Leslie Phillips, Debonair British Actor of ‘Carry On,’ ‘Doctor’ and ‘Harry Potter’ Films, Dies at 98

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Leslie Phillips, the British actor and Casanova of the Carry On movies who turned to serious supporting roles in Out of Africa and Empire of the Sun before voicing The Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter franchise, has died. He was 98. 

Phillips died peacefully in his sleep on Monday, agent Jonathan Lloyd told the BBC on Tuesday.

With an eye for the ladies onscreen and off, the sophisticated Phillips appeared in more than 170 roles across screens big and small, portraying policemen, military officials, reverends and judges. But for audiences in the 1950s and ’60s, he was synonymous with the low-budget Carry On and Doctor series (he took over from Dirk Bogarde in the latter).

In the ’80s, he distanced himself from his playboy roles to lend gravitas to Sydney Pollack’s Oscar best picture winner Out of Africa (1985) and to Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987).

He also appeared opposite Peter O’Toole in King Ralph (1991), then received late-career praise and his lone career BAFTA nomination for his turn as Ian, a longtime friend of O’Toole’s character, in Venus (2006).

His film résumé also included Anthony Hopkins’ directorial debut, August (1996), the Bruce Willis-starring The Jackal (1997), Saving Grace (2000), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Color Me Kubrick (2005).

Most Harry Potter fans probably don’t know his name from a bar of soap, but they would instantly recognize his voice as The Sorting Hat, the magical Hogwarts headwear that choses which school house the new students will join.

The hat appeared in the first two installments, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), and in the last one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (2011).

The Carry On franchise was a huge success in Britain, full of double entendres, innuendo and farce spanning 31 films. Phillips and his pencil-thin moustache appeared in four of them: Carry on Nurse (1959), Carry on Teacher (1959), Carry on Constable (1960) and Carry on Columbus (1992).

His famous “Ding Dong” catchphrase was first heard in Carry on Nurse, with his patient character, Jack Bell, gazing upon a beautiful nurse (Shirley Eaton).

In his 2012 autobiography, Hello, Phillips wrote that “the first time I’d uttered those two words I would never have believed that I would become so inescapably linked with them in the minds of the public for the next 50 years and still counting. Even today, I’m regularly Ding-Donged as I walk through the streets of London.”

His memoir’s title was drawn from his other catchphrase, an elongated seductive “Helloooo” with which he greeted women. The key to its delivery, he revealed, was “to breathe it out.”

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From right: Leslie Phillips, Gene Kelly and Jacques Bergerac in 1957’s ‘Les Girls.’

Courtesy Everett Collection

Phillips’ break into his short-lived Hollywood career came fortuitously after he appeared opposite husband and wife Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

Travers had been signed to appear in the MGM drama The Seventh Sin, and during a lunch break in the studio canteen with McKenna, he overhead British actress Kay Kendall and famed director George Cukor discussing their production of the musical Les Girls (1957).

“And I heard her say, ‘Who is that really funny British actor with blonde hair?’” McKenna recalled in the 2013 documentary Hello — A Portrait of Leslie Phillips. “And I’m afraid I shouted across, ‘Leslie Phillips!’”

Phillips landed the role of Sir Gerald Wren in the Gene Kelly-starring Les Girls but was far from impressed with Cukor’s attitude, calling him an “absolute bastard.”

The female lead, Mitzi Gaynor, noted Cukor had “a habit of smacking people if he didn’t like them,” and Phillips approached the director after one such incident and said, “I say, George, must you?” Cukor’s dismissive response infuriated Phillips even more.

A more rewarding working experience occurred with Spielberg, whom Phillips called “bloody marvelous to me.” In Empire of the Sun, he portrayed an emaciated prisoner of war, and the director asked him to look a little thinner for the demanding role.

“So, I went on a very speedy diet. I didn’t see him again until about six weeks later. When I walked in, I was more than two stone lighter!” he said on the talk show Wogan in 1990.

Spielberg’s response upon seeing him was, “Leslie, where did you go?”

