Adrian Schiller obituary

<span>Adrian Schiller as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London, in 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Adrian Schiller as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, London, in 2022.Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Towards the end of his life, the actor Adrian Schiller, who has died unexpectedly aged 60, found success and sudden fame in two blockbuster TV shows: The Last Kingdom (2018-22), on Netflix, in which he played the richest man in medieval Wessex, Aethelhelm; and ITV’s drama Victoria (2016-19), as Cornelius Penge, a footman in the royal household.

In both, a fleeting glance would suggest that here was a naturally authoritative actor, blessed with gravitas and style. This camouflaged the demonic comic spirit within, which had informed so many of his memorable stage performances since he first appeared in the German Expressionist Carl Sternheim’s 1911 play The Knickers at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1991. In a delicious comic performance, he played a weak-chested Wagner-loving barber thunderstruck by a flash of discarded lingerie as the Kaiser drove by, suggesting, said the Times critic, “a tousle-headed combination of Charlie Chaplin, Egon Schiele and Gollum, whose idea of romance is reading extracts from the Flying Dutchman”.

Schiller proceeded to leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1990s – his Porter in a disappointing 1996 Macbeth was the funniest I had ever seen, while his entertaining Touchstone in an awful 2000 designer knitwear production of As You Like It rescued another dud evening.

He was less prominent in some strange productions at the National – Peter Handke’s wordless The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other in 2008, as one of 27 actors playing 450 characters in a town square, coming and going with no interaction, and as a revolutionary tailor in a poor 2013 retread of Carl Zuckmayer’s 1931 Captain of Kopenick, in which Antony Sher did not eclipse memories of Paul Scofield in the NT’s 1971 production.

On the other hand, he was outstanding in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, superbly directed, and modernised, by Benedict Andrews at the Young Vic in 2012, playing Kulygin, a leather-jacketed schoolteacher tragically infatuated with his own disloyal wife; and he was a compelling, original, quietly spoken and sympathetic Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Wanamaker, the candle-lit indoor venue at Shakespeare’s Globe, in 2022. The Merchant rekindled the current noise around the play – is it antisemitic or about antisemitism?

In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Schiller tilted towards the second view. He averred that he was “a Jew, but not Jewish”.

Schiller was born in Oxford, the second of four children of Judith (nee Bennett), a teacher, and Klaus Schiller, a gastroenterologist whose family had emigrated from Austria to Britain in 1938. When Klaus was appointed a consultant at St Peter’s hospital, Chertsey, the Schillers moved to Surrey.

Adrian was educated at Kingston grammar school and Charterhouse, in Godalming, Surrey, where he pursued a busy life in stage productions. Instead of drama school, he took a good degree in philosophy (after switching from architecture) at University College London, although he always self-deprecatingly said that he majored in “plays and partying”.

His early television career encompassed series such as Prime Suspect, A Touch of Frost, Judge John Deed and much else, through to the first series of Endeavour in 2013. He also popped up in the Channel 4 series The Devil’s Whore (2008) set in the English civil war, and the Doctor Who story strand The Doctor’s Wife in 2011.

One of his most effective cameos on screen was as the barman in a striking government-sponsored advert in the anti-drink-driving campaign in 2007. He leaned deep into the camera with a series of non-equivocal questions to a bemused, unimpressed young glass-holding customer who may or may not have grasped the seriousness of the interrogation.

But he always returned to the theatre, seeking out the most demanding roles with companies who would accommodate him. He gave an almost ideal Cassius, wirily intellectual while bubbling passionately underneath, said Michael Billington, for David Farr’s 2005 RSC touring version of Julius Caesar. In the title role of Tartuffe at the Watermill, Newbury, in 2006, he was cool and venomous, as well as understated, and clearly the star of the show.

And for Stephen Unwin’s English Touring Theatre in 2007, he rebooted the remorseless villain, De Flores, in Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean shocker, The Changeling. He was more than notable, too, opposite Sher’s Sigmund Freud, as a vividly hilarious Salvador Dalí, in their great encounter scene in Terry Johnson’s Hysteria at the Hampstead theatre, revived there in 2013, 20 years after its Royal Court premiere.

His feature film credits were not extensive, but in 2014 he was well cast as the sardonic high priest Caiaphas in Son of God, Christopher Spencer’s biblical epic. In Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette (2015), scripted by Abi Morgan, he was an imposing Lloyd George, coming round to the persuasion of the militant vote-seeking women led by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and Carey Mulligan as a fictional worker fuelled by the excitement of change and protest.

His last movie, yet to be released, is Red Sonja, in which he plays the king of Turan in a remake of the 1985 sword-and-sorcery Marvel Comics fantasy.

Back on stage in 2023, he returned to questions of Jewish identity and survival in three short new plays at the Soho theatre and a more substantial Holocaust drama, The White Factory by Dmitry Glukhovsky, at the sparky new Marylebone theatre (formerly the Steiner Hall), in which he was a powerful, wise presence in the story of a survivor of the Łódź ghetto in Poland, played by Mark Quartley, adapting to American life in the Brooklyn of the 60s.

At the time of his death, Schiller – who was also a skilled sculptor and guitarist – had just returned from Sydney and the triumphant international tour of The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Sam Mendes, and had been looking forward to the next leg of the tour in San Francisco.

He is survived by his partner, Milena Wlodkowska, a laboratory support technician, and their son, Gabriel, and by his sister, Ginny, and brothers, Nick and Ben.

• Adrian Townsend Schiller, actor, born 21 February 1964; died 3 April 2024