Actor who excelled on stage and screen from his youth as a matinee idol to his role as Chief Inspector Wexford
Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00
George Baker, the actor who died on October 7 aged 80, enjoyed good looks and matinee-idol roles early in his career -- and even had a fling with Brigitte Bardot. He was best known, however, for playing the part of Inspector Wexford to great popular acclaim in late middle-age.
It was a career of enduring success on both stage and screen. After establishing a solid foundation with repertory work, Baker came to wider notice in The Dam Busters (1953). Over the following decades, his career encompassed such landmark series as The Prisoner and I, Claudius as well as several appearances in the James Bond movies.
Nor did not he confine his talents to acting, having success both as a director and as a writer, as well as managing his own theatre company.
But despite several offers, he never succumbed to the temptation of a career in Hollywood, instead choosing to see himself as "essentially a British actor, living and working in Britain".
George Baker was born on April 1, 1931 in Varna, Bulgaria. His Yorkshire-born father had been sent to Bulgaria as a diplomat during the First World War and stayed on to run an import-export business, eventually marrying an Irish nurse 28 years his junior.
When the Second World War broke out, she was forced to flee through Nazi-occupied Europe, with George and his sister and three brothers. She left her husband behind and they were never reunited -- Baker's father died in Cairo in 1942.
George attended Lancing College but hated it. His upbringing in Bulgaria marked him out from his peers and he stood 6ft 2in at the age of 12. He ran away at the age of 15, getting a job as a clerk.
A colleague, on hearing of his ambitions to perform, offered him some curt advice: "If you want to be an actor, what are you doing here?"
George added three years to his age and joined a repertory company in Deal, Kent, at a time when every town and city still had its own theatre. He quickly progressed from walk-on to leading roles and by 1947 was offered the job of assistant stage manager at Richmond Theatre.
At 19, after National Service had interrupted his theatrical career, Baker married the costume designer Julia Squire and returned to the stage. He believed that through rep he had "acted everywhere" except London. When he finally made his debut in the capital, in 1953, he was soon spotted as a potential film star.
He appeared on screen for the first time later the same year, in the Stanley Baker vehicle The Intruder, about soldiers returning to civilian life. He recalled being extremely nervous during his screen test. "No one ever looked so scared on screen. You could not only see me shaking, you could hear me."
Critics raved, however, describing him as "the new Cary Grant". Baker was promoted as "tougher than Rock Hudson and better looking than Roger Moore" and he won his share of female fans.
Among them was Brigitte Bardot, whom he met at Pinewood Studios. Baker could scarcely believe his luck: "Bardot, the world's number-one sex bomb at the time, in a clinch with me, George Baker, jobbing actor," he wrote. "I was completely dazzled."
What Baker described as a six-week ego boost was soon over, but his allure to film producers was more enduring. He was an obvious choice for The Dam Busters, in which he played Flight Lieutenant David Maltby -- "the chap," he gently reminded people, "who actually hit the dam with his bomb and burst it".
Offers of work rolled in and in 1956 Baker appeared in The Ship That Died Of Shame with the endorsement of the director Basil Dearden, who claimed that he was willing to stake his reputation on the actor's talent. Baker seemed earmarked for greatness, but suddenly, in 1957, his film career ground to a halt.
"The scene shifted," Baker recalled. "Working class lads made it and matinee idols like myself were on the shelf. I was 'pre-kitchen sink'." During the next 10 years he made only one film, the embarrassing Curse Of The Fly (1963).
Inevitably, he concentrated on theatrical roles. He appeared in the Agatha Christie whodunnit Toward Zero (1956) as an urbane husband (and suspect); in Jean Anouilh's Restless Heart (1957); and in 1959 opposite Vivien Leigh on Broadway as Phillipe de Croze in the transfer of Noel Coward's adaptation from Feydeau, Look After Lulu.
In the meantime he joined the Old Vic company, where his voice and assurance began to make the critics take notice once again. His Bolingbroke was praised in Richard II, as were his turns as Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor (both 1959) and as the Earl of Warwick (one of his favourite parts) in St Joan (1960). He toured Russia and performed in the West End and had a major success playing the Gentleman Caller In The Glass Menagerie (1965).
By 1966, Baker felt sufficiently confident to establish his own theatrical company -- Candida Plays. Based in Bury St Edmunds, the company toured Britain, performing a variety of plays.
Baker invested all his savings in the venture and at times feared that the company would collapse. But after a shaky start it received an Arts Council grant which enabled it to run successfully for more than six years.
Baker resumed his film career with the insipid musical remake of Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), but had more luck that year with a stylish adaptation of Laurence Durrell's novel, Justine.
He went on to appear in numerous minor roles, usually playing civil servants, policemen or criminals -- and featured in several James Bond films, though not in the leading role that Fleming had once intended for him. These included On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1971).
His television career was proving increasingly successful. Having appeared in The Prisoner in 1967 as Number Two, he played a flamboyant crook in Bowler (1973), a humorous series in the ducking-and-diving vein later made famous by Minder.
It was with the role of Emperor Tiberius, however, in the BBC series I, Claudius (1975) that he sealed his popular comeback. Baker portrayed the emperor from the age of 20 to his eventual death from syphilis at 80, even gluing cornflakes to his face to create the corrupt ruler's pockmarked complexion.
In the same year he also joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing opposite Ben Kingsley in a modern dress revival of Hamlet. Later he would appear as Clarence in Richard III and as the Duke in Measure for Measure.
But mostly he was in demand for television, appearing in successful series including Z Cars, Hart to Hart, Minder and Robin of Sherwood.
However, it was a role as a West Country police inspector in the 1986 Miss Marple mystery, At Bertram's Hotel, that was to transform his career.
John Davies, who would direct Inspector Wexford, happened to drop in at Ealing Studios during the editing of a scene in which Baker's character featured. Taken by Baker's character, he called the actor's agent to offer him the lead role in his new series.
Baker played Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford as an ordinary policeman, often desk-bound, occasionally wrong and usually worried about what his wife would say at the overtime he was putting in. This sense of realism even prompted one critic to describe his performance as "prosaically true to life".
But the Sunday night series proved highly successful, and not just with the viewing public. One policeman once buttonholed Baker to say how satisfying it was to him and his colleagues to see a "real" police officer on screen.
Fourteen Wexford adaptations were made in quick succession before Baker surprised his fans by announcing that he wanted to leave the series.
"I've done over 30 hours of Wexford," he said, "I don't want it to get too easy."
In fact, he returned to the part, though less frequently, until 2000, when Harm Done, the last of 23 adaptations (of which Baker co-wrote three) was broadcast.
When not filming he concentrated on other projects, notably directing and writing. In 1980 he had written the screenplay for a BBC drama about the First World War poets, The Fatal Spring.
In 1990 his first cookery book was published, A Cook For All Seasons. "I had enormous fun doing it" be recalled, "but I put on two stone testing the recipes."
His autobiography, The Way to Wexford, appeared in 2002. He was appointed an MBE in 2007.
George Baker was thrice married. After his first marriage was dissolved he married the actress Sally Home. After she died, in 1992, he married the actress Louie Ramsay who, before her own death earlier this year, played his on-screen wife, Dora, in Inspector Wexford. He had five daughters.