companies around Stoke.
So he was well into his 30s by the time he trained at Rose Bruford and made his London debut with the RSC at the Arts Theatre in David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come (1962) and at the Aldwych in Gorky’s Lower Depths in 1964. He was immediately one of the company’s most distinctive character actors and appeared in Beckett’s Act Without Words, as Pistol in The Merry Wives of Windsor and as Cucurucu in Peter Brook’s landmark 1964 production of The Marat/Sade (released as a film in 1967) alongside Glenda Jackson, Ian Richardson and Patrick Magee.
He made his first impression on television as Claudius in the six-part ITV series of The Caesars (1968), followed by rich cameos in Cold Comfort Farm (1968), Alice Through the Looking Glass, as Humpty Dumpty (1973) and as a headteacher in Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1978).
Best of all, he was an irascible Victorian general, Sir George Uproar, in The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976-78) by Richard (“Catweazle”) Carpenter, a children’s show with luxury casting – Nicholas Le Prevost, Sheila Steafel, Peter Sallis, Arthur English – as a host of goofy ghosts protecting an old family seat against the incursion of property speculators.
And he began to accumulate a decent cinematic portfolio with roles in Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967) – he played a man in the office of Harold Pinter’s scowling TV producer – John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and the oddball crime caper Otley (1968) starring Tom Courtenay. It was with Courtenay that he enjoyed his greatest stage success 12 years later, a blast of a performance as “Sir” at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester that took everyone by surprise, mainly because we had forgotten what a great actor he was and could be.
No subsequent performance in The Dresser – not Albert Finney in the 1983 film, nor Anthony Hopkins on television in 2015, nor Ken Stott in the West End in 2016 – matched the rumbling thunder of Jones in Manchester and subsequently at the Queen’s in London.
With the bombs dropping on a provincial town in 1942, he slumped into the dressing room, dispirited, starting in horror at the nightmare to come and collapsed in tears while Courtenay’s dresser, Norman, leaning backwards while gliding forwards, launched poisonous glances back over his shoulder into Sir’s make-up mirror. Rather like Nigel Hawthorne in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George, Jones played Lear while skirting round the periphery of the role. The actor himself – “Sir”/Jones – was the tragic, heartbroken hero.
His favourite screen role was Orlando, an intermittently drunk journalist in Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On (1983), who is chronicling the journey of a party of hedonists committed to scattering the ashes of a dead opera singer whose on-board friends and admirers included Barbara Jefford, Janet Suzman, Peter Cellier and the German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch.
After appearing as Bytes, the bullying freak-show owner in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) starring John Hurt, he collaborated further with Lynch on Dune (1984), Wild at Heart (1990) and in Lynch’s bizarre three-part US television series Hotel Room (screened in Britain in 1993), in which he played a guest star on a live variety show having trouble with his voice and with a duck that is roasted in an electric chair and consumed by stage hands.
Jones played another celebrated thespian, Sir Giles Hampton, in an episode of Just William on TV in 1994, rescuing the little blighter’s career in am-dram, while his gallery of actor-managers was vividly increased by another fruity cameo as Thomas Betterton, pride of the Restoration theatre, with Johnny Depp as the Earl of Rochester, in The Libertine (2005), adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own stage play.
And there were other performances to treasure such as Barkis (“is willin’”) in Peter Medak’s TV version of David Copperfield (2000); a rubicund fisherman in Charles Dance’s delightful Ladies in Lavender (starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, 2004), with Jones’s son, Toby Jones, popping in as a village postman; and as an Irish domestic bulwark on a slow burn in Finola Geraghty’s Come On Eileen (2010).
He had nothing to prove on stage after The Dresser, but still, his continued absence was marked and regrettable. In the 1991 RSC season, the Malvolio misfire was in part compensated for by a dotty and hilarious performance as Sir Nicholas Gimcrack in Thomas Shadwell’s 17th-century comedy The Virtuoso, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Jones’s Gimcrack was bent on a course of pointless scientific research – dissecting insects and lobsters, perfecting the art of swimming on dry land and collecting bottled air – in a superb display of gravely befuddled distraction.
This suburban Galileo even imagined the invention of the telephone in his waggling of the stentorophonic tube, just as Puck may have imagined Sputnik in putting a girdle round the Earth in 40 minutes.
It’s hard to think of another great actor whose comic genius and tragic bravura were so under-used in the profession. His working-class childhood and early years had been hard and unhappy. “Acting saved his life,” said his son Toby. “Drama school was a reinvention, or an awakening of stuff he hadn’t been allowed to show in his life.”
He took solace in his long marriage to the actor Jennie Heslewood, whom he married in 1965 and who survives him, as do their three sons, Toby, Rupert, a director, and Casper, also an actor.
• Frederick Charles Jones, actor, born 12 September 1927; died 9 July 2019