Gary Waldhorn obituary

<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Gary Waldhorn, who has died aged 78, played some political high flyers on television in his time – Caulaincourt, the diplomat and Second Empire loyalist, in Napoleon and Love (1974), and the raffish society diarist Chips Channon in Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978) – but his true talent lay in a curious ability to be pompous, boring and funny all at the same time.

This was most famously demonstrated in his performance as David Horton, local squire and head of the parish council, in Richard Curtis’s The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007), which starred Dawn French as the Rev Geraldine Granger, the feisty religious moderniser and chocaholic putting cats among pigeons in a sleepy Oxfordshire village just as, in real life, female vicars started sprouting all over the Church of England.

Waldhorn, of a bald and complacent demeanour, was the very embodiment of reactionary disapproval, but there was a twinkle about his bluster that, while no match for French’s joyful steam-rollering of the village idiots and worthies, made him an always watchable last line of resistance. This simple situation was wrung through two decades – there have been subsequent Christmas and charity specials, and “lockdown” episodes during the pandemic – without once going stale or losing its comic brio.

Related: Vicar of Dibley actor Gary Waldhorn dies aged 78

Waldhorn commented on how strange it was, after so many years, to be recognised in the street, but took it all in his careful stride, pleased but not unduly excited. He had, after all, played supporting roles on stage in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre at the Old Vic and with the Royal Shakespeare Company; had appeared on Broadway in 1982 with Alan Howard in CP Taylor’s quizzical play Good, about a “decent” Nazi; and with Judi Dench in a glorious RSC revival by Gregory Doran of All’s Well That Ends Well in Stratford-upon-Avon and the West End in 2004.

Thanks to Dench glowing autumnally as the Countess of Roussillon, the notoriously “difficult” All’s Well – made to look not difficult at all –played to packed and enthusiastic houses for 10 weeks on Shaftesbury Avenue. But Waldhorn as the King of France was a subsidiary draw in a cast that also included Claudie Blakley as a delightful Helena, the young heroine who cures the king of a fistula.

Waldhorn was born in London, the only child of Viennese Jewish refugees, Liselotte (nee Popper) and Siegfried Waldhorn. Siegfried acted as an interpreter for German prisoners of war in Britain and would become an executive vice-president of American Express.

Meanwhile, the money Gary received for his bar mitzvah helped fund the family’s move to New York in 1956. He had already decided to be an actor after seeing Richard Burton at the Old Vic on a school trip. In the US, he was further educated at Ohio state university and the Yale drama school, where he met his future wife, Christie Dickason, a student of the critic and academic Robert Brustein.

Dickason directed Waldhorn in student productions of The Knack by Ann Jellicoe and The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. On graduating in 1967, the couple returned to settle in London, where Waldhorn appeared in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in the Open Air theatre, Regent’s Park, and, almost immediately, at the National.

There, he was in Peter Brook’s infamous version of Seneca’s Oedipus, which featured John Gielgud, Irene Worth, a huge golden phallus on a plinth and various supernumeraries – of whom Waldhorn was one – lashed to the pillars in the stalls; they were frequently harassed by jovial customers in search of programmes and ice-creams. He also appeared as Jaques de Boys in John Dexter’s all-male As You Like It (with Ronald Pickup as the first male Rosalind), in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, and in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Dickason, meanwhile, was working as a director and choreographer. Although she and Waldhorn married in 1970, they divorced a decade later having lived apart for some time, and she turned to writing novels. By now his parts were expanding, notably as a take-over lead in Anthony Shaffer’s long-running Sleuth at the St Martin’s in 1975.

He was prominent at the Royal Exchange in Manchester from the mid-1970s, playing alongside Paul Scofield and Eleanor Bron in Ronald Harwood’s A Family (which moved to the Haymarket in London), the American playwright Larry Shue’s very funny The Nerd (with Derek Griffiths) and Waiting for Godot, with Max Wall and Trevor Peacock, in 1980. Waldhorn went against Samuel Beckett’s stipulations in slowing down Lucky’s great virtuoso speech but was the most comprehensible of all straggle-haired loons, suggesting a lifetime of memory in this one outpouring at the end of his master’s controlling rope.

Waldhorn was busy on television before The Vicar of Dibley, turning up in most established serials; as a blazered suitor to his best friend’s widow, Maureen Lipman, in All at Number 20 (1986); and in the first three series of Brush Strokes (1986-89), as the exasperated employer of a cheeky chappy house-painter, Karl Howman. His few films included a bizarre wartime and football oddity directed by John Huston, Escape to Victory (1981), with a host of soccer stars including Bobby Moore, Pelé and Ossie Ardiles – and Sylvester Stallone. Waldhorn was the coach of a German military football team ranged against a team of prisoners of war in an exhibition match in Paris.

Gary Waldhorn and Maureen Lipman in Chapter Two by Neil Simon at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1981.
Gary Waldhorn and Maureen Lipman in Chapter Two by Neil Simon at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1981. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

He appeared on stage with Lipman in a fine production of Neil Simon’s Chapter Two at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1981 and, on the same stage in 1983, as the depraved Svidrigailov, exiting coolly to his suicide through a red door, in Yuri Lyubimov’s expressionist version of Crime and Punishment. He exhibited impressive power and range as Malvolio at the Royal Exchange in 1988, as King Henry for the English Touring Company’s Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, in 1996, and as Leonato in a spirited RSC Much Ado About Nothing in 2002.

Waldhorn is survived by Joshua, his son with Dickason, and by two grandchildren, Cooper and Bailey.

• Gary Waldhorn, actor, born 3 July 1943; died 10 January 2022