Leonard Rossiter was a frequent face on television when I was a boy. The trump cushion in The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin was one of the highlights of the show and he outshone the other three actors as the lecherous landlord in Rising Damp. Here I am outside The Lyric Theatre in Soho where he died suddenly aged 57. I'm sure most actors wouldn't mind expiring a feet away from a stage where all the seminal music hall stars had performed.
I can still remember his early death in 1984 as he was the lecherous loser landlord Rigsby in Rising Damp which I watched repeatedly (it's still funny today.) Away from the stage he was played a few sports (he used to take his milkman on a family holiday so that he could have a squash partner.) Perhaps his professionalism and need for perfection contributed to the heart attack as he was a man determined to reach the top. He was born at the bottom, though - shoved out into the world above his family’s barber shop in the rough end of Watertree in Liverpool. When he was 15 his dad who was working as a volunteer ambulance was killed in an Blitz air-raid. After military service he got a job as an insurance clerk to bring in some money.
Interested in acting from an early age his big break came when he played an escaped convict in an episode of Steptoe and Son in 1972. The writer Eric Chappell was so impressed by Leonard's single performance that he cast him in his stage show The Banana Box. This transferred to television as Rising Damp an Leonard’s name was cast in concrete. His version of a loser, seedy, lecherous landlord was watched by up to 18 million people a week.
This was a driven man who needed to succeed in everything he did, even when playing sport with members of his own family or in charity cricket matches. He had to win and by a long lead. I saw him interviewed on television a few times and always seemed restless and tetchy. He was married twice and had a daughter. They must have been as shocked as the rest of us when on Friday 5th October 1984 the end came. He was appearing in Loot and fifteen minutes into the performance he missed his cue to go on stage. Someone rushed to his dressing room but found the door locked. Something was wrong. The stage curtain was lowered. The locked door was forced open to reveal a motionless Leonard slumped in an armchair. Still alive an ambulance rushed him to Middlesex Hospital but it was all too late and he was pronounced dead. Before his death he’d complained of mild chest pains but a hospital check-up found no ailments so he carried on playing squash as usual. A post mortem revealed he’d died of a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart which deems it less able to pump blood effectively. Symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, fainting or sudden death. It sounds like Leonard had worn himself out.
I took a few photos of the theatre which still uses water to operate its iron curtain. Years ago most theatres received pumped water from the river Thames to hydraulically lift heavy goods. I went around the back and took another photo of a few windows. Perhaps one was on the room where Leonard died. I doubt it but I saluted them anyway and left.
The rear of the theatre...