An old friend, Jimmy Ellis, best known for his roles in Z-Cars and alongside a young Kenneth Branagh in BBC Northern Ireland’s series of “Billy” plays, has died.Jimmy died from a stroke in Lincoln Hospital early today. He was 82.
He began his acting career in 1952 at Belfast’s Group Theatre before moving to England in the early 1960s.
His first big break came when he was cast as Bert Lynch in police drama Z-Cars, which ran from 1962 to 1978.
His son, Toto, said it was extraordinarily hard to watch him die.
“It was sad to watch him slip away. The last words he heard were that he was a hero, a legend and we all loved him,” he said.
Speaking about the funeral arrangements, he said: “We are taking him home to Belfast – Belfast meant the world to him.
“He blazed a trail for Northern Ireland actors, in that he was the first character not to change his accent. Dad was so proud of his roots and his beliefs.”
Paying tribute to him, Sir Kenneth Branagh said Ellis had been “a great inspiration” to him and many other actors from Northern Ireland.
“I was blessed to begin my career working with him, and I will never forget his generosity to me. He was a highly intelligent, funny, and kind man, and a tremendous actor,” he said.
Actor Adrian Dunbar, who is also from Northern Ireland, said he had known Jimmy Ellis as a friend and a companion for many years.
“It is a big loss. He was a wonderful actor and a warm and generous man. He blazed a trail for many actors in Northern Ireland.”
Actor Maggie Cronin said: “A good actor treats everybody with great respect. He was fun. He played complex characters and made them look very easy.”
Peter Johnston, director of BBC Northern Ireland, said: “We are saddened to hear about the death of Jimmy Ellis. He was a major talent from Northern Ireland, famous for his roles in Z-Cars and the Billy plays.
“He will be deeply missed by all his colleagues on screen and on stage.”
In a statement, Queen’s University offers its deepest sympathies to his family circle.
The statement said Jimmy Ellis was “one of the most gifted actors of his generation”. He received an honorary doctorate from Queen’s in July 2008 for services to the performing arts.
James Ellis was born in Belfast on 15 March 1931.
He studied at the city’s Methodist College and Queen’s University, and then the Bristol Old Vic.
He soon graduated to leading man after joining the Group Theatre.
After starring in such plays as The Playboy of the Western World, he was appointed director of productions at the theatre in 1959.
However, he resigned in 1960 to direct and stage Sam Thompson’s play Over The Bridge, which the Group Theatre’s board had deemed too controversial.
Northern Ireland playwright Martin Lynch paid tribute to Mr Ellis, and said his support for Over The Bridge, which dealt with issues of sectarianism, was a courageous move.
He said: “He broke the back of conservatism in the establishment at that time and very, very courageously stuck to his guns. Him and Sam Thompson were a great team together to create and produce Over The Bridge when the establishment didn’t want it to happen.”
Aside from Z-Cars, a police drama set on Merseyside, he starred in some of the UK’s best-known and much-loved programmes, including Doctor Who, In Sickness And In Health, Ballykissangel and Only Fools And Horses.
He returned home in 1982 to star as the bullying father Norman Martin in Too Late To Talk To Billy, the first of a trio of Graham Reid plays that exposed a national audience to the authentic voice of working-class Ulster Protestants for the first time.
Sir Kenneth Branagh, who was just out of drama school, played his son Billy, and the pair later reprised their partnership in A Matter Of Choice For Billy and A Coming To Terms For Billy.
He suffered personal tragedy in 1988 when his son Adam, then aged 28, was murdered in west London.
In a March 2012 interview with the Express, the actor recalled: “I went berserk. I wasn’t in possession of my senses. I kicked open the doors of every pub in the street shouting ‘Who knows who murdered my son?”‘
Jimmy was awarded an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University in 2008 for services to the performing arts.
Away from the acting profession, he was also a writer of poems and prose.
Although he had lived in England for decades, his family has said that, in line with his wishes, he will be buried in his home city.