Numerous sources are reporting the death of Richard Dysart, a veteran of stage and screen who was perhaps best known for playing Leland McKenzie, the cantankerous, yet loveably paternal senior partner of NBC’s long-running hit L.A. Law. Dysart died after an unspecified long illness at the age of 86.
Dysart racked up four Emmy nominations for his work on the Steven Bochco drama, finally winning the best supporting actor prize in 1992. Out of the series’ sprawling ensemble cast—which spanned the latter half of the ’80s and first half of the ’90s, and featured the likes of Harry Hamlin, Corbin Bernsen, Susan Dey, and Jimmy Smits all taking a stab at the fake-legal profession—Dysart was the only one to appear in every episode, his grounding presence holding down a firm whose lawyers were constantly in and out of bed with each other, and occasionally, sometimes, working in the courtroom. Not that Dysart’s McKenzie didn’t get in on a little of that action himself, in the infamous episode that revealed he’d been sleeping with his archnemesis, Rosalind. He was also there for one of the most shocking character deaths in TV history:
Outside the offices of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, and Kuzak, Dysart had an impressive run on the big screen—though not always in the biggest of parts. He played a kindly doctor in Hal Ashby’s Being There; a far less helpful, far more stoned and inept doctor in Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital; and a totally doomed doctor in John Carpenter’s The Thing, plus he played physicians again in the movies The Falcon And The Snowman, The Terminal Man, and Warning Sign. He starred in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider as the villainous mining baron, then revisited the Wild West again as a barbed wire salesman in Back To The Future III.
A favorite star of TV movies, he was often called upon to play judges, as well as real-life historical figures like Louis B. Mayer, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, J. Edgar Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry Truman—a role he played twice, including in the miniseries War And Remembrance. His many other film credits included The Prophecy, The Day Of The Locust, Mask, and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.
And while he was sometimes seen on TV screens besides within the confines of L.A. Law, with guest turns on shows like Columbo, All In The Family, Maude, and Lou Grant, he had his second most prolific TV turn as a voice actor, contributing voices to Batman: The Animated Series and especially Spawn, where he played Cogliostro across multiple seasons. He also voiced the character Uncle Pom in the English version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle In The Sky.
Dysart, a founding member of the American Conservatory Theater, was also an acclaimed stage actor who won the 1972 Drama Desk award for his role as Coach in That Championship Season, a role he originated. His other Broadway performances included All In Good Time and The Little Foxes, directed by Mike Nichols, where Dysart starred alongside Anne Bancroft. He more or less retired at the end of the 20th century, though he agreed to reprise his most famous role for the 2002 L.A. Law reunion movie. It’s a good thing, too; the firm couldn’t have gotten anything done without Leland there to guide it.