Actor who played Bert Lynch in BBC police drama Z-Cars and appeared in shows ranging from Doctor Who to Nightingales
The actor James Ellis (also known as Jimmy), who has died aged 82, was the longest-serving original cast member of the hugely popular BBC television series Z-Cars. When Z-Cars began in 1962, it represented a major change in the way the police were characterised in fiction. The BBC police series Dixon of Dock Green had been running for seven years, with Jack Warner playing the understanding, avuncular police constable Dixon. Z-Cars, by contrast, had the actors Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor making cynical remarks about the death of a murdered police colleague whose funeral they were attending, and Ellis, as Constable Bert Lynch, hearing from a colleague how he beats up his wife, without doing anything about it. Z-Cars attempted to show how moral anarchy in the rundown industrial area of the fictional northern town of Newtown could infect the police as well as criminals.
Lynch's Belfast accent was for real. Ellis, whose father had been a sheet-metal worker in a Northern Ireland shipyard, had been advised at acting school to iron out his accent, but he declined to do so. It made the character of Lynch immediately distinctive.
Born in Belfast, Ellis won a city scholarship to Methodist college, and there made his first acting appearance, in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, before studying English literature and French philosophy at Queen's University Belfast. He dropped out to pursue an acting career and in 1951 won a scholarship to the Bristol Old Vic.
He established himself as an actor and director in Belfast, where, he said, "By 1960 I was running theatre companies where I gave a plasterer called Frank Carson his comedy break in pantomime." He made an early TV appearance in 1961 in a BBC production of Stewart Love's The Randy Dandy, as Dandy Jordan, a Belfast shipworker who refuses to strike, which brought him to the attention of BBC producers casting for Z-Cars.
When Ellis signed on for the series, it was intended to run for only six shows. It went on for four years before being dropped by the BBC, only to re-emerge in the spinoff shows Softly, Softly and Softly, Softly: Task Force, and then a revival of Z-Cars. During its long run, Ellis was often taken for a real policeman by people who recognised his face, while police officers who met him tended to give him advice on how his role could be made even more realistic.
After Z-Cars ended in September 1978, Ellis continued to appear on TV in a wide range of programmes. In the Play for Today Billy trilogy (1982-84) he was Norman Martin, the violent father of a Protestant working-class family, with Kenneth Branagh in an early role as his son Billy. He was Peter Warmsly in the 1989 Doctor Who story Battlefield, and had regular roles in Nightingales (1990-93), the Channel 4 sitcom about security guards also starring Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall; In Sickness and in Health (1992, with Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett); the football drama series Playing the Field (1998-2002); and the BBC Northern Ireland drama Ballykissangel (1998-99, as Uncle Minto). His films included No Surrender (1985), Priest (1994) and Resurrection Man (1998).
He also pursued an interest in writing, especially poetry. In the early 1970s, he began to translate from the French the work of poets including Pierre de Ronsard. Later, he embarked on verse of his own, some about his father, a man conscious of his lack of education who toured secondhand bookshops for volumes that might improve his own and his son's education and understanding. A book of Ellis's poems, Domestic Flight, was published in 1998; and a book of short stories, Home & Away, in 2001. He also did charity work for the Lord's Taverners, and continued to take acting work, most recently appearing on TV in 2012 as a care-home resident in ITV's Eternal Law.
Ellis is survived by his second wife, Robina, whom he met when she was working behind the cameras on Z-Cars, and married in 1976; their son, Toto; and his daughter, Amanda, from his first marriage, to Betty, which ended in divorce. Two sons of his first marriage, Hugo and Adam, predeceased him.
• James Ellis, actor and writer, born 15 March 1931; died 8 March 2014