Tuesday 29 October 2013 14.06 EDT
When the whisky flowed, according to the writer John Heilpern, the actor Nigel Davenport looked "as if he might knock you through the wall for sport". However, words such as "imposing" and "heavyweight", both often applied to his performances on stage and screen across more than 40 years, do not do sufficient justice to his lightness of touch and comic energy.
Davenport, who has died aged 85, was a founder member of the English Stage Company (ESC) at the Royal Court – in the first season, he was in every production except Look Back in Anger – and a distinguished president of Equity, the actors' union; he played leads in Restoration comedy and absurdist drama as well as King Lear.
In a recent rerun of the BBC's Keeping Up Appearances, he loomed as a lubricious old navy commodore coming on to Patricia Routledge's Hyacinth Bouquet in the back of a cab driven by a vicar. With his huge bulk, fruity, growling voice and gleaming left eye, he was as hilarious as he was genuinely alarming.
The "odd" eye was the result of an operation to correct a childhood squint gone wrong, but this only added to his raffish singularity, which made him ideal casting for hirsute, frequently moustachioed, villains as well as the large roster of high-ranking soldiers, aristocrats and monarchs – he was a superb King George III in the BBC television series The Prince Regent (1979) – he embodied with an easy charm and natural entitlement.
He grew up in the village of Great Shelford, near Cambridge, the son of Arthur Davenport and his wife, Katherine. His father was the bursar at Sidney Sussex College; his grandfather was awarded the Military Cross in the first world war. Davenport was educated at St Peter's school in Seaford, East Sussex, and at Cheltenham college before studying philosophy, politics and economics (changing to English) at Trinity College, Oxford. At university, he was a contemporary of Tony Richardson and William Gaskill, both later colleagues at the Royal Court, and appeared as Bottom and the Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi with the Oxford University Dramatic Society. He had done his national service in Germany, where he worked as a disc jockey with the British Forces Network.
Davenport made his London debut in 1952 at the Savoy theatre in Noël Coward's Relative Values, playing the Hon Peter Ingleton, a role he had at first understudied. After a season at the Shakespeare Memorial theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1953, he estimated that he played no fewer than 75 roles at the Chesterfield Civic theatre company in two years; that constituted his formal training as an actor.
That experience, and his personal friendship with Richardson, catapulted him into the Royal Court opening season in 1956, when he appeared in Angus Wilson's The Mulberry Bush, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (as Thomas Putnam), two plays by Ronald Duncan, Nigel Dennis's Cards of Identity and Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (with Peggy Ashcroft), and played Quack in William Wycherley's The Country Wife.
In the next two years he was in the Sunday night "without decor" tryouts for two important ESC productions, NF Simpson's A Resounding Tinkle (directed by Gaskill) and Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen (directed by John Dexter), as well as appearing in John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon (again directed by Gaskill, with Robert Stephens in the lead) and John Arden's Live Like Pigs.
Having played Horner in The Country Wife at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in 1955, he returned there to appear in Joan Littlewood's production of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958), making his Broadway debut with that play in 1960. From this hectic few years at the heart of the new wave of English drama, he turned to television and film; he had made his first TV appearance in 1952 and was soon in demand on screen as a character actor of real distinction.
His major films covered 20 years, including Alexander Mackendrick's A High Wind in Jamaica (1965); Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons (1966), with Paul Scofield, in which Davenport played a powerful Duke of Norfolk; and two directed by Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire (1981), in which he played Lord Birkenhead, and Greystoke (1984), as Major Jack Downing.
Of his later theatre appearances I treasure most his faultless Vershinin, the dashing army captain, in Jonathan Miller's 1976 revival of Chekhov's Three Sisters (with Janet Suzman as Masha). He toured in King Lear in 1986 and in Alan Bennett's The Old Country in 1989, bowing out to live quietly in the Cotswolds after playing a boorish old sugar daddy to perfection in Somerset Maugham's Our Betters at the Chichester Festival theatre in 1997.
Davenport was an active member of Equity, forming a rightwing (though he himself was of middle-ground disposition) and ultimately successful "Act for Equity" faction in opposition to Corin and Vanessa Redgrave's Workers Revolutionary party cell within the union in the 1970s. He served as a healing president from 1986 to 1992.
He was twice married and divorced, first to Helena White (from 1951 to 1960), with whom he had two children, the writer Hugo Davenport and the actor Laura Davenport; and second to the actor and director Maria Aitken (from 1972 to 1981), with whom he had a son, the actor Jack Davenport. He is survived by his children and five grandchildren. His brother, Peter, predeceased him.
DAVENPORT, Nigel (Arthur Nigel Davenport)
Born: 5/23/1928, Shelford, Cambridgeshire, England, UK
Died: 10/25/2013, England, U.K.
Nigel Davenport’s westerns – actor:
Charley One-Eye – 1972 (bounty hunter)
The Return of El Coyote – 1998 (Félix de Echagüe)