McKern was conventionally described in the obituaries as Australian. But although he was born in Sydney, he lived for 56 years -- virtually all of his adult life -- in England. And in Rumpole he brought to life one of the greatest and most loved English eccentrics in modern popular culture.
McKern died last week at the age of 82 but truth to tell, in the last 40 years of his life, he never seemed to age at all. And before that, he never seemed to be young. Like the magnificent Walter Matthau, it was as if his destiny was to be grumpily middle-aged all his life. Never having been young, was it surprising that he never seemed to grow old?
As long ago as 1966, he was already grumpy and sinisterly middle-aged, as Thomas Cromwell, mastermind of England's 16th-century Protestant reformation and persecutor of Sir Thomas More, in Fred Zimmermann's magnificent Oscar-winning adaptation of Robert Bolt's play, "A Man for All Seasons."
Paul Scofield got an Oscar for playing More but McKern was every bit his equal as Cromwell, truly an English Grand Inquisitor, confronting him in the movie's climactic court scenes. His Cromwell was a Dark Rumpole, the lovable, tubby, intelligent teddy bear, as the ruthless, brilliant secret police chief.
Short, dumpy and, well, not conventionally handsome -- to put it mildly -- he nevertheless had an instinct for homing in on apparently unattractive and unsympathetic roles, filling them with vibrant humanity and converting them into cultural icons. He did the same thing only a year later in the extraordinary 1967 British surrealistic TV series "The Prisoner," starring and produced by Patrick McGoohan.
McGoohan played No. 6, the eponymous "Prisoner" of the title imprisoned on an apparently idyllic island resort that was really a high-tech, creepy, no-holds-barred international jail.
No one knew who No. 1 was. The series finale copped out on any coherent explanation. But in every episode a leading British actor of the day would play a different No. 2, sent to run The Village and break The Prisoner.
McKern played the first No. 2. He played him so well he was brought back for the climactic episodes. He made the role again his own so much that two decades later, an adult American comic book updating the saga for a new generation of fans, brought back his version of No. 2 as the final, ultimate villain for No. 6 to grapple with.
These roles, like most of the ones McKern played in his movie and stage character actor heyday, were villainous ones. But what he will be most loved and remembered for will be the one that went against his stereotyped grain: Horace Rumpole, John Mortimer's crusty British barrister, or courtroom lawyer, with a heart of gold, and a glittering intellect to match it.
Rumpole was brilliant and principled, petty, short-tempered, ridiculous and vain. He loved gossip. At a time when American network TV detectives and lawyers, were still almost entirely tall, lean, handsome and with characters photocopied off the soul of Gary Cooper, he hit American TV in the late 1970s with the shock of the Beatles or Monty Python. Once again, those quirky, unconventional, spin-bowling Brits had upended the notions of propriety in popular culture that Hollywood and the TV networks had spent so many laborious decades in dutifully copying from them in the first place.
Rumpole was more than quirky -- he was also actively subversive. Like his creator Mortimer, he appeared to be the quintessentially conservative English gentleman, right down to his grumbling, rumbling relationship with his tall and handsome but truly terrifying wife, Hilda, "She Who Must Be Obeyed."
He flirted often but inevitably ineffectually with the stunning young lovelies who worked in his law offices or who sought his aid. All this was familiar. But his social views were tolerant and, in the great traditional of English fiction, harking all the way back to Charles Dickens, he loved to expose the absurdities of the very legal system within which he flourished. His attitude toward that legal system was one of love and hate as intertwined as any helix of DNA.
His attitude toward wife and life was the same. No wonder we loved him.
It takes a collaboration of many hands to create a great television series or movie, but ultimately the crucial achievement is one of teamwork and tension between the writer and the actor who plays the key part, between creator and interpreter. Rumpole was blessed in having exceptional talents producing both.
Read any of Mortimer's "Rumpole" tales, and McKern leaps to life from the pages for you. Any good character actor could have made a lot out of Rumpole. But once you have seen McKern play him, you know that no one else will do.
Like the wonderful John Thaw, who died earlier this year after playing "Inspector Morse" in more than 30 made-for-TV serials, McKern produced the one and only, definitive interpretation of an already famous fictional character. And just as Thaw's interpretation of Morse forever altered and guided the way novelist Colin Dexter later wrote the character, so did McKern's interpretation determine the way Mortimer forever afterward wrote Rumpole.
McKern played Rumpole even longer than Thaw played Morse. He played him in 44 episodes made between 1975 and 1992.
There is a small, select Valhalla of exceptional characters in popular fiction that outlive their creators and seem to take on an independent life of their own. Sherlock Holmes, of course, stands as the prime example. Thanks to McKern's flesh and blood portrayal, even more than Mortimer's fine writing, Rumpole has done so, too. One can anticipate a PBS revival of his classic series in the near future. If they do not, Arts and Entertainment network assuredly will.
Somewhere in the Vast Beyond, the great science-fiction writer Pohl Anderson -- also sadly recently taken from us -- hypothesized that there is a world where everything we imagine as fiction is real. It is a world where William Shakespeare is acclaimed not as the greatest of dramatists but of historians, because every one of his works that we regard as plays is there just a factual record of what actually happened. In such a world, perhaps McKern and his doppelganger Rumpole might even meet. In these days after
McKern's passing, it is especially nice to think so.
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