When he played Hamlet as a young man, Richard Briers, who has died aged 79 after suffering from a lung condition, said he was the first Prince of Denmark to give the audience half an hour in the pub afterwards.
He was nothing if not quick. In fact, wrote the veteran critic WA Darlington, he played Hamlet "like a demented typewriter". Briers, always the most modest and self-deprecating of actors, and the sweetest of men, relished the review, happy to claim a place in the light comedians' gallery of his knighted idols Charles Hawtrey, Gerald du Maurier and Noël Coward.
"People don't realise how good an actor Dickie Briers really is," said John Gielgud. This was probably because of his sunny, cheerful disposition and the rat-a-tat articulacy of his delivery. "You're a great farceur," said Coward, delivering another testimony, "because you never, ever, hang about."
Although he excelled in the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, and became a national figure in his television sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s, notably The Good Life, he could mine hidden depths on stage, giving notable performances in Ibsen, Chekhov and, for Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance company, Shakespeare.
The Good Life defined his career, though he spent a lot of time getting away from his television persona as the self-sufficient, Surbiton smallholding dweller Tom Good in the brilliant series – 30 episodes between 1975 and 1978 – written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, and produced by John Howard Davies.
Paired with Felicity Kendal as his wife, Barbara, and pitted against their formidable, snobbish neighbour Margo Leadbetter (Penelope Keith) and her docile husband, Jerry (Paul Eddington), he gave one of the classic good-natured comedy sitcom performances of our time. Briers was already an established West End star when he started in The Good Life. In the same year as the first series, he up-ended expectation as Colin in Absent Friends, Ayckbourn's bitter comedy about death, and the death of love, at the Garrick theatre. Like the playwright, he proved once and for all that he "did" bleak, too.
Briers was born in Raynes Park, south-west London, and educated at schools in Wimbledon. He described his bookmaker father, Joseph, as a feckless drifter. His mother, Morna Richardson, was a pianist. Richard's cousin was the gap-toothed film star Terry-Thomas. While doing his national service with the RAF, Briers attended evening classes in drama. He then worked as an office clerk before taking a place at Rada, where he won the silver medal. He won a scholarship to the Liverpool Rep for the season of 1956-57 and was never out of work thereafter. At Liverpool he met Ann Davies, whom he married in 1957; they spent most of their married life in Chiswick, west London, in a house they bought around 10 years later.
Seasons in Leatherhead and Coventry were followed by a London debut in 1959 at the Duke of York's as Joseph Field in Lionel Hale's Gilt and Gingerbread. He played in Harold Pinter's A Slight Ache at the Arts theatre and went on tour as Gerald Popkiss in Ben Travers's Rookery Nook, before giving an irresistible Roland Maule, the importunate playwright from Uckfield, in Coward's Present Laughter, at the Vaudeville in 1965.
He was back at the Duke of York's in Ayckbourn's first London hit, Relatively Speaking, in 1967, forming a wonderful quartet with Celia Johnson, Jennifer Hilary and Michael Hordern, who inadvertently trod on a garden rake that sprang up to hit him on the nose ("What hoe?!"). He was Moon, the stand-in critic, in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound at the Criterion in 1968 ("a performance of sharp hopelessness and vindictiveness," said Helen Dawson), and played several roles in Michael Frayn's The Two of Us, with Lynn Redgrave, at the Garrick in 1970. He took over from Alan Bates in Simon Gray's Butley in 1972 and proceeded, he said genially, to empty theatres all over Britain in the leading role of Richard III on tour.
He regained his equilibrium, and his comedy momentum, as Sidney Hopcroft in Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular (set on three separate Christmas Eves) at the Criterion in 1973. So he was well-established by the watershed year of 1975 and The Good Life. His first leading television role had been in 1962 as a young barrister in Brothers in Law, scripted by Frank Muir and Denis Norden. He followed that with five series of Marriage Lines (1963-66) by Richard Waring, in which he was a lowly clerk, George Starling, married to Prunella Scales as Kate. The Good Life launched him on a much more varied theatre diet, including Ibsen's The Wild Duck at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1980; George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man (his was a richly nuanced, physical performance as the battle-weary Bluntschli) in 1981; Ray Cooney's Run for Your Wife (as a bigamous taxi driver, with Bernard Cribbins as his "cover" and apologist) in 1983; and Sir John Vanbrugh's The Relapse at Chichester in 1986, as the hilarious chatterbox Lord Foppington.
