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Russell Hunter obituary

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Russell Hunter, actor, was born on February 18, 1925. He died on February 26, 2004, aged 79.

Stalwart of the Edinburgh Festival who played many different roles and had a whiff of success in Callan.

AFTER a long apprenticeship as an actor with little recognition, Russell Hunter finally came to national prominence in 1967 when he donned a cloth cap and dirty raincoat to play the frightened, snivelling petty thief who provides tip-offs and sometimes firearms for Edward Woodward's intelligence agent in the television spy series, Callan.

But the main thing about Lonely was that he smelled. Woodward's Callan would never let him forget it and nor would the public, who sent him soap, deodorant and aftershave in large quantities and would greet him years later by holding their noses and asking him if he had had a bath lately. Hunter endured it with wry equanimity, accepting it as a penalty of the fame that had been so long coming.

With its opening sequence of a naked light bulb swinging from the ceiling, Callan ran for five years and more than 50 episodes, was made into a feature film and was revived in the early Eighties for a 90-minute special, by which time Lonely had, somewhat implausibly, become a respectable plumber. He insisted that he smelled no longer. No one believed him.

Such was the impact of Lonely that for the rest of his life Hunter was mainly associated with this one part. Nothing he subsequently did could supersede it, yet he was an excellent character actor who took Shakespeare, pantomime and the Edinburgh fringe equally in his stride and enjoyed a full and varied career on television and in the theatre.

Although Lonely sounded more like a Cockney, Hunter was a Scot, born Russell Ellis in the tough Gorbals district of Glasgow in 1925. Boys of his background were encouraged to learn a trade and after leaving school at 16 he started work as an apprentice at John Brown's shipyard on the Clyde. He completed his five years, ending up as a loftsman scriever (a cross between a carpenter and a draughtsman) while studying to be a naval architect at evening classes. He also became involved in amateur dramatics, and decided that his future lay not in helping to design ships but in the theatre.

He was cast in a play, The Gorbals Story, which went to the West End of London (and was later filmed), and gave up his job in the shipyard to concentrate on acting. He made his professional debut with Glasgow Unity Theatre, and in 1947 took part in the first Edinburgh Festival. He was a frequent performer at the festival thereafter, often presenting one-man shows, and in 2003, when he was in a Fringe revival of Twelve Angry Men, he was the only participant who had also taken part in the original festival.

He spent five years with Perth repertory company, and also had a spell as a stand-up comic in music halls in Glasgow, where having to fill 18 slots a week with new material was a challenge he relished. During the early 1960s he acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company and played Lord Alanbrooke in Soldiers, Rolf Hochhuth's controversial play about Winston Churchill.

In 1965 he helped to launch the first repertory company at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, with Una McLean (later his third wife) and Brian Cox. But it was while playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park that he was spotted by the casting director for Callan. Lonely and Bottom could not have been more dissimilar, but he got the part.

His television work after Callan included a 1975 BBC production of The School for Scandal with Pauline Collins, Ed-ward Fox and Arthur Lowe, and the ITV sitcom Rule Britannia, about four former navy friends, an Englishman, Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman (Hunter) who meet again after 25 years. In another, and more durable sitcom, The Gaffer (ITV, 1981-83), he played a militant shop steward in an engineering company run by Bill Maynard.

In 1988 he had one of his rare leading roles, as an 88-year-old former communist activist who leads a hunger strike in an old people's home in The Dunroaming Uprising. But much of his television work consisted of guest spots, often brief but sometimes memorable, in popular, long-running series such as The Sweeney, Dr Who, Minder, Casualty, Lovejoy, A Touch of Frost (a particularly effective cameo as David Jason's melancholy sidekick) and The Bill.

He continued to be busy in the theatre, mostly in Scotland. His one-man shows Cocky and Jock played at the Edinburgh Festival and in many other places on tour, and he made regular appearances on Glasgow's Christmas pantomimes, where favourite roles included the Ugly Sister in Cinderella and the Nurse in Babes in the Wood.

In 1985 he portrayed Andrew Carnegie in a play written for the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish-born steel magnate and philanthropist.

Although he first appeared in the cinema in the early 1950s, his film appearances were intermittent. One of his last, a low-budget crime comedy called American Cousins, set in a Scots-Italian chip shop in Glasgow, was voted the third-best Scottish film after Trainspotting and Gregory's Girl in a magazine poll.

Hunter's later years were dogged by ill-health. He suffered a heart attack in 1988, followed by a crippling spinal injury, underwent triple bypass surgery in 1993 and had been suffering from cancer for more than a year before his death. But he continued to work, and later this year was due to appear with his wife in The Kerry Matchmaker at the Perth Theatre and the Glasgow Citizens'.

His three wives were all actresses. His first marriage, to Marjorie Thomson, lasted 20 years and produced two daughters. By Caroline Blakiston he had a son and a daughter. After his second marriage broke up in 1976 he admitted that he was difficult to live with and insisted he was happier living alone. But in 1991 he married Una McClean, who be-came a regular partner on stage and who survives him, as do his children.

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