CHILDREN:- One daughter, Camilla (from second marriage)
Born in Wavetree, Liverpool, Leonard lived over the family-owned barber shop in Cretan Road, with his brother, John Junior. The family later moved to Montrovia Crescent, Fazakerley. He referred to his father as a barber, but also a bookie. At that time in Liverpool there were no betting shops so all the barbers were bookies and running secret bookmakers as gambling, at the time, was illegal. Leonard’s father would offer a trim and the latest betting odds. The barbershop was near the local Pavilion Theatre where some of the big stars at the time came to town where John got to know many of the variety performers. With no family history in entertainment, it appears Leonard’s father story about playing golf with George Formby’s father would be the closest they would get to having any theatrical aspirations.
As a schoolboy, Leonard attended Granby Street county primary school and Liverpool Collegiate in Shaw Street, Everton, and but also a spell at Deyes Lane school in Maghull during the war (where Maghull was considered a safe area for evacuees). Leonard was a lively child, driven and passionate about his schooling and sports, he excelled in languages, his future path set on studying for a university degree in languages (French and German) to become a teacher.
As with his academic work, Leonard was also a highly gifted, natural sportsman. He was made captain of the school football and cricket teams, playing in the role of centre forward in football. He was also a member of the Lancashire Colts, a youth cricket team for rising talent.
With all his friends envious of his talent, there were also rumours that his beloved Everton FC were out scouting the gifted centre forward. He was a born sportsman, in later life his prowess on the sports field would also lead him indoors to become a competitive squash player.
In later life he played in charity cricket matches, for the Lord’s Taverners, and joined the Chelsea casuals, a mix of writers and actors who would meet every week to play a game on Hyde Park. The sport he came to love the most though was squash, starting as a beginner, he practiced and played up to three times a day, playing to the level of a professional.
Unfortunately, in 1939, with the outbreak of war, his hopes of progressing in teaching would soon be halted. The death of his father in an air raid in 1942, whilst ferrying injured serviceman to the local hospital, left Leonard to support his mother. At 18 years of age, Leonard still had time to consider his future options as he embarked on his National Service after WWII. Leonard joined the British Army as a sergeant, before transferring to the Royal Army Education Corps. Whilst based in Germany, aided by ability to speak German and French fluently, he would teach illiterate soldiers to read and write, and assist them primarily in writing home to loved ones.
Leonard’s return to Liverpool after his service had given him time to prioritise his immediate future, now supporting his family. Although Leonard was offered a place at Liverpool University to continue his studies to become a teacher, contrary to his thoughts on not obtaining a future place, the time away had given him the space to reflect on what was the best use of his skills and experience moving forward.
In 1948, Leonard joined Commercial Union Insurance Company as a clerk in the claims and accident department, earning 210 pounds a year. During his six years here, frustrated by the lack of outlet for his creative drive, he spent more and more of his time in amateur theatre groups, until he finally realised that acting was becoming his life’s work and insurance an occasional afterthought. Although Leonard had always wanted to be an actor, he thought insurance was a safer, stable business so he went into that profession, knowing he couldn’t afford to try for a place at an acting school, and he was certain he’d never receive a scholarship.
Joining one amateur dramatics group meant he could see more of his girlfriend at the time, leading to the beginning of his future in entertainment. A story shared in most interviews with Leonard, and one shared by his late widow, Gillian Raine, ‘Len always told the story about the evening he was picking a girlfriend up from the local amateur dramatics company. He sat at the back of the hall and watched, but wasn’t at all impressed. When she asked him what he thought of the performance, he told her he could do better. She suggested he tried, so he did – and that was how his acting career began.’
And there, in 1949, with the challenge accepted, Leonard joined the local drama group, The Adastra Players and had his stage debut in their production of Rattigan’s Flare Path. A critic pointed out that Leonard delivered his lines too quickly, a trait he thankfully never changed. Shortly after this, with his drive and focus thoroughly aligned, his determination to keep moving forward, he joined a second group, The Centre Players in his home community of Wavertree.
At the age of 27, with more and more productions on the go, Leonard decided the time was right to leave Commercial Union and turn acting into his profession. He began writing to all the repertory companies in the land and Reggie Salberg gave him a position at Preston Rep. as an assistant stage manager. He then took on as many character parts as he could with his professional acting career beginning with the role of Bert Gay in The Gay Dog. His first West End performance came in the Slade-Reynolds musical, Free As Air. A musical was not high on Leonard’s list but fortunately they were looking for actors who could sing, not singers who could possibly act.
