Eugene Roche, 75; Character Actor in Films, Television

Times Staff Writer

Eugene Roche, a character actor remembered for roles such as the offbeat detective Luther Gillis in “Magnum, P.I.,” Squeaky Clean of Ajax commercials and an ill-fated prisoner of war in the classic 1972 film “Slaughterhouse Five,” has died. He was 75.

Roche died Wednesday in an Encino hospital after suffering two heart attacks. He lived in Sherman Oaks.

With a face more familiar than his name, Roche worked steadily for more than four decades. He began his career as a teenager, voicing characters on radio in his native Boston, served in the Army, then studied drama at Emerson College. Devoting himself to acting, he honed his talents in small theaters in San Francisco.

Roche made his Broadway debut in “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole” in 1961. He continued to play stage roles until late in his life, appearing at the Geffen Playhouse in “Merton at the Movies” in 1999 and at San Francisco’s Theater on the Square in Carroll O’Connor’s “A Certain Labor Day” in 1997.

Adept at both comedy and drama, Roche made his film debut in 1961, playing a private detective in “Splendor in the Grass.”


In the film “Slaughterhouse Five,” based on the wartime fantasy novel of Kurt Vonnegut, Roche portrayed the likable POW Edgar Derby, who reverently plucked an intact porcelain figurine from the ruins of Dresden only to be executed by his German captors for looting.

But the puckish Roche gained his widest fame on television. He became a household face in the 1970s when as Squeaky Clean, he made kitchens sparkle in commercials for Ajax household cleaner.

Through the 1970s he became Archie Bunker’s neighborhood nemesis on “All in the Family” and the sly attorney Ronald Mallu on the sitcom “Soap.” In the 1980s he portrayed curmudgeonly Luther Gillis, trying to teach upstart Tom Selleck the old-school sleuthing ropes in “Magnum, P.I.,” the lovable landlord Bill Parker on “Webster,” and newspaper editor Harry Burns in “Perfect Strangers.”

Roche often earned critical acclaim for running parts in sitcoms fated for quick demise. He played Julie Andrews’ on-screen television producer in the short-lived “Julie” in 1992, and in 1990 portrayed Lenny Clarke’s father in “Lenny.” In 1987 he took on the role of the retired founder of a public relations firm considering hiring George Segal in “Take Five.”

“Roche is marvelous as the tough-minded businessman who makes no bones about wanting to hire someone to run the firm without letting his son know he isn’t in charge,” The Times’ Lee Margulies wrote, while predicting the series would fail. “Unfortunately, Roche isn’t a regular.”

The actor is survived by his wife, Anntoni; nine children, Jamie, Sean, Chad, Megan, Brogan, Liam and Eamonn Roche, Tara Bradley and Caitlin Horsnail; his brother, John; his sister, Clara Hewes; and nine grandchildren.

Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Cyril of Jerusalem Church, 15520 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

The family has asked that, instead of flowers, memorial contributions be sent to the Actors Fund, 5757 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90036.