Gary Waldhorn, Shakespearean actor who played Cllr David Horton in The Vicar of Dibley – obituary

Gary Waldhorn as Cllr Horton with Dawn French as Geraldine Granger in The Vicar of Dibley - BBC
Gary Waldhorn as Cllr Horton with Dawn French as Geraldine Granger in The Vicar of Dibley - BBC

Gary Waldhorn, the actor, who has died aged 78, made his biggest impression on television as David Horton, the millionaire farmer and chairman of the parish council battling with Dawn French’s newly arrived parish priest in The Vicar of Dibley.

Early episodes of Richard Curtis’s ecclesiastical sitcom, which began in 1994 – when the Church of England started ordaining female clergy – focused on Horton’s attempts to upstage the Rev Geraldine Granger after years of getting his own way by bullying fellow parish councillors.

His wife has already left him because of his obnoxious nature – not, as he insists, because she hated his cooking – and his slow-witted son Hugo (played by James Fleet) reveals that Horton is known as “Dirty Dave” because he collects Victorian pornography.

As the sitcom progresses, however, Horton comes to respect the vicar and, when his feelings get personal, he proposes to her, even defecting from the Conservative Party to Labour in an attempt to woo her. Taken unawares, she accepts, but later backs out.

Despite his unbending attitudes on issues such as councillors being punctual for meetings, he leaves behind his prejudices about women in the priesthood.

Gary Waldhorn with Emma Chambers (l) as Alice Tinker, and Dawn French as Geraldine Granger in the Vicar of Dibley - BBC
Gary Waldhorn with Emma Chambers (l) as Alice Tinker, and Dawn French as Geraldine Granger in the Vicar of Dibley - BBC

He is also the only “normal” character apart from Geraldine, when judged alongside Hugo, Alice Tinker (Emma Chambers), the scatterbrained verger; Frank Pickle (John Bluthal), the boring, pedantic parish council secretary; Letitia Cropley (Liz Smith), the organist and flower-arranger as well as creator of disgusting delicacies such as parsnip brownies; Jim Trott (Trevor Peacock), who takes over on the organ after her death and is notable for starting sentences with a stuttering “no-no-no-no-no”; and Owen Newitt (Roger Lloyd Pack), the farmer noted for his poor personal hygiene and flatulence.

Waldhorn was ever-present alongside Dawn French through two series (1994-98) and various specials between 1999 and 2007, as well as two Comic Relief mini-episodes (2007 and 2013).

Gary Peter Waldhorn was born in London on July 3 1943 to Liselotte “Lisa”, née Popper, and Freddie (Siegfried) Waldhorn, a Swissair executive. His parents were Jewish refugees from Austria.

As a child, watching Richard Burton playing Henry V fired Gary’s ambition of becoming an actor. He attended Marylebone High School and, after his parents’ move to the US, studied acting at Yale, gaining a Master’s in Fine Arts.

Returning to Britain, he started his career with the National Theatre (1967-69), first as an extra at the Old Vic – where he had the chance to step in for Robert Stephens as Jaques de Boys in As You Like It – and then with small roles at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre.

From there he went into rep before being presented with the chance of performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company on Broadway when an actor was unable to travel to New York in 1982.

He was cast as the Jewish psychiatrist Maurice in CP Taylor’s Holocaust play Good, but the American actors’ union objected to his appearance because he was not a bona fide member of the company, having not already worked with it.

Swiftly, the RSC staged a performance of Good in Stratford-upon-Avon with Waldhorn in the role – and he enjoyed the New York experience that followed.

“Anything that smacks remotely of success and they’re all over you,” he said. “You just feel so good. Here, you just get a little congratulatory slap on the back and that’s the end of it.”

The New York Times critic Frank Rich enthused about the character of Maurice: “He is played with unshowy passion and appealingly earthy humour by the superb Gary Waldhorn, whose sensitively modulated performance scrupulously avoids self-righteousness.”

Throughout the 1970s, Waldhorn was ever-present on television in character roles, mainly in dramas, until he found his forte in sitcoms.

Gary Waldhorn (top) with (l-r) Karl Howman, Jackie Lye and Mike Walling in Brush Strokes - Allstar Collection/BBC
Gary Waldhorn (top) with (l-r) Karl Howman, Jackie Lye and Mike Walling in Brush Strokes - Allstar Collection/BBC

the role of Richard Beamish, the old family friend of Maureen Lipman’s financially insecure widow in All at No 20 (1986), was followed by that of Lionel Bainbridge, boss of Karl Howman’s amorous painter and decorator – until Lionel’s death – in the first three series (1986-89) of Brush Strokes.

One drama that provided Waldhorn with a running role was Campaign (1988), set in an advertising agency with him acting the managing director’s deputy and rival.

In a rare excursion into films, he brushed with Hollywood royalty when he played German coach Mueller in Escape to Victory (1981), John Huston’s production about Allied PoWs playing an exhibition football match against their captors during the Second World War.

Michael Caine, as coach and captain of the Allies, is badgered by Sylvester Stallone’s Canadian soldier to let him play – presenting an opportunity to escape – while Max von Sydow acts a German officer whose background as a footballer leads him to applaud the brilliance of his opponents’ equaliser in the final minutes.

The cult film attracted great attention at the time of its release because of the presence of Pele, Bobby Moore and other footballing greats, and England World Cup hero Gordon Banks coached Stallone in his goalkeeping skills.

But Waldhorn was disappointed: “I didn’t see anybody, only Michael Caine and Max von Sydow.” Nevertheless, there was a memento from Stallone: a wardrobe mix-up left Waldhorn with the star’s suede jacket.

Alongside his regular television work, Waldhorn continued a successful stage career. In the West End, he played Milo Tindle in Sleuth (St Martin’s and Garrick Theatres, 1974-5) and in 1978 appeared in the Ronald Harwood drama A Family at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, a double-bill of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy at the Comedy Theatre (now the Harold Pinter Theatre) in 1998 and Mahler’s Conversion, another Harwood play, at the Aldwych Theatre in 2001.

He also returned to the classics, most prominently in the title role of Henry IV, Parts I & II with the English Touring Theatre company at the Old Vic (1996-7) and then back with the RSC to act Leonato in Much ado About Nothing (2002) and the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well (2003-4).

On BBC radio, he played Desmond Shaw, agent of John Gordon-Sinclair’s aspiring thespian, in the sitcom An Actor’s Life for Me (1989-94).

Waldhorn’s 1967 marriage to Christie Dickason, a fellow student at Yale, ended in divorce. He is survived by their son, Josh.

Gary Waldhorn, born July 3 1943, died January 10 2022