He then went on to join the companies at Wolverhampton, the Alexandra in Birmingham, the Belgrade Theatre company in Coventry (where Leonard met and married Gillian Raine), and Salisbury Rep. before joining the Bristol Old Vic at the City’s Theater Royal in 1959. Here he played everything from Pantomime Dames to classical leads. Leonard noted the period at Bristol gave him a solid foundation on which to build his talent as he mentioned in an interview to Sheridan Morley, ‘That was really the bedrock of my career, because I met there all the directors who’ve been giving me work ever since.’
By the mid 60s, Leonard was already appearing in all areas of entertainment, his notable film roles included Whymper in A Kind of Loving, Phillips in This Sporting Life, Shadrack in Billy Liar and two films for Stanley Kubrick – 2001 – A Space Odyssey (Andre Smyslov) and Barry Lyndon (Captain Quin). Kubrick also sharing Leonard’s drive for perfection and detail.
His television credits had already amassed a number of episodes as Detective Inspector Bamber in Z-Cars and The Avengers but it wasn’t until 1974 that Leonard would find himself a household name. The roles which catapulted Leonard into everyone’s homes, and for which he is most fondly remembered for are, of course, Rigsby in ITV’s Rising Damp (1974-78), followed by Reggie Perrin in BBC’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976 – 79). Numerous roles in television followed but these two series had set the bar very high for anything to stand alongside them. Other notable performances were as Sydney Foskett in The Losers and as Tripper in Tripper’s Day.
Television also saw Leonard appear in, and voice, a number of commercial adverts, notably his series of adverts for Cinzano, working with Joan Collins.
But theatre was where Leonard’s real passion lay, in the 1970s Leonard pointed out that liked to do about three plays a year, and at one point in the early 80s, Leonard noted he had never been more than 10 months away from the theatre in 25 years. He had spent more time in the theatre than anywhere else, yet many people remember him solely for his television work.
Notable theatrical productions included Haydon in The Immortal Haydon, 1977, Hitler in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Heretic, 1970, Groucho Marx in Song by Song by Harburg, 1978 and as the Prime Minister in The Devil’s Eggshell, 1966.
Outside of working, Leonard was a private man, rarely discussing his family and, thankfully, never playing the typical celebrity fame game. He was understandably very serious about his profession and expected others to follow. He channelled this same commitment to everything he did or had an interest in, his love of vintage wine meant he then had to know everything, so he became a wine connoisseur. His love of sport meant that there was no casual game, it was competitive and he had to be the best. As Leonard’s motto would concur, ‘Never leave a pond until you are the biggest fish in it’.
And so began his rise and rise to one of our most treasured actors of stage and screen.
In 1984, during a performance of Joe Orton’s Loot, Leonard playing the role of Inspector Truscott, he missed his cue. An unthinkable event for someone who was on time, word perfect, every time. After getting no reply from his dressing room, the theatre staff broke down the dressing room door to find Leonard unconscious on the floor. His death, at the age of 57, was caused by cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscles which was present since birth.
Leonard’s legacy lives on in his numerous appearances captured on audio and video, we will not see his like again. I was too young to see him in the theatre but I would have given everything to see his performance in the Immortal Haydon. I did know though repeats of Rising Damp in the 80s that his machine gun like delivery drew me in, his wet-lipped performance was spellbinding, coupled with his endless mannerisms and hyperactivity that ran through him like a bolt of lightning. His performances showed he gave everything to it and I knew this was the commitment and hard work of someone who cared so much about the performance he delivered. I wanted to see that in the actors and musicians I came to admire, they gave you a performance that meant something to them, and they believed in this wholeheartedly, honouring their responsibility to pass this onto the viewer to the best of their ability.
Leonard’s late widow, Gillian Raine, and their daughter Camilla were very supportive when I started my research in the 90s. It meant a lot to me to have a connection with Leonard’s family and I hope this website serves a fitting tribute to Leonard, and his role as Rigsby in Rising Damp.
London Critics Best Actor Award and Variety Club Best Actor Award for The Resistible Rise of Arturo Vi and the Scottish Television Award for the best stage actor for his Edinburgh Festival performance in the same play.
1969 TV Times Funniest Man on TV award.
Players Player Awards for best stage actor of 1970
The Devil’s Bedside Book, 1980 / The Lowest Form of Wit, 1980