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Leonard George Teale (1922–1994)

by Phillip Davey

This article was published:

Leonard Teale, by Robert McFarlane, c.1964,

Leonard Teale, by Robert McFarlane, c.1964,

National Library of Australia, 53803112

Leonard George Teale (1922–1994), actor, was born on 26 September 1922 at Milton, Brisbane, younger son of Queensland-born parents Herman Albert Thielé, chemist, and his wife Maude Henrietta, née Rasmussen. Inspired by his father’s love of amateur theatre, Len dreamed of becoming an actor, and first performed as an eight-year-old in a school production of Kidnapped. With his brother Neville, he spent hours practising at home, often by reading the poems of Henry Lawson. He attended Milton State School and gained a State scholarship to Brisbane Grammar School (1934–38), where he performed in school plays, rowed bow in the first crew, and was in the school athletics team. The family’s financial losses in the Depression caused him to leave school to find employment. At seventeen he auditioned for Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) radio in Brisbane. Offered a job as an announcer, he combined the role with employment as a junior clerk at the Brisbane City Council’s Electricity Supply Department, acting with local repertory groups in his spare time. He later trained in commercial radio with 2LM Lismore, New South Wales.

In World War II Thiele served first in the Citizen Military Forces (April-October 1942) as a signalman at Tamworth. Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 10 October 1942, he trained as a pilot and was commissioned in September 1943. Between December 1944 and June 1945 he flew Wellington bombers with No. 458 Squadron, RAAF, from bases at Foggia, Italy, and Gibraltar; the unit carried out maritime patrols. He was promoted to flight lieutenant in September 1945. His appointment terminated in Australia on 16 January 1946. On 7 February the same year he married Kathleen Marie Houghton, a secretary, at St Thomas’s Church of England, North Sydney; the couple later divorced.

Having moved to Sydney, Thiele’s resonant and mellifluous baritone voice enabled him to secure roles in radio drama and on the stage. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s he featured in many radio dramas, including Bonnington’s Bunkhouse Show (1952–54), Book Club of the Air (1953), and The Guiding Light (1959), for Grace Gibson Radio Productions and other commercial producers. For the ABC Children’s Hour, he was the Argonaut ‘Chris,’ and played the title role in The Muddle-Headed Wombat. His stage roles included Orsino in the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust Company’s production of Twelfth Night (1956). Between 1949 and 1954 he enjoyed success in Superman on radio 2GB, appearing in all 1,040 fifteen-minute episodes. Children throughout Australia followed every episode as he played Superman and Clark Kent for ‘thirty shillings per episode’ (Teale 1985). His polished voice-over skills were also in demand for documentaries, including The Hungry Miles (1955), The Bones of Building (1956), and Four’s a Crowd (1957). He appeared in several motion pictures, notably Smiley (1956), Smiley Gets a Gun (1958), and The Sundowners (1960). A lover of Australian folk poetry and song since his youth, he skilfully recited the works of A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Henry Lawson, and others, in numerous recordings, recitals, and television appearances.

On 29 March 1958 Thiele married Patricia Katharine Murtagh, an actress, at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney; this marriage too would end in divorce. He changed his name to ‘Teale’ in April 1962 having previously used it as a stage name. As radio drama faded and television evolved, he appeared in television movies and plays for commercial stations and the ABC, including The Outcasts (1961) and The Hungry Ones (1963), series such as Consider Your Verdict (1961–63), and in variety shows, such as the Mobil-Limb Show (1961–64).  

During the 1960s the Australian Security Intelligence Organization regarded Teale as a communist sympathiser solely because of his association with suspected front organisations, such as the Australian Culture Defence Movement, and for his activities as a member of the Actors’ and Announcers’ Equity Association of Australia. An advocate for Australian employment and content in radio and television, and an opponent of cheap imported programs, he believed that it was ‘to the detriment of the country when you do not have your own culture represented in the media’ (Teale 1994).

The role of the tough, uncompromising, and solemn senior detective David Mackay in the police drama Homicide became Teale’s greatest success, the Hector Crawford-produced show finding a large audience in Australia and overseas. Teale made his debut as Mackay in August 1965 and, appearing in 357 episodes, became the longest-serving cast member. He later called it a ‘landmark’ (Teale 1985) in Australian television, as it proved that a popular and influential Australian product could be made. After leaving Homicide in 1972 he played Captain John Woolcot in the ABC mini-series Seven Little Australians, and then (1974–75) the headmaster, Charles Ogilvey, in the Reg Grundy Organisation’s Class of '74. In 1974 he won a Logie award as best Australian actor for his role in Homicide.

Teale had married Elizabeth Suzanne Harris, a well-known actress, in Melbourne on 18 December 1968; the couple had met on the set of Consider Your Verdict. In his later years he concentrated on charity work, performing in clubs, and reciting and recording Australian poetry and literature. He toured the country with one-man shows, such as his tribute to Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils (1977–80); The Quiet Achievers (1984–85); and The Men Who Made Australia (1988). Drawing on his favourite poetry, and on real-life accounts of unlikely heroes achieving their goals, he encouraged Australians to be proud of their culture. He was appointed AO in 1992. The next year, dismayed by the state of Australian politics, society, and an economy he described as a ‘disaster’ (Canberra Times 1993, 5), he unsuccessfully sought election to the Senate on an independent ticket with the businessman Colin Ward; both had been involved in the informal economic thinktank New Australia Group. Exploiting his high profile to assist relief efforts for poverty-stricken countries overseas, in 1979 he had helped raise over $10 million for the Kampuchean Relief Appeal, an organisation he chaired. He accompanied Australia’s first airlift of relief supplies to Kampuchea, and called on the Federal government to make donations to organisations operating outside Australia tax deductible. As a keen conservationist, he was a trustee of the State National Parks and Wildlife Foundation. 

The theatre director John Krummel described Teale as a ‘uniquely Australian performer in an era of Anglomania,’ and his performances as imbued with ‘a gentle humour, an unassailable inner strength and great dignity’ (Cochrane 1994, 5). A man of strong principles, he was a ‘vigorous force in the industry he loved’ (Day 1994, 3). He died on 14 May 1994 at Royal North Shore Hospital after collapsing during a morning walk near his home. Survived by his wife, a daughter from his first marriage, and three daughters from his second, he was cremated. An estimated 1,200 mourners attended a memorial service at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. 

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Australian. ‘Teale Takes Centre Stage.’ 26 January 1992, 14
  • Canberra Times. ‘Actor Leonard Teale to Enter Federal Politics.’ 16 January 1993, 5
  • Cochrane, Peter. ‘Honouring the Voice of a Wide Brown Land.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1994, 5
  • Day, Selina. ‘Teale A Man of Many Parts, On and Off the Screen.’ Canberra Times, 15 May 1994, 3
  • Keneally, Margaret. ‘Leonard Teale’s Last Message Says it All.’ Mercury, 21 May 1994, 33
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, Teale, Leonard George
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, B884, Thiele, Leonard George
  • Teale, Leonard. Interview by Robyn Malloy, February 1985. Transcript. National Film and Sound Archive, 767168
  • Teale, Leonard. Interview by Kel Richards, 1985. Transcript. National Film and Sound Archive, 312467
  • Teale, Leonard. Interview by Don Storey, October 1994. Transcript. Accessed 19 March 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • Tennison, Patrick. ‘It all Started with the School Play.’, TV Times (Melbourne), 3 December, 1969, 6-7
  • Westwood, Matthew. ‘Lawson’s Lines a Moving Tribute to Teale.’ Australian (Sydney), 21-22 May 1994, 5

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Phillip Davey, 'Teale, Leonard George (1922–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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