Aubrey Morris


Born: June 1, 1926,

Died: July 15, 2015.

Aubrey Morris, who has died aged 89, was a character actor who may never have been a star but nonetheless made his mark on British cinema with appearances in two of the most talked-about cult movies of the 1970s.

He was memorably sleazy as Malcolm McDowell’s probation officer Mister Deltoid in A Clockwork Orange and equally creepy as the gravedigger in the offbeat Scottish horror classic The Wicker Man.

Although the name may be unfamiliar, the face would register immediately, with a distinct twinkle in his eye and lips that curled into one of the most disconcerting smiles ever committed to celluloid.

Morris looked a little like Clive Swift from Keeping Up Appearances, but had a unique ability to bring to life characters who managed to be both camp and sinister at the same time, obsequious and conniving. He could bring a blackly comic touch to horror and more than a hint of horror to comedy.

Off screen, he was warm and friendly, sensitive and emotional, unselfconscious and larger than life. With a sense of theatre and mischief, he would embarrass companions in public by suddenly launching into a speech, often a speech by Iago, a role he longed to play but never did.

He was a great friend of Patrick McGoohan, with whom he appeared in the film The Quare Fellow in 1962 and then again on television a few years later in several episodes of Danger Man and in its surreal quasi-sequel The Prisoner. Morris appeared dressed in the purple robes and gold laurel wreath of a Roman statesman and sentenced McGoohan’s eponymous inmate to death.

Morris had a knack of being able to make big, theatrical performances work on television and in the 1960s when he played a gallery of rogues and eccentrics in such hit series as Z Cars, The Saint, The Avengers and Man in a Suitcase.

At one time McGoohan planned a film version of The Prisoner and wrote a part for his friend, calling the character Aubrey, but it never happened. Both moved to the US, where they remained friends, met regularly for dinner and appeared together on an episode of Columbo in 1998, which McGoohan directed.

One of nine children, Morris was originally Aubrey Jack Steinberg, born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Portsmouth in 1926. His grandparents had fled the pogroms in Ukraine at the end of the 19th Century. His father Morry had been a professional entertainer in the Jewish vaudeville halls in London’s East End before becoming a businessman, dealing in fruit and vegetables and jewellery.

His parents nurtured their family’s interest in entertainment and the arts and Morry taught the children Jewish music hall songs that would stay with them all their lives. Morris’s brother Wolfe was also a successful actor in theatre, film and television and two sisters Julia and Sonia became professional dancers.

It was a large and close-knit family and they were proud of the achievements of Morris and his siblings, though the fact that he was homosexual caused some tension at a time when views towards homosexuality were less tolerant.

Morris acted in local productions from an early age, won a scholarship to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, began his professional stage career in the 1940s and played one of the sons in the family comedy Fly Away Peter in the West End.

He made his television debut in 1948 when it was staged for the BBC. The cast were seemingly expected to do it as part of their commitment to the show, for no extra fee, but Morris managed to wring another £25 out of the producers.

In the 1950s he spent several happy years in supporting roles with the Old Vic. He went to the United States with the company and appeared on Broadway in a repertorie of Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida, Richard II and Romeo and Juliet, with John Neville and Claire Bloom in the title roles.

The company included Jeremy Brett who introduced Morris to Noel Coward as “the finest small-part player in London”. Coward noted drily that that was a rather unfortunate state for Morris to find himself in.

With his hair slicked across his head, his head tilted on one side and that little smile dancing on his lips, his probation officer Mister Deltoid suddenly turns up in McDowell’s character Alex’s flat in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian futuristic drama A Clockwork Orange.

He lets himself in with a key borrowed from Alex’s mother, sits on the bed and interviews Alex, with Alex dressed only in a pair of Y-fronts. “Sit, sit, sit,” Deltoid demands, patting the bed beside him, before tugging “Little Alex’s” hair and grabbing his testicles. It was a tour de force that had audiences squirming in their seats.

The film was one of the most controversial in a controversial decade, lauded and loathed in equal measure and eventually withdrawn by the director himself for several years, though never far from the public consciousness.

Morris was even more charming and smiley as the island gravedigger and gardener in The Wicker Man, patiently explaining to Edward Woodward’s visiting policeman that the thing dangling from the rowan tree planted on the grave of a recently-deceased girl is her umbilical cord.

“Where else would it be?” Morris asks, before chuckling and turning away when Woodward inquires about the whereabouts of the local minister. Originally released as a B-movie The Wicker Man was later lauded by critics and film scholars and acquired and a huge following on video and television.

Morris was Khrushchev in the 1979 BBC drama Suez 1956, with Michael Gough as Eden and Robert Stephens as Nasser, and and more recently in the HBO western series Deadwood. But one of his favourite roles was as Mr Zed on the 1970s children’s time-travel series Jamie.

He never married and had no children, though he regularly came back to visit family in England. At a recent bar mitzvah he got up, as unselfconscious and theatrical as ever, and sang music hall songs he had learned from his father as a boy.