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January 16, 2009

Writer John Mortimer Dies

Rumpole Creator was 85

John Mortimer, the British lawyer and writer who created the curmudgeonly criminal attorney Horace Rumpole, died January 16 at his home northwest of London. He was 85.

Mortimer, who balanced careers as a lawyer, novelist and writer of numerous film, television and radio dramas, is best remembered for the character of Rumpole, a cigar-puffing, oenophile barrister who appeared in a popular series of novels and a long-running television series.

Born April 21, 1923, in Hampstead, England, Mortimer, graduated from Oxford University. He became a lawyer in the 1940s and worked as a barrister in the British courts for decades.

In pursuing the law, Mortimer followed in the footsteps of his father. As Mortimer once quipped, “As the son of a divorce barrister, I was fed, raised, educated and clothed entirely on the proceeds of adultery. If people had remained faithful, I would never have been sent to Harrow.”

In addition to his literary and legal work, Mortimer, who referred to himself as a “champagne socialist,” was a stolid supporter of liberal causes and Britain’s Labour Party. As a free speech advocate, he defended Penguin, the publisher of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, against obscenity charges in the 1960s, and later represented the radical magazine Oz at an obscenity trial and helped Gay News magazine fight a blasphemy charge.

Mortimer published his first novel in 1947 and produced books, plays, radio dramas, teleplays and screenplays from the on, all the while continuing to work as a lawyer.

His novels included the Titmuss trilogy about the rise of an ambitious Thatcherite politician named Leslie Titmuss.

His most enduring character, Rumpole, was a barrister and bon vivant who would take on any case, and usually triumphed. Played on television by Leo McKern, Rumpole had a passion for the underdog, a love of poetry and a wife he referred to as “she who must be obeyed.”

Mortimer wrote dozens of episodes of the BBC’s Rumpole of the Bailey, as well as numerous other series. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for writing the 1981 television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

His feature film scripts included John and Mary and Tea with Mussolini.

Mortimer, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998, had a son and a daughter from his first marriage to writer Penelope Mortimer, which ended in divorce in 1972. She died in 1999.

He later married Penelope Gollop, with whom he had two daughters, including actress Emily Mortimer.

In 2004 Mortimer disclosed he had recently learned he had a fifth child — a son, Ross, from a 1960s affair with actress Wendy Craig. Craig and her husband raised the boy and did not tell Mortimer he was the father for more than 40 years.

Mortimer is survived by his wife and children.

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