Maurice Roëves, actor who always sought the humanity in his tough-guy roles – obituary

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Maurice Roëves - Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images
Maurice Roëves - Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

Maurice Roëves, who has died aged 83, was a gifted Scottish actor variously described as the “possessor of the world’s greatest icy blue death stare” and looking like “Jack Palance with a migraine”.

As a result he found himself in high demand for tough-guy roles, though he claimed always to look for a character’s good side: “Nobody’s an out and out villain,” he said.

In Britain he shot to fame in John Byrne’s award winning black comedy-drama, Tutti Frutti (BBC Scotland, 1987) which charted the fortunes of the Majestics, ageing survivors of the Sixties beat boom who are desperate to keep going.

Roëves was hilarious as the chisel-featured guitarist Vincent Diver – the “iron man of Scottish rock” – who, in the course of six episodes, cheats on his wife, causes his girlfriend to commit suicide, gets himself knifed and, in the final episode, douses himself in vodka and sets himself alight during his band’s final concert at Glasgow Pavilion.

As Vincent Diver – the 'iron man of Scottish rock' – in Tutti Frutti
As Vincent Diver – the 'iron man of Scottish rock' – in Tutti Frutti

Roëves gave numerous scene-stealing performances on stage and on the big and small screens, with credits evenly split between Britain and the United States. On television these ranged from Murder She Wrote, Cheers and Baywatch to Rumpole of the Bailey, Bergerac, The Sweeney, Rab C Nesbitt (as local psycho John McGurn, who vows to eat people he dislikes) and Vanity Fair (BBC, 1998).

He played the Fuhrer in the controversial 1981 BBC Two Playhouse Journals of Bridget Hitler, Beryl Bainbridge’s account of a “pre-war visit” by the German dictator to the Liverpool home of his half-brother Alois. In the 1984 Doctor Who series The Caves of Androzani he was Stotz, the psychotic leader of a band of gun-runners.

He battled the Federation as a Romulan captain in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993), and played the evil Robert Henderson in the BBC Scotland’s soap River City (2002). The following year he made an explosive EastEnders debut in Albert Square as crooked ex-cop Geoff Tyler, the dodgy father of Phil Mitchell’s fiancée Kate Tyler.

Roëves made his mark in the film world as the courageous Colonel Munro in Last of the Mohicans (1992), while in Judge Dredd (1995, with Sylvester Stallone) he came to a sticky end as Warden Miller. In the big-screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House (1998) he played God, propping up the bar in a pub, who tells good-for-nothing Boab (Stephen McCole) that Nietzsche was wrong – “I’m not dead. I just don’t give a f---” – before turning Boab into an excrement-eating house fly.

With Barbara Jefford in Ulysses (1967) - AF Archive/Alamy
With Barbara Jefford in Ulysses (1967) - AF Archive/Alamy

His other credits included Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and The Eagle Has Landed (1976).

A lifelong Partick Thistle fan, Roëves developed something of a sideline in football dramas. He starred alongside Pele and Bobby Moore in the cult 1981 Second World War film Escape To Victory and played Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield in the 1996 television film Hillsborough.

He was a memorable Matt Busby in Surviving Disaster (2006), a BBC docudrama about the Munich air catastrophe, and in The Damned United (2009), about Brian Clough’s ill-fated spell at Leeds United in 1974, he played the outspoken manager’s trusted coach Jimmy Gordon.

Maurice Roëves was born on March 19 1937 in Sunderland to Percy and Rhoda Roëves. His surname (pronounced Roe-Eves) derived from Prussian ancestors. When he was five the family moved to Partick Cross in Glasgow, where his father worked in Spillers flour mills, and young Maurice soon shed his Geordie accent: “I had to learn Glaswegian fast because I was in Church Street Primary School in Partick during the bad old days and I was fed up having seven bales knocked out of me every day for being a wee Sassenach.”

As a Romulan captain in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993)  - CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
As a Romulan captain in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993) - CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

After leaving school, and two years’ National Service in the Royal Scots Greys, he joined his father at Spillers and became involved in church drama groups, “mainly to meet girls”.

At the age of 24 he decided to give up his job as an assistant sales manager and go to drama school, enrolling at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. His first professional engagement was as a dancer at the Barrfield Pavilion, Largs, from which he was fired “for chasing too many chorus girls”.

He served his acting apprenticeship at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in three-weekly rep – “the happiest time of my life”. His highly praised performance as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice caught the attention of a film scout for Disney and he was cast in a minor role in The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966), a film dismissed by one critic as “a long-forgotten piece of celluloid fluff”.

Later the same year he found himself at the Royal Court in London, playing McDuff to Alec Guinness’s Macbeth: “I’m out of drama school two years, wondering what the hell’s going on,” he recalled.

As Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield in the 1996 drama Hillsborough - ITV/Shutterstock
As Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield in the 1996 drama Hillsborough - ITV/Shutterstock

From then on he was seldom out of work, and in 1967 he was cast as Stephen Dedalus in the American film-maker Joseph Strick’s high-minded and controversial stab at Joyce’s Ulysses (with Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom).

Roëves’s career suffered a dip after his outing as Hitler, leading him to get legless one night and jump on a plane to Los Angeles: “The next morning I wondered what the hell I had done, but I enjoyed working out there.”

He spent the next three decades ocean-hopping and acquired dual citizenship, and for many years he split his time between a converted barn near Nottingham and a condo in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Like many of the characters he played, Roëves had a strongly anti-authoritarian streak and was unwilling to accept fools on or off stage. At the Royal Court there were spats with the director Peter Gill (“just a hippie who slept there”), while an audition for Laurence Olivier (“chief yellow braces”) at the National provoked a strop when the great man, concerned about projection levels for the much larger Albery Theatre, asked Roëves to move further and further away from him.

As dodgy Geoff Tyler in EastEnders  - Tom Boulting/BBC
As dodgy Geoff Tyler in EastEnders - Tom Boulting/BBC

In 2001 Roëves announced he was planning to sue Scottish Television for £100,000, claiming he had been passed over for a leading role in Taggart, for which he claimed he had secured a verbal deal. Nine years later he was insulted to be offered a guest appearance on the show, complaining that STV, “not just content with stabbing me in the back all these years ago, are now intent on twisting the knife again just to renew the agony.”

“If you’re going to rebel,” he observed, “rebel because you’re right.”

Roëves had a busy stage career, including a one-man show, Just a Gigolo (2012), written by Stephen Lowe, in which he played the Italian soldier Angelo Ravagli, whose real-life affair with DH Lawrence’s wife Frieda inspired Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

As Jimmy Gordon, with Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor, in The Damned United - TCD/Prod.DB /Alamy
As Jimmy Gordon, with Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor, in The Damned United - TCD/Prod.DB /Alamy

Once a 40-a-day smoker, Roëves survived a run-in with lung cancer and never wanted to stop working: “Retirement is a terrible word,” he told an interviewer in 2014. “I’ll retire when they put me into a wicker coffin.” His most recent role was a small part in the 2020 BBC television drama The Nest.

Maurice Roëves’s first two marriages, to the actress Jan Wilson and to an American record company executive, were dissolved, and in 1998 he said his worst nightmare was “getting married again”.

In 2001, however, he married Vanessa Rawlings-Jackson, a former manager of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and a marketing consultant with the National Lottery arts fund, with whom he had first gone out 27 years earlier.

She survives him with a daughter from his first marriage.

Maurice Roëves, born March 19 1937, died July 15 2020     

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