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Leonard Rossiter (21 October 1926 – 5 October 1984) was an Englishmarker actor with careers in film, television and theatre. He is best known for his roles as Rupert Rigsby, in the Britishmarker comedy television series Rising Damp, and Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79), as well as for a series of Cinzano commercials (1978-1983), with Joan Collins.

Early life and stage work

Leonard Rossiter was born in Liverpoolmarker, where he lived over the barber shop which had been owned by his father. He was educated at Liverpool Collegiate Grammar School and it had been his ambition to go to university to read modern languages and become a teacher. Tragically his father, a voluntary ambulanceman during the Second World War, had been killed in an air-raid in 1942 and so, having his mother to support, he was unable to afford to take up the place he had been offered by Liverpool Universitymarker. Finishing grammar school aged 18, as the war in Europe came to an end, he was conscripted into the Army Education Corps and served in Germany, helping soldiers to read and reply to letters from home. Having been demobbed he worked as an insurance clerk in the claims and accidents department of the Commercial Union Insurance Company for six years. He began acting when he picked up a girlfriend from her amateur dramatics class and was challenged to do better when he criticised her and her fellow performers. He gave up his job in insurance to enrol in Preston repertory theatre and turned professional as an actor at the comparatively late age of 27. He made his stage debut in The Gay Dog in Prestonmarker, Lancashiremarker, later becoming assistant stage manager. He went on to Wolverhampton and Salisbury. 1957-58 he played in Free As Air and then toured in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. He joined the Bristol Old Vicmarker and was there for two years, followed by other stage work: as Brecht's Arturo Ui, The Strange Case of Martin Richter, Disabled, The Heretic, The Caretaker and Semi-Detached (in New York).

Film career

He broke into film roles with Billy Liar in which he plays the title character's boss. This brief role fixed him with audiences as an often flawed and inflexible authority figure - apparently similar to his real-life personality. Through the 1950s and 1960s he established himself as a respected actor in theatre and film, and began to make his presence felt on television, with a semi-regular role as Det-Insp 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). In 1968 he played the supporting role of undertaker Mr Sowerberry in the film version of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! and further came to wider public notice when he landed one of the few speaking supporting roles in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey as the Russianmarker scientist Smyslov (he was to work with Kubrick again, in Barry Lyndon seven years later). Continuing the science fiction theme, in the same year as 2001, he appeared in the prescient BBC TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale.

In 1969 he premiered in the UK in the title role of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The part of the petty tyrant was perfectly suited to Rossiter and garnered critical and public acclaim. He returned to the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son for the 1972 episode 'The Desperate Hours' as an escaped convict, before winning his two leading roles in sitcoms which made him a household name.

In Rising Damp, on ITV, he played Rigsby, the lecherous landlord of a house converted to a block of seedy bedsits, reprising the role from its successful stage version, entitled The Banana Box. While on Rising Damp, he also took the eponymous lead in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, adapted by David Nobbs from his own Reginald Perrin comic novels and aired on the BBC. His performances as Rigsby and Perrin earned him enormous critical acclaim, including from his co-stars. During this period, he was given a surprise tribute on This Is Your Life in 1975.

At the same time he starred alongside Joan Collins as her bumbling suitor in a series of successful and endearing Cinzano commercials, in which somehow the drink would always be spilled down the female character's dress. In the 2000 Channel 4 programme The 100 Greatest TV Ads, Terry Lovelock, the director of several of these commercials, revealed that he found Rossiter difficult to work with, and had referred to Collins as "The Prop".

In 1976 he starred in an HTV TV thriller with comedic elements - Machinegunner, in which he played a private detective (given the eponymous nickname because of his relentless knocking) drawn into a conspiracy after accepting an apparently straightforward divorce investigation.

In the animated adaptation of The Perishers he provided the voice for Boot the dog. He reprised Rigsby for a movie version of Rising Damp in 1980 — meaning he had now played the role on stage, TV and film — and his last TV role was that of the eponymous supermarket manager in Tripper's Day, an ITV sitcom which was not up to the standards of the shows he had previously adorned, though the audience liked it. Bruce Forsyth took over the role after Rossiter died.

He continued to make a steady stream of cinema appearances, including a role in Lindsay Anderson's dark parable Britannia Hospital (1982).

Rossiter displayed his acid wit in two books: The Devil's Bedside Book in 1980, a collection of cynical dictionary definitions in the style of Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, and The Lowest Form of Wit in 1981, a collection of biting bon mots, stinging retorts, and insults divided into six main sections, illustrated with cartoons and including a definitive guide and a history of sarcasm.

He played the title roles in the BBC Shakespeare production of King John (1984) and also in the short film Le Pétomane (1979), the stage name of Josef Pujols who, due to an unusual accident he suffered in youth, was able to take in and expel an almost limitless amount of gas through his anus, an ability he exploited to become for several years the main attraction at the Moulin Rougemarker. Rossiter's last film appearance was in Water (1985).


Rossiter died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 1984 while waiting to go onstage at the Lyric Theatre, Londonmarker, where he was performing in Joe Orton's play Loot. His funeral took place at St. Mary's Church, The Boltons, SW10 a few days later. He left behind his second wife Gillian Raine, the actress, and a daughter Camilla. His affair with broadcaster Sue MacGregor was not revealed until long afterwards. Raine was unaware of the affair, but described the marriage as "up and down". She received a letter from MacGregor breaking the news that her memoirs which were about to be published would include an account of the affair. He had previously been married to actress Josephine Tewson, a cousin of actor John Inman.

He had met Raine when he played the lead role of Fred Midway in a new play called Semi-Detached, directed by Tony Richardson. She was his co-star, playing Hilda Midway. The play opened on Friday 8 June 1962 at the Belgrade Theatremarker in Coventrymarker and ran for a week. At this time Leonard was married to Josephine Tewson, an actress he had worked with many times in Rep in the 1950s, but their marriage was about to break up. During the play's second run at the Belgrade, in September 1963, Leonard and Gillian Raine fell in love and started to live together, although they did not marry until 1972.

Rossiter's death came as a surprise as he was very fit — he played squash, football and tennis regularly — and had been given an 'all clear' by his doctor prior to accepting the role in Loot.

Selected filmography

Year Title Role
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey Andrei Smyslov
1968 Oliver! Mr. Sowerberry
1973 Luther Brother Weinand
1974 to 1978, 1980 Rising Damp Rigsby
1975 Barry Lyndon Capt. John Quin
1976 to 1979 The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin Reginald Perrin
1978 The Losers Sydney Foskett
1982 Britannia Hospital Vincent Potter
1984 Tripper's Day Norman Tripper


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