John Sessions was also in The Relapse, and his friend Branagh came to see it. This led directly to Briers working with Branagh on many subsequent projects: as a perhaps too likeable Malvolio ("My best part, and I know it," he said) in an otherwise wintry Twelfth Night at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, in 1987, and on a world tour with the Renaissance company as a ropey King Lear (the set really was a mass of ropes, the production dubbed "String Lear") and a sagacious, though not riotously funny, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
He was much more successful as Uncle Vanya, directed by Branagh in 1991, in which his body, said one critic, seemed to be in a state of permanent civil war between his adoration of Yelena and a simmering outrage about his treatment at the professor's hands.
Briers's television work in the mid-to-late 1980s was concentrated on two hit series: Ever Decreasing Circles, again written by Esmonde and Larbey for the BBC, in which he played Martin Bryce, a well-organised fusspot obsessed with law and order; and All in Good Faith, written by John Kane for Thames TV, and produced by Davies, in which he excelled as the Rev Philip Lambe, a caring vicar in a wealthy rural parish, pining for the inner-city hubbub. Reunited with Eddington, who was by then very ill with skin cancer, he played Jack in David Storey's Home in 1994 at Wyndham's, a moving display of forced grins and competitive come-backs. Collaborating with a new generation of theatre-makers, he was a crabbed and susceptible Scrooge in a chorus of black-garbed, quick-changing carollers in Neil Bartlett's version of A Christmas Carol at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1996.
Even more significantly, he and Geraldine McEwan played the nonagenarian couple in Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs, directed by Simon McBurney at the Royal Court (relocated at the Duke of York's during refurbishment). He was magnificent as the mouldy old white-haired janitor, master of the mop and bucket, supervising an invisible gathering to hear the very last message for humanity.
He owed his late-flourishing film career to Branagh, appearing in a string of his movies: as Bardolph in Henry V (1989), Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing (1993), the old blind man in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), a cantankerous old thespian in A Midwinter's Tale (1995), Polonius in Hamlet (1996) and Sir Nathaniel in the musical Love's Labour's Lost (2000).
His bond with the British public was renewed in the highly successful upmarket BBC soap Monarch of the Glen (2000-05): he was Hector MacDonald, best chum of Julian Fellowes as Lord Kilwillie, but was blown up trying to train his dog; he returned in a later series as a ghost.
The Ayckbourn connection was cemented in 2002 in a fine revival of Bedroom Farce at the Aldwych, with June Whitfield as his stage wife. In classic Briers fashion, he entered beaming with a cup of cocoa at entirely the wrong moment. He seemed to bid farewell to the stage as a touring Prospero in The Tempest in 2003, but returned unexpectedly in 2010 as the military relic Adolphus Spanker in Nicholas Hytner's mellow National Theatre revival of Dion Boucicault's London Assurance, alongside Fiona Shaw and Simon Russell Beale. It was sheer delight to be reminded of his natural comic vitality as he rambled on and on, the sound of gunshot still ringing in his ears from the sack of Copenhagen in 1807.
Briers became quietly disillusioned with contemporary television comedy and the cult of celebrity and reality shows, noting that people used to be magical because they were on television and that, now, "nobody's magical because everyone's on television".
He wrote several pleasant, light-hearted volumes, including Coward and Company (1987), A Little Light Weeding (1993) and, with his wife, A Taste of the Good Life (1995). He was made OBE in 1989 – "And I suppose you're getting this for making people laugh?" said the Queen, a great fan of The Good Life – and CBE in 2003.
He is survived by Ann and their daughters, Lucy and Kate.
• Richard David Briers, actor, born 14 January 1934; died 17 February 2013
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