At their theatrical best, lawyers are star actors who write their own lines, improvise to meet the occasion and use the courtroom as a stage to declaim on matters of life and death. Sir John Mortimer, who died at 85 on Jan. 16, was an Oxford-trained barrister (and the son of a barrister) who proved adept at arguing his cases both in his fiction and in real life.
He gained early notice with 1957's The Dock Brief, a comic tale of an inept counsel. It was done on radio, TV and stage, then filmed with Peter Sellers. The autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father starred Alec Guinness on a West End stage and Laurence Olivier on TV.
A natural performer, he looked a bit like Leo McKern, who played Mortimer's most famous barrister, the blustery, homespun Horace Rumpole of the Bailey. The TV series ran in England, off and on, from 1978 to 1992 and repeated its success in the U.S.
In his legal career, Mortimer was as eloquent defending others' words as he was in choosing his own. He won obscenity cases for the publisher of Last Exit to Brooklyn and for Virgin Records, defending the Sex Pistols' debut album.
His wife of 22 years, until their divorce in 1971, was the novelist Penelope Mortimer; of course they both wrote tart books about their scrappy union. For John Mortimer, marriage was another stage on which to pursue great, painful debates.