Actor who played Rachel's father in Friends

Born: October 11, 1937;

Died: December 6, 2019

RON Leibman, who has died aged 82, had never heard of Friends when he was approached to play the father of Jennifer Aniston’s character. “It sounded stupid to me, so I turned it down,” he said. It was his stepdaughter who persuaded him to do it, because she was such a big fan of the show.

“When I first came on, I didn’t know who was who, because I’d never seen the show. So I started talking to Lisa Kudrow, thinking she was Jennifer Aniston.”

It was meant to be a one-off appearance, but he actually made four appearances as the abrasive Dr Leonard Green between 1996 and 2004, repeatedly clashing with daughter Rachel’s mild-mannered sometime partner Ross (David Schwimmer). And although Leibman had won glowing reviews and a Tony award for his work on the Broadway stage, it was his role in Friends that brought him the most recognition.

Ronald Leibman was born into a Jewish family in New York in 1937. His father worked in the garments business. Leibman had several serious illnesses as a child. He discovered his love of the theatre when he went to university in Ohio and he worked with the Compass Players, an improvisational troupe in Chicago and St Louis.

Back in New York he joined the Actors Studio, where many great American actors polished their skills, supporting himself by working as a shoe salesman and taxi driver.

By the mid-1960s he was getting work both on Broadway dramas and in television. He made his film debut in the black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970), with George Segal, and Leibman and Segal were both part of Robert Redford’s gang in The Hot Rock (1972), released in the UK under the title How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons.

He won an Emmy for playing the title role in the short-lived crime drama series Kaz (1978-79). He created the character of a man who studies law in prison and becomes a defence lawyer on his release. He also worked as a writer on the series. It was cancelled after only one season, with Leibman blaming CBS’s failure to find a regular slot for it.

He was a trade union organiser in Norma Rae (1979) and Zorro’s antagonist in Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981), but it was in the theatre that he probably attracted most praise. He won a Tony award for his performance as Roy Cohn in Angels in America (1993-94). Cohn was an unscrupulous right-wing lawyer who worked with the notorious Senator McCarthy; he was a closet homosexual and died of AIDS.

The New York Times called his performance “an alternately hilarious and terrifying mixture of chutzpah and megalomania”. Leibman said he played the role without moral judgment. The following year he played Shylock in the Merchant of Venice and elicited comparison between the two characters.

And then came his big break with Friends. “They’re still on, those things. It’s quite amazing. It’s like there I am again,’” he said in an interview in 2011. “It’s amazing, the power of the tube. I’ve done all this body of work, and they say, ‘Oh yes, Rachel’s father.’ I go, ‘Give me a break.’”

He is survived by his second wife, the actress Jessica Walter, and a stepdaughter. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.