Actor known for Tales of the City

Born: December 26, 1930;

Died: December 20, 2018

DONALD Moffat, who has died aged 87, was an actor who came to represent America. Effortlessly exuding an aura of seniority and reliability, he was one of the backbones of the on- and off-Broadway stages, and became President on screen, as Lyndon B Johnson in The Right Stuff (1983) and as an untrustworthy fictional example in Clear and Present Danger (1994).

At times, he seemed to have stepped out of a Grant Wood painting. Describing himself as “being long and lean”, combining a high forehead, thin mouth, finely plucked eyebrows, a thatch of brown hair and a soft, deliberate speech pattern, his spare frame was evidence to his having once been a marathon runner. In reality, he was the son of a Scottish father and hailed from a very different kind of West, namely Devon.

Moffat was born in Plymouth and raised in Totnes, where his mother ran a guest house. He said he was painfully shy at school but that there were two things which won him peer acceptance: running and, appropriately for one born on Boxing Day, playing Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol. He maintained that he ran alongside Chris Brasher and Christopher Chataway while doing his national service from 1949 to 1951.

Upon graduating from RADA in 1954, he joined the Old Vic. Their staging of Macbeth, presented at that year’s Edinburgh Festival, had a contrasting pair of murderers in Moffat and diminutive, mischievous Aubrey Morris. In November 1956, he decided to follow his first wife to her home of Oregon, and from there went to New York.

His earliest Broadway plays reflected his homeland: Under Milk Wood (1957): Much Ado About Nothing (1959), directed by and starring John Gielgud; and both in 1960, The Tumbler directed by Laurence Olivier, and Duel of Angels, starring Vivien Leigh. Determined to avoid becoming a “professional Brit”, Moffat became involved with APA (Association of Producing Artists), a brave enterprise by actor-director Ellis Rabb dedicated to new plays and classic revivals, in repertory on Broadway.

For his performances as Hjalmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck and in Pirandello’s rarely staged Right You Are If You Think You Are, in APA-Phoenix Repertory Company’s 1966/67 season, Moffat was nominated for a Tony award as Best Actor. He would be again for Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 1985), with Jason Robards. Moffat was, in David Hare’s words, “the finest Larry Slade you could ever hope to see”, and he performed the part again at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, in 1992.

Six years later, at the same venue and by the same playwright, he was well cast as James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He also made a quick return to Britain in Painting Churches (Watermill Theatre, Newbury, 1988), a play he had done on PBS television two years earlier.

Moffat recalled “Once upon a time I sounded like a real Devonshire lad” – that was how he sounded in his film debut, Michael Powell’s The Battle Of The River Plate (1956), as a lookout. His other films included John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). For Scottish director Alastair Reid, and with Channel 4’s involvement, he played ailing advertising magnate Edgar Halcyon in Tales Of The City (1993). Armistead Maupin has said, “The kindness and gentle strength he projected in that role was very close to the demeanour of the man himself.”

His first marriage having ended in divorce, he is survived by his second wife Gwen and their two daughters, and a son and daughter from his first marriage.