Kenneth Haigh was the original ‘angry young man’. As the recalcitrant Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, he created the template for a generation of disaffected northern males railing against authority, privilege and the hidebound constraints of class.
Haigh’s own combative temperament was not far removed from Porter’s spiky abrasiveness. But it served him well later as Joe Lampton, the working-class boy made good with a chip on his shoulder, in John Braine’s TV series Man at the Top (1970-72) and the 1973 film spin-off. Both characters loomed over a career that attracted plaudits but never quite the respect it might have.
Born the son of a Scottish coal miner in Mexborough, Yorkshire, he turned to acting late, training at the Central School of Speech and Drama after national service. On graduating in 1952, he toured Ireland playing Othello with Anew McMaster’s company (where he first met Harold Pinter).
He regularly visited the country of his mother’s birth, appearing in a revival of Brian Friel’s Translations at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1996, when he was controversially accused of being “too English”.
His breakthrough had come 40 years earlier in the augural season of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court. Besides Porter, he also played Reverend Hale in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible the same year.
Having transferred with Look Back in Anger to Broadway, Haigh found himself a star in the US, a status consolidated by his appearance as Albert Camus’ Caligula on the Great White Way in 1960 (a role he reprised at the Phoenix Theatre in 1964). He also taught and directed student productions at the prestigious Yale School of Drama.
He was seen as Jerry in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story at the Arts Theatre in 1961 and in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Altona at the Saville Theatre the same year. He made his debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962 as James in Pinter’s The Collection and August Strindberg’s Playing With Fire. Later that year, he was Mark Antony to Roy Dotrice’s Julius Caesar in Stratford.
In 1964 he showed himself to be an adept singer in Lionel Bart’s Maggie May (Adelphi Theatre) and in 1965 was seen alongside Dora Bryan and Alastair Sim in George Bernard Shaw’s Too Good to Be True at the
He reunited with Osborne when he took over from Paul Scofield in The Hotel in Amsterdam at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1968. Later notable stage appearances included The Aspern Papers (Chichester Festival Theatre, 1978), Norman to Joss Ackland’s Sir in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser (Leicester Haymarket, 1987), Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday (Barbican, 1993), Gayev in a touring production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1994), and Rodgers and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right (Fortune Theatre, 1999).
On television, he was memorable as the Victorian explorer Richard Burton in The Search for the Nile (1971) while his sporadic film career included Brutus in the 1963 Hollywood epic Cleopatra, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and a caustically rancorous Napoleon imprisoned on St Helena in Eagle in a Cage (1972).
He was active on the left-wing of Equity politics and served on its council for periods from the 1970s to the late 1990s, in what The Stage latterly described as “two of the bloodiest years in Equity’s history”.
In 2003, while dining in a restaurant, he choked on a bone and suffered irreparable brain damage after being deprived of oxygen. He spent the last 15 years of his life being cared for in a nursing home.
Kenneth Haigh was born on March 25, 1931 and died on February 4, aged 86. He is survived by his former wife, the model Myrna Stephens, and their son.