Actor best known for Lovejoy

Born: April 6, 1933;

Died: September 15, 2018

DUDLEY Sutton, who has died aged 85, was among the most distinctive of the rebellious generation of British actors of the 1950s and 60s that challenged polite theatrical conventions. Tall and wide-shouldered, Sutton cared nothing for stardom or its trappings, and combined concern for the underdog with genuine eccentricity, a Rabelaisian sense of humour, and a determination to grow old disgracefully.

His was a striking face, with squashed nose, on which the enormous eyes (and small eyeballs) could just as easily glare intimidatingly or look soulfully, complimented by a mouth that alternated from a tight, small movement of menace to a wide, guileless smile. A product of Joan Littlewood’s revolutionary Theatre Workshop, and the original Mr Sloane for Joe Orton, his frequent casting as threatening, and sometimes sexually ambiguous, characters was eventually replaced by his regular role on the Sunday evening fixture Lovejoy, which ran on the BBC in the 1980s and 90s.

Sutton was born in East Molesey in Surrey. His father was a slot machine manufacturer turned second hand car salesman. During three subsequent years in the RAF, he greatly appreciated mixing with people from all classes.

He maintained that six weeks after being “thrown out” of RADA, in 1957, he was in Moscow, in Joan Littlewood’s production of Macbeth. He shared a dressing room with Richard Harris, whom he admitted to being overawed by. 1958 saw his West End debut in One More River, with Michael Caine; Sutton claimed he always knew Caine would make it, as he was “a businessman actor”, and didn’t drink much.

Again for Littlewood, he had multiple roles in Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be in 1959; later, he would help Bart overcome alcoholism. During the Broadway run of Littlewood’s production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (1960), Sutton met his mother, who had remarried, for the first time in 13 years. His own first marriage, attracting headlines at the time, was to Marjorie Steele, formerly the wife of American millionaire Huntington Hartford.

He was sullen in sideburns as one of The Boys (1962), four “hooligans” on trial. Its director Sidney J. Furie, who said of Sutton “he was a ticking time bomb, and I mean that as a compliment”, then cast him in The Leather Boys (1963), as a gay motorbike rider, sporting leathers and dyed-blond hair. Anxious to avoid playing a campy stereotype, he maintained that most of the part was written by himself. He told film historian Stephen Bourne that he had seen too many gay men victimised, “and I hate fear … I played Pete as a lover with emotions, feeling and depth.”

Sutton played another sympathetic gay character in a 1963 episode of Z Cars. After playing Sloane in Entertaining Mr Sloane at Wyndhams in 1964, he transferred with it to Broadway for its brief run the following year, where he had the unfortunate duty of reading Orton the prissy, bewildered reviews. Arguably, Sutton was even better casting as the wheedling Dadda Kemp, in a Radio 3 version in 2007.

Still leather-clad and on a motorbike, he genuinely unsettled Roger Moore in The Saint (1964), as a menacing “skid-kid”. He was a prisoner in Dixon Of Dock Green (1966); ten years later, his similar role in a Porridge Christmas special, as an apparently docile inmate who makes a gun and takes hostages, was one of his best remembered performances. As the official face of the Church, he gave a controlled performance, despite the surroundings, in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).

From 1978 into the 1980s, he regularly wrote scripts and lyrics for the annual pantomime at Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, often also appearing. After the audience’s reception to his villainous role in Robin Hood (1983), his line was “I do like to get hissed at Christmas.”

As Lovejoy’s sidekick Tinker, he wore his own clothes. He had contrasting roles in two films dealing with abuse within the Catholic Church: Lamb (1985), as “a Daily Mail-reading fascist” and molester; and Song For A Raggy Boy (2003), as one of the Christian Brothers.

He was well cast in Hangover Square (Lyric Hammersmith, 1990) by Patrick Hamilton, as a dissolute murderer tempted by Celia Imrie, and as W.H. Auden, the crevices on his face by now almost approaching the poet’s, in Strictly Entre Nous (BAC, 1995). There were stints on EastEnders (2004), as an ultimately fraudulent suitor for the homely Nana Moon; Emmerdale (1997 and 2014); and Holby City (2014), exchanging the motorbike for a motorised scooter.

Two months ago, he filmed a moving message from his hospice bed, stating his lifelong support for the NHS.

Married four times, his three children, whom he described as the greatest things in his life, survive him.