Leo McKern AO 1920-2002
Reginald McKern (the ‘Leo’ came later) was born in the Sydney suburb of Petersham on 16 March 1920.
He took acting lessons, worked on radio serials at one guinea an episode, and joined May Hollinworth’s Metropolitan Theatre.
Late in 1945 McKern and Holland were recruited by Will Mahoney for a production of Peter Pan at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane.
The wrinklies’ hero
‘He was an actor who not only perfectly played the character as you wrote it, but added to it with genius and passion,’ said John Mortimer, creator of the crumpled defence barrister Horace Rumpole, the greatest role in Leo McKern’s lengthy career. ‘He was shapeless, lovable and he could make you laugh and cry. His acting existed where I always hope my writing will be: about two feet above the ground, a little larger than life, but always taking off from reality. Perhaps he thought he had done too much Rumpole, but that for me could never be so.’
Reginald McKern (the ‘Leo’ came later) was born in the Sydney suburb of Petersham on 16 March 1920. At 15 he started an engineering apprenticeship, but an accident put him in hospital for 18 months and cost him his left eye. In 1937 he switched to commercial art. From 1942 to 1944 he served in the Australian Army. On his discharge he ‘realised that the stage was where I wanted to be.’ He took acting lessons, worked on radio serials at one guinea an episode, and joined May Hollinworth’s Metropolitan Theatre. He made his acting debut there in 1945 in the role of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In the lead role of Emily was a fine young classical actress, Jane Holland (Joan Alice Southall). J.C. Williamson’s gave McKern his first professional engagement – as Ben, the chemist, in the grim thriller Uncle Harry, which ran at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in August 1945 (for a 5.30 p.m. season) and in October at the Adelaide Royal.
Late in 1945 McKern and Holland were recruited by Will Mahoney for a production of Peter Pan at the Theatre Royal in Brisbane; McKern doubled as Gentleman Starkey and assistant stage manager. In March 1946 he played Brian Curtis in Mahoney’s production of French Without Tears. Holland, meanwhile, had filmed A Son is Born with Peter Finch and John McCallum, and had sailed for Britain. McKern soon followed her; they married in London.
McKern subsisted as a furniture salesman, commercial artist, cleaner and factory hand, until his wife got him a job stage managing Easy Money, in which she was on tour. This led to work with the Combined Services Entertainment Unit in Germany and provincial tours with the Arts Council. After experience with Nottingham Repertory Company, McKern made his London debut in October 1949 as Foreseter in the Old Vic’s Love’s Labour’s Lost at the New Theatre. He remained with the Old Vic until he and his wife joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company for its 1953 Australian tour. McKern appeared as Iago in Othello, Touchstone in As You Like It and Glendower and Northumberland in Henry IV, Part I. Back in London he was kept busy with more Shakespeare, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and even Toad in Toad of Toad Hall.
Watch this space
Leo McKern: Just Resting, Methuen, 1983
Lynne Murphy: ‘Jane Holland’ and ‘Leo McKern’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, 1965
John Sumner: Recollections at Play, Melboune University Press, 1993