William Lucas, who has died aged 91, was already a veteran television actor before he played Dr. Gordon in The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74). In a three-channel age, the programme became essential Sunday-teatime viewing for many families and regularly appeared in the weekly Top 20 TV ratings with stories that were a continuation, rather than an adaptation, of those in Anna Sewell’s best-selling 19th-century novel.
Lucas and his co-stars – Judi Bowker and Roderick Shaw as the doctor’s children, Vicky and Kevin, and Charlotte Mitchell as his loyal housekeeper, Amy Winthrop – found themselves part of a screen phenomenon that owed much to writers such as Ted Willis and Richard Carpenter. Denis King’s Galloping Home theme tune evoked childhood memories that led to it being heard over future decades in other programmes – perhaps most memorably in Absolutely Fabulous, accompanying Jennifer Saunders’s dream of running through a field, Black Beauty-style.
Lucas’s character, James Gordon, is a widowed GP moving from London to set up a country practice in the village of Five Oaks. He saves the life of the disabled owner of a black stallion – and is presented with the animal as thanks. His children are seen enjoying adventures with Black Beauty, often bringing villains to heel. For the second series, Stacy Dorning played the doctor’s other daughter, Jenny, returning from school and replacing the departing Bowker.
The programme’s popularity led to Lucas and Dorning reprising their roles two decades later for The New Adventures of Black Beauty, a 1990-91 series produced by a New Zealand television company that showed Dr. Gordon and the grown-up Jenny emigrating.
The actor was born William Clucas, the son of Albert, who worked in a Sheffield steelworks, and his wife, Ada (nee Mellor). He had an older sister, Joan, who took him to the cinema, where he enjoyed Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy films, as well as Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals.
On leaving Burnage high school, Manchester, Clucas worked in a bank, then served in the Royal Navy during the second world war. A string of jobs followed – from cafe chef to farm labourer and lorry driver – before he achieved his ambition to train as an actor by winning a scholarship to the Northern Theatre School, established by the Bradford Civic Playhouse’s artistic director, Esme Church. Advised that his surname was too obscure, he changed it to Lucas.
He began his career in 1948 as an assistant stage manager at Chesterfield Civic Theatre, where he met Doreen Moorhouse, who acted under the name Rowena Ingram. They married in 1954. Repertory work followed in Coventry, Liverpool, Richmond, Windsor and at the Bristol Old Vic. Later, Lucas appeared in the West End as Frank Thorney in the tragicomedy The Witch of Edmonton (Mermaid theatre, 1962) and Martello in Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase (Duke of York’s theatre, 1988-89).
His big television break came with the part of the blackmailing car dealer Reg Dorking in Portrait of Alison (1955), a crime thriller serial written by Francis Durbridge. Lucas was the only cast member to reprise his role for a film version later the same year (released in the US as Postmark for Danger).
On TV, he was a regular as David Graham in The Strange World of Planet X (1956), Charlton Bradbury in The Crime of the Century (1956-57), Jim Pereira in the second series (1958) of the hotel saga The Royalty, Jonathan Briggs in the serialisation of Frank Tilsley’s novel Champion Road (1958) and Durea in the London underworld thriller Solo for Canary (1958).
He starred in The Infamous John Friend (1959), in the title role of the smuggler and spy for Napoleon, and was Detective Inspector Mitchell in the crime dramas The Days of Vengeance (1960) and Flower of Evil (1961), and Eddie Prior in the thriller serial The Prior Commitment (1969).
Lucas appeared in many television plays and was Inspector Lestrade, perfectly portraying his smug character’s wrong deductions, in A Study in Scarlet and The Second Stain, two 1968 episodes in the Sherlock Holmes series starring Peter Cushing. He even took the title role in a TV production of Rigoletto (1958), recalling: “Happily, the singing was dubbed.” The best of Lucas’s later television performances was in The Spoils of War (1980-81) as George Hayward, the Labour party-supporting father in a Lake District family coming to terms with peace after the second world war.
There were also appearances in three soap operas, the first, in 1966, as Bill Finlay in the football serial United! In Coronation Street, he had a short run as Dennis Maxwell (1971), the crooked personnel manager at the Mark Brittain Warehouse who had an affair with Elsie Tanner, and he later played Judge Parrish (1996), who found Steve and Vicky McDonald guilty of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice after accepting stolen whisky. He was a regular in the short-lived British-expats serial Eldorado (1992-93), as Stanley Webb, a retired doctor formerly in the Royal Army Medical Corps who was revealed not to be married to his “wife” Rosemary, but eventually tied the knot.
The early years of the new century saw him in episodes of Last of the Summer Wine, Doctors and The Bill (2005).
Lucas’s film roles included William Morel in Sons and Lovers (1960), the leader of a gang of crooks in Touch of Death (1961), an ex-convict being blackmailed in The Marked One (1963) and Jacob Venable, the criminal nephew hunting for the feline witness to a murder, in the Hammer Films production The Shadow of the Cat (1961).
In retirement, Lucas enjoyed DIY – keeping his lifelong fondness for carpentry going – as well as fishing and cooking.
He is survived by his second wife, Camilla (nee Idris-Jones), whom he married in 1993, and by Daniel and Thomas, the sons of his first marriage, which ended in divorce.
• William Lucas (William Thomas Clucas), actor, born 14 April 1925; died 8 July 2016