Although a highly respected Shakespearean actor, Jerome Willis will be chiefly remembered as the deputy governor of the fictional Stone Park prison in Within These Walls (1974-78), a London Weekend Television drama about life in a women’s prison.
With Googie Withers playing his refined boss, the series was unlike another women’s prison series, Prisoner – Cell Block H, in that the plots were wound around the staff rather than the inmates.
Willis spent his national service with the Royal Air Force in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Posted to the station Radio SEAC, he served as a newsreader, DJ and actor.
Back in London in 1948, he was accepted as a student at the Old Vic school. Alongside Joan Plowright and Prunella Scales, he appeared in student productions of The Comedy of Errors and Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.
Willis was seen by Anthony Quayle, who was then running the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, and was offered a place in his new company. In 1960, he played a wide range of noblemen in an adventurous television project entitled An Age of Kings, in which eight plays by Shakespeare were transmitted live.
He adopted a rather different television role, that of a manic criminal mastermind, Professor Nero, in the cult children’s series Freewheelers (1968-73).
In 1975, he played the principled General Lord Fairfax in the feature film Winstanley, about the 17th-century social reformer Gerrard Winstanley and his followers, the Diggers, who tried to establish a self-sufficient farming community. Willis, who described the film as “a labour of love”, was the only professional actor in the cast. All the rest were amateurs.
Another fulfilling television role came with The Sandbaggers (1978-80), a Yorkshire Television drama series in which he played the deputy head of an elite group of British intelligence officers during the Cold War.
Jerome Willis was born on October 23, 1928. He died on January 11 at the age of 85.