At one time a ‘brutish’ wrester who grapple fans love to hate, and later a TV and film star loved by millions, gentle giant Pat Roach was born 80 years ago today, on May 19th, 1937.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Francis Patrick ‘Pat’ Roach never really left the Midlands, even after his acting career brought him fame and fortune. He preferred to keep in touch with his roots.
Growing to a mighty 6ft 5ins and with a powerful build, young Pat Roach was a natural for the wrestling ring and was professionally trained by Alf Kent, a legend in the wrestling world. Although Pat would readily admit that show bouts were more about entertainment than competitive sport, often with the result decided beforehand, there was also a genuine, ‘non-showbiz’, side to wrestling in which skilled and supremely fit athletes competed for honours.
Roach, who was fast and graceful in the ring despite his size, proved more than a match for any serious opponent, holding both the British and European Heavyweight titles. In show bouts, which often pitched ‘hero against villain’, Roach was usually cast as the latter, mainly because he usually towered above his opponents and the British love a heroic underdog!
In real life he was anything but the villain he portrayed in the ring, known to be friendly, helpful and softly spoken. Only after his more sympathetic acting roles brought him fame was Roach finally able to wrestle as the crowd’s favourite. While appearing as gentle giant “Bomber Busbridge” in several series of hugely popular comedy drama “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”, Roach continued to wrestle, but now billed as “Bomber Pat Roach”.
His early acting roles were routinely as burly henchmen, bouncers and brawlers – he was cast for his build more than his acting ability. He played several such roles, including an assassin attempting to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond in “Never Say Never Again” and numerous ‘bad guy’ character pitched against Harrison Ford in three Indiana Jones films.
Gradually though, some directors noticed that the man cast for his impressive physique could genuinely act, and his roles began to include more speaking parts and fewer one-dimensional characters. Real proof of his abilities as a straight actor came when he was cast as Petty Officer Edgar Evans in the 1985 six-part TV mini-series “The Last Place on Earth”, chronicling Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.
That role came between the first and second series of “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”, which also cemented Roach’s reputation as an actor and his place in the hearts of the viewing public. Originally intended as a supporting role, the older and wiser “Bomber” quickly became an audience favourite and a central character in the first two series, set in Germany and Spain and broadcast in 1984 and ’86.
When the format was revived in 2002, Roach had been diagnosed with throat cancer and was undergoing treatment. There were worries his health might prevent him appearing, but he was determined to take part and played Bomber not only in that series, set in America, but also in the final full-length series, filmed in Cuba and the Dominican Republic in 2003. By then his cancer was known to be terminal and he died on July 17th, 2004, just a few months after the series aired on TV.
Away from the limelight, Roach married Doreen Harris in 1957 and remained married to her for 47 years until his death, the couple having a son and daughter together. In the 1980s he played American football for the Birmingham Bulls, and in the 1990s his business interest included running a scrapyard and a gym, both in his home city of Birmingham.
A final two-part special of “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”, entitled “Au Revoir”, was made in Thailand, with filming beginning in mid-July 2004, around the time of Pat Roach’s death. When screened at Christmas that year it was dedicated to Pat Roach. The absence of his character was explained in the first episode when the group’s leader, Dennis, reads out a letter form Bomber explaining his family reasons for not joining them.
After hearing it, the group raise their glasses and drink a toast “To Bomber!” It was a poignant and memorable scene, and a fitting tribute to a much-loved man.