Obituary: Richard Bradford, American television and film actor

Born: 10 November, 1934, in Tyler, Texas. Died: 22 March 2016, in Los Angeles, aged 81.

Richard Bradford, actor was best known for his role as McGill in Man in a Suitcase. Picture: Getty Images
Richard Bradford, actor was best known for his role as McGill in Man in a Suitcase. Picture: Getty Images

Rugged and grey-haired, with a cigarette stuck firmly in the corner of his mouth, American actor Richard Bradford was strangely enigmatic as the moody, intense CIA agent-turned-private investigator McGill in Man in a Suitcase.

The 1960s adventure series from ITV boss Lew Grade’s stable of dramas with appeal to viewers on both sides of the Atlantic portrayed McGill as a modern-day bounty hunter. Kicked out of the US intelligence agency after being wrongly accused of a treasonable offence – failing to stop an eminent scientist defecting to Russia – the laconic loner moves to London and travels across Europe searching for clues to clear his name and taking on any job that will pay $500 (£ 351 ) a day plus expenses. His travelling companion is a battered leather suitcase packed with a change of clothes and a gun.

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“I just wanted to do the most real, honest portrayal of a guy and to do things that hadn’t been seen before on television,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I really wanted to do that with all my heart and soul.”

Despite attracting audiences of up to 15 million in Britain, the 1967-8 series was less successful in the United States, so it was cancelled after just one run of 30 episodes – and gun-for-hire McGill remained Bradford’s only starring role on screen.

Nevertheless, it gave him cult status that led to his image being used on the sleeve of The Smiths’ 1986 single Panic. He only bemoaned that the band forgot to include the vinyl in the copy they sent him. There was also reference to Bradford and the programme in a 2007 episode of the BBC time-travel police procedural drama Life on Mars and Ron Grainer’s driving theme tune was revived by Chris Evans for his TFI Friday chat-show.

Richard Bradford was born in Tyler, Texas, the son of Richard and Rose (née Flaxman), during the Great Depression. By the time he was five, his parents had divorced and he and his mother were living in Conroe with her Russian-born parents, Will and Sarah, who ran a grocery store.

Bradford’s hair started going grey when he was 16 and, after being educated at a San Antonio high school, he attended the city’s Peacock Military Academy. He then won a football scholarship to Texas A&M University but, when an injury ended his career, switched to baseball and Texas University, only to find that he did not have enough semester hours to make him eligible for the baseball team.

An admirer of method actors Marlon Brando and James Dean, Bradford decided on acting as a career and headed for New York in 1957. After training at the Herbert Berghof Studio, he understudied Rod Steiger in a 1961 touring production of a Short Happy Life, AE Hotchner’s play drawn from the writings of his friend Ernest Hemingway.

To fund his lessons at drama school and earn money between jobs, Bradford worked as a waiter in restaurants and displayed his performance skills as maître d’ 41 storeys up at the legendary Top of the Six’s Restaurant.

Then, Bradford joined the Actors Studio (1962-4), where he was taught by Lee Strasberg, the godfather of method acting. He made his Broadway début in the drama school’s production of June Havoc’s Depression-era play Marathon ’33 (ANTA Playhouse, 1963-4) as both Beefy Bancroft, a vaudeville acrobat, and Joe, a racketeer’s henchman. He followed it by acting the state prosecutor in the Actors Studio’s staging of James Baldwin’s Southern racial drama Blues for Mister Charlie (ANTA Playhouse, 1964).

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Director Arthur Penn cast Bradford in his first screen role, in the film The Chase (1966), as a ruthless young banker who gives Marlon Brando’s sheriff a brutal beating. This brought the actor to the attention of Lew Grade and Man in a Suitcase followed, with Bradford taking many beatings himself, but he was then consigned to guest roles in American television series such as The Waltons (1973), Kojak (1975) and Hart to Hart (1985).

However, Bradford was reunited with Penn and Brando in the film Western The Missouri Breaks (1976), in which he acted the foreman paying the price for his landowner boss’s hanging of a horse rustler.

Later, there was kudos in appearing as a naval officer in Missing (1982), director Costa-Gavras’s searing indictment of American involvement in the 1973 military coup in Chile, and Bradford was memorable as an Irish police chief arguing in an alley with Sean Connery in the 1987 big-screen remake of the hit TV series The Untouchables. Ten years later, he had a good role as a corrupt police captain in Hoodlum.

He was back on television in Cagney & Lacey, intermittently playing Martin Zzbiske (1986-8), the estranged father tracking down his daughter, Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly), years after abandoning his family when she was a child. He reprised the role for a 1995 TV movie, Cagney & Lacey: The View Through the Glass Ceiling.

Bradford’s 1965 marriage to ballet dancer Eileen Elliott ended in divorce. He is survived by their son, Richard, and Bradford’s long-time partner, actress Millie Perkins.