Leon Greene, who has died of cancer aged 89, was a Sadler’s Wells opera singer who took his bass baritone voice to the West End stage to play the self-important Roman soldier Miles Gloriosus in the original London production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Following its hugely popular two-year run at the Shaftesbury theatre (1963-65), Greene reprised his role in the 1966 film version, directed by Richard Lester, alongside an international cast led by two stars of the initial Broadway show, Zero Mostel (as the lazy slave Pseudolus, played by Frankie Howerd in the West End) and Jack Gilford, plus Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton and Michael Crawford.
Greene, a towering 6ft 4in tall, burst into the story at its mid-point, sitting firmly upright on a horse, as Gloriosus heads for ancient Rome to claim Philia (Annette Andre). He has paid handsomely for the virgin’s innocence and sings in his deep, authoritative voice: “My bride! My bride! I’ve come to claim my bride, come tenderly to crush her against my side.”
On arrival, Gloriosus assumes command (“Stand aside, everyone – I take large steps”) and, while awaiting his reluctant wife-to-be, demands: “Arrange food, entertainment and a sit-down orgy for 14.”
After playing Little John in Hammer’s unremarkable 1967 swashbuckler A Challenge for Robin Hood, that production company – best remembered for its low-budget horror films – cast him in The Devil Rides Out (1967) alongside Christopher Lee, who insisted that for once he wanted to be on the side of the angels.
As Rex van Ryn, Greene provided the brawn in a car chase and punch-ups while assisting Lee’s aristocratic Duc de Richleau in rescuing a friend and a young woman (Patrick Mower and Niké Arrighi) from being baptised into a satanic cult. Curiously, Greene’s voice was dubbed by Patrick Allen. One of several conflicting explanations was that Hammer was concerned that he sounded too similar to Lee.
Greene was also guaranteed some immortality by joining the Carry On cast for three film comedies: Don’t Lose Your Head (1967) as Malabonce, the executioner in revolutionary Paris; a torturer in Henry VIII (1971); and a hotel chef whose bulky frame silences a complaining customer in At Your Convenience (1971).
He was born Lenard Green in East Ham, Essex (now in London), to Esther (nee Ticquet) and Leonard Green, a crane driver at London docks. He later adopted Leon Greene as his stage name. During the second world war, the family moved to Southend, where he studied engineering at the town’s municipal college, singing in its operatic society. While doing national service with the RAF at its Aviation Candidate Selection Board in Hornchurch, he took singing lessons with the Royal Opera House’s chorus master.
Greene’s break came when he landed the role of an opera singer in Lilac Time, Adrian Ross’s musical play based on Franz Schubert’s operetta, for a short tour in 1952. His performance brought him to the attention of the D’Oyly Carte opera company, which he joined the following year, when he was still only 21, sharing the roles of Bob Becket in HMS Pinafore and Go-To in The Mikado (1953-54).
In 1954, after a stint at Glyndebourne, he joined the opera company at Sadler’s Wells, progressing to parts such as Baron Mirko Zita, the Pontevedrian ambassador in Paris, in The Merry Widow (1959), Antonio in The Marriage of Figaro (1960) and Private Willis in Iolanthe (1962-63).
Once Sadler’s Wells started producing a series of Rossini operas, he took the role of Don Basilio in The Barber of Seville (1961). The Stage remarked that Greene’s “bass voice displayed a pleasing vibrato that brought a distinctive quality to his singing of the La Calunnia aria”.
A recommendation by Tony Walton, the set and costume designer on the stage and screen versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – and previously at Sadler’s Wells theatre – helped Greene move into musical theatre and film.
His other big-screen roles included the colonel of the battle control room in Flash Gordon (1980, with his voice dubbed by David de Keyser) and, directed by Lester again, a Swiss officer in The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge (1974) and Captain Groslow in The Return of the Musketeers (1989).
Greene also popped up in television dramas and sitcoms, playing everything from a murdered circus strongman in The Avengers (in 1967) to a heavy alongside the farceur Brian Rix in Men of Affairs (1973) and a Czech resistance leader in the mini-series A Man Called Intrepid (1979). In the time-travelling children’s adventure T.Bag and the Revenge of the T.Set (1989), he was back in ancient Rome as the head of an emperor’s army.
He brought his commanding voice and stature to the musical stage again in the title role of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which he first performed at the Half Moon, London, in 1985, and as the Baron in a Scottish Opera-Old Vic tour of Candide (1988-89).
Greene returned to his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum role, alongside Howerd, for a 1986 revival at the Chichester Festival theatre and limited run at the Piccadilly theatre in London. He spent most of the 1990s in pantomime, which included teaming up with Lionel Blair to help introduce the genre to Canada.
In 1953, Greene married Jean Percival, who ran the Royal Opera House’s headdress and jewellery department, and survives him. His sister, Olive, predeceased him.
• Leon Greene (Lenard George Green), actor and singer, born 15 July 1931; died 19 June 2021