Leslie Samuel Phillips was born on April 20, 1924, in Tottenham, England. His poverty-stricken upbringing was in stark contrast to his upper-class screen persona.

His father, Frederick, manufactured cookers in Edmonton, London but died when Leslie was 10. The family sold their small house and moved to rented flats.

“We were quickly in financial trouble, so we all found work,” he told The Guardian in 2009.  “Because I did plays at school, my mother [Cecelia] answered an advertisement for me to audition at the Italia Conti stage school. By the age of 14, I was earning more than the lot of them.”

Cecelia always snuck in to watch him perform, always on a paid ticket. When she died in 1983 at age 92, shortly after being mugged at a bus stop by teenagers, Phillips discovered that she had secretly scrapbooked newspaper clippings and photos of his career.

As a child, Phillips doffed his cap at a passing parade in Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers (1939) — the first of his 38 gigs in Pinewood Studios — then was a street urchin in Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and an audience member in Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterful The Red Shoes (1948).

The raffish Phillips also showed up in bit part as a controller in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), as a sailor in Basil Dearden’s film noir Pool of London (1951), as a major in John Guillermin’s I Was Monty’s Double (1958) and as an officer in The Longest Day (1962).

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Leslie Phillips (left) and Peter O’Toole in 2006’s ‘Venus’

Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

The Doctor franchise, developed from a series of comic novels written by surgeon Richard Gordon and spanning seven films, brought him further recognition, with Phillips appearing in Doctor in Love (1960), Doctor in Clover (1966) and Doctor in Trouble (1970).

In 1948, he married actress Penelope Bartley. They had four children but divorced in 1965 after he started an affair with actress Caroline Mortimer.

He began a relationship with James Bond actress Angela Scoular, whom he had first met on the set of Doctor in Trouble, in 1977. (Scoular shared a bath with David Niven in 1967’s Casino Royale, then wrote her room number in lipstick on George Lazenby’s thigh in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

After Bartley suffered a stroke in 1981, Phillips and Scoular helped take care of his ex-wife, but she died in a house fire that year while Phillips was performing in Australia. He chose to continue his tour, a decision he said he deeply regretted.

The following year, he married Scoular — 21 years his junior — and raised her son, Daniel, from a previous marriage. She battled depression, anorexia nervosa and colorectal cancer before dying in 2011 at age 65 after ingesting drain cleaner.

In December 2013, at age 89, Phillips married his third wife, Zara Carr, then 50, a Turkish social worker.

His television appearances included work in The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene) in the 1950s, Our Man at St. Mark’s in the ’60s and, as womaniser Henry Newhouse, Casanova ’73 in the ’70s.

On radio for the national broadcaster, he was one of the three leads in the long-running serial The Navy Lark, set onboard a British Royal frigate; he appeared in the 1959 film adaptation as well.

Phillips performed for the Royal Shakespeare Company as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1996. Five decades earlier, he served as the stagehand for a 1942 revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma, starring Vivien Leigh.

“In my eyes she was unquestionably the most special actress I ever worked with, and I felt incredibly lucky to be so near this goddess every day,” he wrote of the actress in his autobiography.

“She was often likened to a piece of Dresden porcelain, a comparison which, I gathered, she didn’t particularly like, but there was nevertheless something about her that was inescapably delicate and, as it were, staggeringly beautiful but breakable.”

He recalled a handsome Laurence Olivier, her husband, dressed in his Fleet Air Arm officer uniform, watching her from the wings.

Phillips joined the Royal Artillery as Lance-Bombardier during World War II and remembered that “the Blitz was going all the time and I was a firewatcher in Charing Cross Road when I finished at the theater, as we did more matinees when the bombing was on.”

He was transferred as a second lieutenant into the Durham Light Infantry, but shortly before the 1944 D-Day landing, he was declared unfit for service, diagnosed with a nerve illness that could cause paralysis.

“What I learned during the war was that people got used to even the bombs,” he said in 2020, “and it was unbelievable how people just got on with each other and there was a great sense of togetherness.”

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