Jack Hedley obituary

<span>Photograph: AF archive/Alamy</span>
Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

Veteran stage and screen actor who appeared in numerous 1970s TV drama series including Colditz and Who Pays the Ferryman?

The actor Jack Hedley, who has died of a heart attack aged 92, had a solemn face and military bearing that often made him appear dour on screen, but he was well cast in television roles that made his face more familiar than his name.

In his early small-screen career, he even attained heart-throb status as the undercover agent and anti-hero of the title in The World of Tim Frazer (1960-61), screened under the Francis Durbridge Presents banner. He appeared in three overlapping six-part thriller serials as the easygoing structural engineer recruited by a secret government department.

The character conceived by Durbridge as “ordinary” – not “tough, trigger-happy or dame-slapping” – investigates his own business partner’s mysterious disappearance in England, drug smuggling in Amsterdam and the death of another undercover agent in Wales. “It’s refreshing to be given a part in which I can wear smart clothes, drive fast cars and have a mews house in London,” said Hedley at the time. “It certainly makes a change from the neurotics I’ve played in the past.”

He later claimed to rue the fact that “this Frankenstein’s monster of an upper-crust Englishman was born”, but it served him well over the next few decades.

Hedley’s services history in the Royal Marines informed his performance in Colditz (1972-74) as Lieutenant-Colonel John Preston, senior British officer at the Germans’ castle fortress whose escape-proof reputation is put to the test by allied prisoners of war.

Preston is a strict, emotionless disciplinarian, but he is highly principled and respected by his fellow officers as he defends them – often using his encyclopedic knowledge of the Geneva conventions – while building up a relationship with the kommandant (played by Bernard Hepton). The stiff upper lip quivers only when he hears about his wife’s death.

Jack Hedley in The Anniversary, 1968, with Bette Davis, left, and Sheila Hancock.
Jack Hedley in The Anniversary, 1968, with Bette Davis, left, and Sheila Hancock. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Later, Hedley played a former soldier in Who Pays the Ferryman? (1977), the widower Alan Haldane, who sells his boat business and returns to the Greek island of Crete, where he had once been a hero among resistance fighters. He hopes to see his wartime lover but discovers that she is dead – and that he had fathered a girl who is now a young woman.

This Greek tragedy had real-life consequences for some of the cast and crew, including Hedley. Several blamed broken marriages on the four months they spent filming Who Pays the Ferryman? on Crete, and Hedley – who admitted to having affairs on filming trips abroad – said his own went downhill on his return home.

“There is something strange and mysterious about these Greek islands,” he said. “When the cast arrived, they suddenly started acting strangely. They were no longer themselves. One man walked into the sea at midnight and said he was going to swim to Cyprus, 700 km away. Another man fell madly in love with a girl who did not return his feelings. As a result, he tried to take his own life.”

Hedley married Jean Fraser in 1965, after meeting her in Ireland while filming The Very Edge (1963), in which he played a detective and she was the producer’s assistant. The couple divorced in 1984.

The actor was born Jack Hawkins in London, and said he never knew his father. His mother, Dorothy Withill, had grown up in poverty but went on to make a fortune by founding Direct Mail, an office services business. Jack later took his cousin Hedley Hawkins’s forename as his own professional surname because the film star Jack Hawkins – another performer who attracted military roles on screen – was already registered with Equity, the actors’ union.

Jack Hedley in 1993.
Jack Hedley in 1993. Photograph: Shaun Higson/Alamy

On leaving Emanuel school in Battersea, south London, he became a cadet at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, then spent eight years as a marine commando on active service in Malaya, India, the East Indies, Australia and Korea. He rose from cadet to lieutenant but was eventually invalided out after being shot twice in the leg.

He then worked in his mother’s business but, after 18 months, was losing interest in his job. On walking past Rada’s building on the way to the office one day, he decided to audition for an acting course and was accepted. While there, he played Dr Dolittle, opposite Glenda Jackson’s Eliza, in Pygmalion at St Pancras town hall.

After graduating in 1957, he went straight into the West End as Daniels in It’s the Geography that Counts (St James’s theatre). Screen producers were quick to spot his talents and he made his film debut as Dr Galbraith in Behind the Mask (1958), following it with small parts as an architect in Room at the Top (1959) and a reporter in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). His military background came to the fore in movies such as The Longest Day (1962) and How I Won the War (1967).

Films never fully exploited Hedley’s talents, although he had satisfying roles in Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969) as William Baxter, the housemaster who beats Peter O’Toole’s Chips to become headteacher, and the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981), in which he not only played Sir Timothy Havelock, but also voiced the millionaire yacht owner’s parrot.

Television gave him better opportunities. In the Alun Owen play No Trams to Lime Street (1959), he was cast as a merchant sailor on shore leave in Liverpool having an affair with Billie Whitelaw’s married woman.

Then, he starred as the cockney seafaring wireless operator Corrigan Blake, caught up with revolutionaries in the Caribbean, in the 1962 pilot You Can’t Win ’em All, also written by Owen – but was replaced for the subsequent series, Corrigan Blake.

Other TV roles included Donald Killearn (1970-71), a colleague of the agony aunt played by Phyllis Calvert, in Kate; Graham Jesson, husband of Sophia Loren’s tempted Anna, in the 1974 TV version of Brief Encounter; and the disappeared thriller writer Charles Latimer in A Quiet Conspiracy (1989).

Hedley’s second marriage, to Elspeth (nee Daintry) in 1986, also ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Alex (nee Westendarp), whom he married in 2001, and the two children of his first marriage, Jonathan and James.

• Jack Hedley (Jack Snowdon Hawkins), actor, born 28 October 1929; died 11 December 2021