Actor who performed in Beckett’s Happy Days and played the genial GP on EastEnders for 34 years
Leonard Fenton, who has died aged 95, was approaching 60 when he joined the original cast of EastEnders in 1985 as Dr Harold Legg, the friendly Jewish GP and much-loved pillar of the community. He continued in the BBC soap for 34 years, appearing in more than 250 episodes.
The character was six years older than Fenton and widowed during the second world war when his wife was killed by a bomb. He was already at retirement age in the first episode, but he continued to serve the fictional Walford’s residents – and enjoy reminiscences with Dot Cotton (June Brown), Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) and Lou Beale (Anna Wing). In the serial’s early days, he helped Sue Osman (Sandy Ratcliff) come to terms with the cot death of her baby and humoured the hypochondriacal Dot.
But his judgment was sometimes brought into question, such as when he decided not to tell Colin Russell (Michael Cashman) he was showing early signs of multiple sclerosis and failed to diagnose Vicki, the daughter of Michelle Fowler (Susan Tully), with meningitis, resulting in the three-year-old almost dying and Harold retiring.
Related: Barry Cryer obituary
Nevertheless, he was back at his Albert Square surgery within months and continued to treat residents until his official retirement in 1997. Fenton returned in the role on and off, with Harold popping in to catch up with old friends. In 2018, when he gave Dot the news that he was dying of cancer, she insisted that he move in with her.
Fenton and Brown were together for the GP’s final moments the following year as Harold reminisced about meeting his late wife in the 1930s: “And I kissed her. And she kissed me back. The most perfect kiss ever. What I would give...” As his eyes closed, Dot told him: “Go and kiss her. Go and kiss her again.”
An East Ender himself, Fenton was born Leonard Finestein in Stepney to Fanny (nee Goldberg), of Latvian descent, and Morris Finestein, a women’s garment-maker whose parents came to Britain from Lithuania.
Like his soap character, Leonard remembered marches by Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts in east London in the 1930s, and during the second world war his Jewish family changed their name to Fenton.
On a happier note, he recalled: “My family’s doctor in Bethnal Green was a kind and caring man. Dr Legg is in the same mould – an intelligent man who has chosen to remain working in the East End community in which he grew up.”
When war broke out, Fenton’s school, Raine’s, in Bethnal Green, was evacuated to Brighton. He then qualified as a civil engineer by taking a degree at King’s College London, did his national service as an officer with the Royal Engineers and spent five years with a firm of consulting engineers.
Evening art and music classes at Toynbee Hall in east London led to a starring role in a Christmas performance and a place to train as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Fenton gave up his job, supporting himself by teaching maths at Westminster Polytechnic, and graduated in 1955, winning the Spotlight prize.
Acting in repertory theatre at the Sheffield Playhouse, then with other companies, was followed by his big break when Orson Welles auditioned him for his play Chimes at Midnight, featuring Shakespeare’s character Falstaff, and cast him as the thieving Bardolph, one of the knight’s entourage – but voiced in a cockney accent. The production ran in Belfast and Dublin in 1960.
Later, Fenton starred as Willie, taciturn husband of Billie Whitelaw’s Winnie, in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by the writer at the Royal Court theatre (1979). There were also stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company (1970, 1980-83 and 2008-09), including his final stage role, Vincentio, in The Taming of the Shrew.
On television, he had bit parts as police officers, prison warders, taxi drivers, accountants, Jews and Germans, as well as more substantial roles: Friedrich Merz, a member of a wealthy Jewish family in A Legacy (1975), based on Sybille Bedford’s novel set in the decades leading up to the first world war; Corporal “Miff” Moffat in The Fourth Arm (1983), about secret agents parachuted into occupied Europe; and Erich Gottlieb, a baker, in two series (1984-85) of Shine on Harvey Moon, set in the post-second world war East End.
As a keen artist painting landscapes in watercolour, he had exhibitions at the National Theatre, when it showcased works by actors, and the Primrose Hill gallery.
In 1967, Fenton married the cellist Madeline Thorner. They later separated and he is survived by their three sons, Daniel, Sam and Toby, and daughter, Nina.
• Leonard Fenton (Leonard Finestein), actor, born 29 April 1926; died 29 January 2022