Pat Laffan obituary: prolific actor who worked on stage, TV and film
Key artist in renaissance of Irish drama was also theatre director and mentor to actors
Pat Laffan: actor was perhaps best-known for roles in Stephen Frears’s The Snapper and Channel 4’s Father Ted.
Patrick (Pat) Laffan
Born: 8th June, 1939
Died: 14th March, 2019
Pat Laffan, who has died aged 79, was a prolific and distinguished Irish actor and director with a career spanning stage, television and film.
From 1961 until he went freelance in 1979, with a three-year break from 1970-1973, when he was based in London, he was a member of the Abbey Theatre’s company, which had made him well-known to Irish theatre-goers.
However, arguably, it wasn’t until he played the ne’er-do-well George Burgess in Stephen Frears’s film version of Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper in 1992 that he became in a real sense, a household name to the general public.
This screen notoriety was reprised in his TV role as Pat Mustard, the sleazy milkman and would-be seducer of Pauline McLynn’s Mrs Doyle in Channel 4’s Father Ted in the late 1990s, the role which very probably brought his talent to a truly global audience.
This screen success tends to conceal, however, his arguably more important role as one of the central figures in the renaissance of Irish dramatic art in its widest sense from the early 1960s onwards, particularly in two important positions, as director of the Peacock Theatre, the Abbey Theatre’s studio space from 1976-1979, and his role as a board member of, and the first hired teacher at, the Gaiety School of Acting, founded by Joe Dowling in 1986. There, he was a significant mentor to a whole generation of young actors.
In an extensive comment to The Irish Times, Dowling, artistic director of the Abbey from 1977 to 1985, remarked that, in directing especially, Laffan had found his “ideal” metier.
“Given his powers of analysis and his strong intelligence, it was inevitable that Pat would want to direct at some point in his career . . . as director of the Peacock in the mid-seventies, he programmed a wide variety of work including great international classics by Ibsen, Pirandello and Shakespeare, and new work by Stewart Parker, Hugh Carr and John Lynch, among others. His work as a director was detailed and dynamic. He understood how to direct actors and to provide the framework that allowed for exploration in rehearsal . . . he was unsparing in his need for accuracy of text and detail of characterisation.”
It was therefore hardly surprising that Laffan was regarded as a suitable fit as resident director at the Gate Theatre, from 1981 to 1983 in the interregnum following the end of the regime of Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, and the appointment of Michael Colgan there in the latter year.
Dowling remarks of Laffan’s talent as a drama teacher that “I knew that he would offer the young aspirant actors a rigorous discipline, an unflattering insight into how to create believable characters and give practical advice about how to survive in a difficult profession. He became one of the most popular of our teachers, not because he was warm and accommodating – Pat was never that – but because he knew how to communicate technique and helped the young actors to find detail in the characters they were engaged with.”
Actress Ingrid Craigie, another former colleague of Laffan’s, remembers him with particular fondness, pointing out last week that behind an oft-misunderstood gruffness, there was a notable warmth, and also loyalty. Craigie says of Laffan he “appeared to be very daunting, he seemed quite stern, but he wasn’t . . . He was very supportive and really mentored young actors.”
In a nod to Laffan’s extraordinary breadth of knowledge – he had come to the Abbey first straight after completing an engineering degree at UCD, a very unusual route for an actor – she says that “He was incredibly well-read, he had a book for whatever you were researching . . . He was full of stories and deeply opinionated about politics, art, film, poetry, classical music.”
Another passion was sport: Laffan was for decades a stalwart of the Theatrical Cavaliers taverners’ cricket club and was still keenly watching the Cheltenham Festival on television in the week of his death.
Laffan’s empathy for fellow actors very probably owed much to his early career at the Abbey, where he became, in Joe Dowling’s words, “the ideal Abbey actor, ready, willing and able to play whatever was required – a true ensemble player who excelled in O’Casey and Synge”. His 1967 performance as Jamie Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece A Long Day’s Journey into Night “marked him out as a powerful, sensitive and highly intelligent actor, whose subtlety was a strength and whose talent was unmistakable”.
Apart from Stephen Frears, Laffan’s film career included work with such renowned directors as John Boorman, Stanley Kubrick, Jim Sheridan, John Ford, Cathal Black,Gillies McKinnon, Mike Newell, Phillippe Rousselot and Goran Paskaljevic. His television performances including appearances in famous series including Insurrection, Strumpet City, The Year of the French and The Irish RM for RTÉ, and Z Cars for the BBC.
Pat Laffan was from a farming family in Beauparc, Co Meath, and received his secondary education at St Finian’s College, Mullingar. His father, Patrick, was involved in local politics and his mother, Frances, was a schoolteacher. A colourful aspect of his background was that Patrick Laffan had been married, firstly, to Hannah Bracken (nee Ryan), the mother of Brendan Bracken, Britain’s minister for information in the second World War, whose first husband had died in 1904; she died in 1928, and Laffan snr then remarried.
Pat Laffan was predeceased by his half-sister Maeve, and by his sister Annette, and also by his wife Eileen, nee Binchy, a sister of the actress Kate Binchy, and a cousin of the writer Maeve Binchy. There were no children of the marriage.