The actor John Benfield, who has died aged 68 of cancer, enjoyed his best screen role as Helen Mirren’s boss in Prime Suspect, Lynda La Plante’s groundbreaking 1990s police drama about a woman in a male-dominated environment.
Mirren, who played Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, regarded previous crime series starring women as “much lower-level … a kind of soap opera” and relished the chance to portray a strong character driving the action. In the role of Detective Chief Superintendent Michael Kernan, Benfield proved to be Tennison’s ally when considering her request to take over a murder case after the sudden death of a colleague.
“Now, Inspector, is not the time to thrust your women’s rights down my throat,” he tells her, while also conveying his support for her abilities. “I’ll get back to you.”
When he announces to the murder squad that she has the job, he adds: “I know how you must all feel, but give her the best you’ve got.” Their sexism is overt and the challenge to win them over gargantuan – and Kernan makes Tennison earn her spurs.
However, he eventually tells one of the officers: “She’s wiping the floor with the lot of you.” Benfield skilfully displayed the officer’s conflicting emotions.
He appeared in Prime Suspect’s first three two-part dramas (1991-93) and a 1995 series of three stories before Tennison’s move from the Metropolitan Police to Manchester resulted in cast changes. By then, the programme was established as one of British television’s hardest-hitting dramas.
Benfield’s craggy face and gruff voice made him perfect for parts as both hard-nosed cops and hardened criminals. In between Prime Suspect productions, he played the chief prison officer in the feature film In the Name of the Father (1993), about the miscarriage of justice over the 1974 IRA pub bombings in Guildford.
Benfield was born Jonathan Turner, in Wanstead, Essex, to Fred Turner, a margarine sales rep, and his wife, Joan (nee White). From Loughton school he moved on to the town’s further education college. After spending four years as a London ambulance driver he studied history as a mature student at Nottingham University, where he found a passion for acting with the drama society.
He trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art (1976-78) in London and, because there was already an actor called John Turner, he changed his professional name to John Benfield, using a name from his mother’s side of the family.
When he made his stage debut in Twelfth Night during a 1979 London Bubble theatre company tour of parks, the Stage praised his performance as “a fine Malvolio … starchier than Jeeves and more dangerous than the MC in Cabaret”. Some of his early television appearances were in the BBC’s television Shakespeare project, from small parts in The Winter’s Tale (1981) and Titus Andronicus (1985) to the Earl of Northumberland in Henry VI, Part III (1983).
He portrayed detectives in the first series of Bulman (1985), the cocaine-smuggling saga Floodtide (1987-88) and British episodes of the pan-continental production Eurocops (1988-90). He was McMurdo to Ian Richardson’s Sherlock Holmes in a TV adaptation of The Sign of Four (1983) and Henri Lautier, an underworld figure, in a 1993 Maigret story.
Then, he slipped effortlessly into a military persona as General Calvet in Sharpe’s Revenge (1997), alongside Sean Bean as Sharpe, a soldier in the Napoleonic wars, and played fathers in sitcoms – Simon Pegg’s in Hippies (1999) and Ben Miller’s in The Worst Week of My Life (2004).
Film roles came as the great train robbery quartermaster Jimmy White, alongside Phil Collins’s title character, in Buster (1988), a detective in the Irish political thriller Hidden Agenda (1990), directed by Ken Loach, the restaurant-owning father of Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor’s hitmen in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream (2007) and a race-fixing racketeer in Speed Racer (2008), for the Wachowski brothers.
On stage, Benfield played George Aaronow in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Donmar Warehouse in London (1994), directed by Sam Mendes, and Macduff in a tour of Macbeth, opposite Pete Postlethwaite in the title role (1997), before starring as Salter in the Caryl Churchill play A Number at the Library theatre, Manchester (2009).
In 1989, Benfield married Lilian Lees. She and their son, Freddie, survive him.
• John Benfield (Jonathan Edmund Fulford Turner), actor, born 9 November 1951; died 16 June 2020