Obituary: Tom Adams, actor

Tom Adams: Television actor who gained fame for his role in war film The Great Escape. Picture: PA
Tom Adams: Television actor who gained fame for his role in war film The Great Escape. Picture: PA
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Born: 9 March, 1938 in London. Died: 11 December, 2014 in Windsor, aged 76

While he was well known for numerous television appearances in dramas and soap operas Tom Adams became internationally known when he played Flight Lieutenant Dai Nimmo in the classic World War Two movie The Great Escape.

Adams played an invented character who was in charge of the cunning diversionary tactics that were used while the tunnels – Tom, Dick and Harry – were being dug. This was particularly vital when the prison choir had to enthusiastically cover the noise when digging Tom.

In fact Nimmo’s character was based on various prisoners who organised football matches, boxing bouts and culture evenings to distract the German guards at Stalag Luft 111. Of the 53 who did escape only three got away: Adams’ character did escape but was later recaptured.

The film has become a classic – not only for the famous Steve McQueen motor bike ride. At the end the simple line, “This film is dedicated to the Fifty” captured both the courage and the heroics of those individuals.

Adams gave a subtle and carefully delivered performance amongst the many stars (McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Cockburn, Charles Bronson, Gordon Jackson and James Garner) and thus began a successful career that seldom saw him out of work.

He had a calm elegance as an actor – his swarthy good looks allied to a voice that was described as “rich and chocolatey” made him in demand both on the screen and for voice-overs. He was, for example, the long-running voice of the digital channel E4 and was often heard on advertisements.

Tom Adams was brought up in south London and trained as a teacher. He then taught English and drama at the Cardinal Griffin Secondary Modern School, Poplar in London but also did occasional television work. He was seen in early episodes of the soap Emergency Ward 10 and ITV’s The Avengers.

He was ideal casting as either the upper class officer type or a crooked, well-connected, toff. Adams appeared in the west end before he was cast – somewhat out of the blue – as Dai Nimmo in The Great Escape. It was a huge opportunity for a young actor.

The three-month shoot took place near Munich, starting in June 1962. The budget was about $4 million, and Adams’ fee, compared to what he had been paid, was astronomic and allowed him to buy his first car and eat in the best restaurants in Munich.

Years later he recalled: “It was a lovely summer. I had a hell of a time. Steve McQueen was as mad as a hatter. He wrote off six or seven cars out there.” Despite the many egos on the set Adams much admired McQueen. “I couldn’t put my finger on it. But on nights out in Munich, if he walked into the bar, the women would be around him. What did he have?”

In 1965 Adams returned to more mundane movies and played the lead in Licensed to Kill playing a secret agent – an imitation of James Bond. Other movies followed and the all-action TV series The Persuaders (with Roger Moore and Tony Curis) and Dixon of Dock Green.

In 1975 Adams landed the role of Dr Guy Wallman in ITV’s daytime medical soap, General Hospital. The soap proved popular and was moved to an evening slot. He left General Hospital in 1978 and took over the role of Sir Daniel Fogarty in BBCTV’s hit drama The Onedin Line. Adams was an influential MP who prevented the family shipping line being sold to a consortium.

It was a role he much enjoyed. “I owe a lot to the Onedin Line” he once said. “It helped me tremendously.”

In 1980 he was cast as Chief Inspector Nick Lewis in the eleven-episode series The Enigma Series. The inspector had been reluctantly transferred from The Met to the new Prisoners’ Property Office and had to investigate unsolved crimes. It was a hard-edged police drama and Adams showed his versatility as an artist in capturing the harsh side of the character.

Thereafter Adams was seen in Dr Who and Strike it Rich! a BBC drama about a family inheriting a windfall. For two years (1987/88) he was Malcolm Bates in Emmerdale.

Adams often attended Great Escape reunions and proved a fund of knowledge about the filming and the stars. At one meeting at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 Adams remembered with a rueful smile. “There were more real veterans than there were surviving actors from the film. And the veterans were all real live wires!”