Three spells playing the bluff builder Bill Webster in Coronation Street brought fame to the actor Peter Armitage, who has died of a heart attack aged 79. He was spotted for the role after the soap’s producers saw him in a Yellow Pages commercial as a father scouring the business directory with his wife to find a bicycle for their son’s birthday.
But the sudden elevation to stardom almost never came. In 1980, frustrated with acting, Armitage left his wife, took a two-year break and headed for Australia with a guitar and bedroll, earning enough to live on by busking in Sydney. The money also bought him a secondhand motorbike on which he toured the country, clocking up 13,000 miles. “I’d had a bellyful,” he said. “I needed some new experiences, something to enable me to charge up my batteries.”
Coronation Street kick-started his career back in Britain. In 1984 he arrived as the widower Bill, who rented the late Len Fairclough’s builder’s yard and moved his children, Kevin and Debbie, into No 11, Elsie Tanner’s old house. Armitage provided a no-nonsense, tough-guy persona in a soap dominated by women. “He was the nearest we ever reached to replacing Len Fairclough,” wrote the serial’s executive producer, Bill Podmore, in his memoirs. But Podmore, who wanted to bring a long-term family to the cobbles, said Armitage “left a particularly bitter taste in my mouth” when he announced months later that he wanted to leave. “He has a built-in wanderlust,” observed the producer.
To cope with Armitage’s departure, his character was married off in 1985 and left for Germany with his new wife and Debbie, while Kevin stayed in the street to become one of the serial’s mainstays. However, Armitage was back 10 years later and stayed for two years (1995-97), with Bill returned as a divorcee, working as the Rovers’ pot and cellarman before setting up a building firm with Jim McDonald. When the character was axed by a new producer, Brian Park, Bill was sent back to Germany with his old flame Maureen Elliott, whom he later married.
Armitage’s final stint in Coronation Street, from 2006 to 2011, saw Bill again back from Germany and having an affair with Audrey Roberts, leading to a divorce from Maureen. He eventually retired and returned for a final time to Germany.
Armitage was born in Skipton and had a difficult childhood. “My mother wasn’t around much during the first 10 years of my life,” he recalled. “She was always off with different guys and would dump me on my aunt.” After his mother married, Armitage’s life became more settled. He was 28 when he eventually met his father, a German called Karl, but they saw each other on only a handful of occasions. “It fell off because we didn’t really have a relationship,” he explained.
On leaving Glusburn secondary modern school Armitage was apprenticed for five years to a firm building diesel engines. Then, in 1960, he joined the merchant navy and sailed the world for four years before settling in London and working as a banksman – shouting instructions down the tunnel – for labourers digging the Victoria underground line. He discovered an amateur dramatics company at a folk club, joined it, then trained at the East 15 acting school in Essex. Work followed in rep at Sheffield Playhouse.
He made his television debut as Chuck in the 1970 pilot of The Befrienders, a drama based around the work of the Samaritans, continued in the role in the 1972 series, and established himself as a prolific character actor, often cast as soldiers or police officers. In Days of Hope (1975), Jim Allen’s drama about the labour movement from wartime 1916 to the General Strike 10 years later, he was a conscientious objector. Ken Loach, the director, observed of him in auditions: “Squarely built, good Yorks lad.”
Armitage’s lifelong love of motorcycles led to a starring role as Len, trying to restore a rusting 1955 Matchless Twin 500 to its former glory, in Robin Chapman’s 1976 TV play Grease Monkey. Playing David Jason’s brother, Randy Mepstead, running a family plumbing business in the 1976 sitcom Lucky Feller was another highlight – but failed to bring bigger roles. He was first seen in Coronation Street the following year, playing Maurice Allen, who redecorated the Rovers Return, and was an integral part of the director Bill Bryden’s National Theatre company from 1977 to 79.
Following his Australian adventure and 1980s run in Coronation Street, he continued to pop up in popular series. He had a rare leading role as the hard-working Detective Sergeant Jim Butler, sidekick to Ivan Kaye’s Detective Inspector Sterne, in the police drama Sam Saturday (1992).
In 2003 he returned to soap briefly to play Wilf Butler, who sold his farm tenancy to Andy Sugden, in Emmerdale and, in the writer Russell T Davies’s drama The Second Coming, about a video shop assistant who believes he is the new Messiah, he was the “son of God’s” father, a bitter single parent.
On stage Armitage starred as the colliery brass band conductor in Paul Allen’s 1998 adaptation of the hit film Brassed Off, at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield, and at the National’s Olivier theatre in London.
He is survived by his children, Daniel and Sally, from his 1970 marriage to the actor Annabel Scase, which ended in divorce.
• Peter Armitage, actor, born 23 October 1939; died 4 December 2018