Richard Briers—the British comic actor best known for the sitcom The Good Life and hus appearances in eight Kenneth Branagh films—died Sunday at age 79, after years of smoking-related ailments.
Born in London, Briers was interested in acting from childhood, an ambition fostered by his pianist mother as well as his father’s cousin, the successful comedian Terry-Thomas. After menial jobs as a filing clerk and a stint in the RAF, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the mid-1950s alongside classmates Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, winning early praise for his performance in the title role in Hamlet. He enjoyed a busy career ever afterwards on stage, TV and film, earning fame for his good-natured and genial comic roles, but also proving himself adept at darker, dramatic characters like King Lear and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Briers' first TV starring roles came in the mid-1960s with Brothers In Law and Marriage Lines; by far his biggest success was the 1975-78 sitcom The Good Life, also known in America as Good Neighbors. Briers starred as the boyish, doggedly optimistic Tom Good, a bored graphic designer who, following an epiphany on his 40th birthday, convinces his wife Barbara (the charming Felicity Kendal) to embrace a self-sufficient, back-to-the-earth lifestyle by turning their suburban homestead into a working farm, much to the chagrin of his more conventional best friends and neighbors (played by Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington). The show was a huge hit in England and a mainstay of PBS stations in the U.S., becoming such a British institution that its final episode was recorded in front of Queen Elizabeth.
Briers’ career also included a plethora of productions by Kenneth Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, both on stage and in eight of the director's films made between 1989 and 2006, including Frankenstein (as the blind hermit who befriends Robert De Niro's monster) and the Shakespeare adaptations Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Love’s Labour's Lost. In 1978, he voiced the role of the nervous but prophetic rabbit Fiver in Watership Down.
Other TV work included starring roles in Ever Decreasing Circles—another suburban comedy by the Good Life writers that cast Briers in a more curmudgeonly role—and the darkly satiric If You See God, Tell Him, in which Briers played a pathologically optimistic man who unwittingly wreaks disaster everywhere he goes. He also had noteworthy smaller roles in many other shows, including the sitcom Monarch Of The Glen, Mr. Bean (as a man irritated by Rowan Atkinson’s attempts to stay awake in church), the Nazi-like Chief Caretaker in the 1987 Doctor Who serial “Paradise Towers,” and as himself in Ricky Gervais’ Extras, a cameo that allowed him to act out his frustration on a symbol of the dumb, catchphrase-based comedy he disliked.
Briers was honored twice by the United Kingdom, becoming an Officer of the British Empire in 1989 and a Commander of the British Empire in 2003. His final film role is the forthcoming Cockneys Vs. Zombies.