Jerome Willis obituary
Actor known for his Shakespearean roles, but who also appeared on TV and in films including Winstanley and Orlando
by Paul Bailey theguardian.com, Sunday 26 January 2014 09.51 EST
Jerome Willis played Charles Radley, the deputy governor of Stone Park prison in the series Within These Walls, from 1974 to 1978
Jerome Willis, who has died at the age of 85, was an actor who might have described himself, without bitterness, as an "attendant lord". He was a natural Shakespearean, in possession of a strong physique and the ability to speak verse with enviable confidence. In a distinguished career spanning almost 60 years, he brought to every part he undertook a perceptive intelligence that illuminated even the smallest cameo. He also became a familiar face on television from 1974 to 1978 as Charles Radley, the deputy governor of Stone Park prison in Within These Walls, with Googie Withers as his boss.
Jerome began his career as a disc jockey, newsreader and actor by turns, posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1946 for his national service in the RAF and serving in communications for the Ceylonese station Radio SEAC. On his return to London in 1948, he was accepted as a student at the prestigious Old Vic school, run by the despotic Michel Saint-Denis, whom actors either feared or revered. Fellow students included Joan Plowright and Prunella Scales. Upon graduating in 1951, he joined the West of England Touring Company, alongside Plowright.
Anthony Quayle, who had recently taken charge of the Shakespeare Memorial theatre, was impressed by Jerome's acting and offered him a place in his new company. In Stratford-upon-Avon in November 1952 he met Dilys Elstone, a costume cutter. They married in January 1953. In that year he played Scarus in Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Glen Byam Shaw and starring Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft. It was a triumphant success that toured to several European capitals.
Jerome played his first substantial part in Shakespeare at the Old Vic in 1962, when he appeared as Orsino in Twelfth Night with Eileen Atkins as Viola. He was then invited to appear in what would turn out to be a pioneering event in television drama – Shakespeare's history plays from Richard II, through the Henrys IV, V and VI to Richard III, performed in 15 parts, under the overall title An Age of Kings, starting with Richard II: The Hollow Crown. The project was the inspiration of Peter Dews, who persuaded the BBC to take it on. Each instalment was broadcast live, an extra challenge for the actors, the many battlefields created in the studio at Wood Lane. Jerome played a succession of noblemen.
In 1975, he undertook what he called a "labour of love", playing the kindly, conscience-stricken General Lord Fairfax in Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's film Winstanley, about the tragic fate of the leader of the Diggers in the English civil war. He was the one professional in a cast of amateurs. The subject had a deep and lasting appeal for him, confirming his belief in the Quaker movement, which he was to join as a consequence. Other film work included Orlando, with Tilda Swinton, in 1992.
He was born in Balham, south London, the second child and only son of Robert Willis, who worked in the electrical industry, and his wife Heather (nee Murphy). He had four sisters. His maternal grandfather, Jerome Murphy, after whom he was named, was a noted tenor who sang frequently with the great John McCormack. His great-aunt Julia Willis was for many seasons with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was dedicated to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Jerome's own passion for music was lifelong, and in his later years especially he loved singing in choirs and playing the recorder.
After the closing performance of Michael Boyd's production of The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare theatre in 2002, the cast and crew gave him a surprise party with champagne and a cake in the form of an Elizabethan ship to celebrate his half-century at Stratford-upon-Avon. He had played Gentleman in that same play in 1952, with Redgrave as Prospero, but now he was a well-received Gonzalo.
Jerome was a cherished friend of mine for 40 years and a delightful gossip, relating theatre anecdotes whose details were often corrected by Dilys.
She survives him, as do their four daughters, Sarah, twins Megan and Grania, and Kate, his sisters Fiona (a props and hat maker) and Nuala (an opera singer and cabaret artist), and his granddaughters.
• Jerome Barry Willis, actor, born 23 October 1928; died 11 January 2014
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