Amman Valley actor Hywel Bennett has died at the age of 73.

Best known for portraying James Shelley in the popular 1980s sitcom, the Garnant-born star rose to fame in the 1960s, first appearing in Doctor Who in 1965 before going on to make appearances in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sweeney and Malice Aforethought.

He played the starring role in the film Virgin Soldiers in 1969, but became a household name in the perhaps his most famous role as the layabout philosopher Shelley, in the hit sitcom that ran for five years from 1979.

Bennett was perfectly cast as the lovable, though lazy, intellectual with a sardonic wit and a ready-made excuse.

The show made a four-year comeback in 1988 with The Return Of Shelley.

He spent five years as Peter Baxter in the hit ITV police drama The Bill, while soap fans will also remember his 2003 appearance as gangland boss Jack Dalton in EastEnders.

After a long career in theatre and film, his last role was as Reggie Conway in The Last Detective.

Although born in Garnant, he moved to London in his childhood and went on to attend the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art, where he was spotted as a rising star.

His stage debut came in 1959 where he played the female lead Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the National Youth Theatre when it became the first amateur company to perform in Shaftesbury Avenue and was still casting only male actors, as in Shakespeare’s time – a practice that changed shortly afterwards. He continued with the company for five years, his roles including Richmond in Richard III (Scala theatre, 1963).

He continued on stage as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Parts I & II, Mark Antony in the National Theatre company’s Young Vic production of Julius Caesar, the lead in Hamlet on a 1974 South African tour, Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer and Andrey Prozorov in Three Sisters.

His cinema credits include The Virgin Soldiers (1969), Anyone For Sex? (1973) A Mind To Kill (1991) and Nasty Neighbours (1999).

In 1970 he married TV presenter Cathy McGowan - now partner of singer Michael Ball - and the pair had a daughter together before separating in 1988.

It was however as the thinking man’s layabout Shelley that propelled him to the height of his career. The character was a geography graduate with no desire to work, and the show depicted him gaining and losing job after job, leaving him in constant conflict with the taxman, his bank manager and his father-in-law.

The show ran for six series - until 1984, but it was soon apparent that Bennett’s private life was even more engaging than his on-screen persona.

His heavy drinking made tabloid headlines and saw him to book into a clinic in 1986.

Repeats of the sitcom saw ITV revive the character in The Return of Shelley (1988), before reverting to its original title for three final series between 1989 and 1992.

“The writers had done something pretty amazing,” said Bennett of the show.

“They had created what was almost a monologue and turned it into a popular sitcom.”

Bennett’s TV popularity followed a false start as his career as a big screen actor came at a time when the British film industry was falling from the heights of the 1960s.

“I had come in at the tail end of everything, the studio system and so on,” he told Bryan Appleyard in a 1986 interview.

“I found myself in the early 70s with nowhere to go.”

His first film, The Family Way (1966), was a comedy made by the Boulting brothers, John and Roy, with music by Paul McCartney, in which he played an impotent teenage husband opposite Hayley Mills.

Two years later, he played Mills’s stalker in Roy Boulting’s psychological saga Twisted Nerve (1968), in which the drama turns to terror, and he was with her again in the Agatha Christie thriller Endless Night (1972), taking the role of a chauffeur marrying a wealthy heiress, then moving into a dream home that proves to be a nightmare.

His most enduring film was The Virgin Soldiers, based on Leslie Thomas’s best-selling novel about national service recruits in Singapore.

“Hywel Bennett’s young Brigg appeals by grace of his close-set eyes, puddle brow and general air of queasiness,” said the New York Times.

Bennett was the son of Gordon, a police officer, and Sarah Gwen (nee Lewis). When he was five, the family moved to London.

In 2007, he retired after being diagnosed with a congenital heart defect.

He died on July 25.

He is survived by his second wife, Sandra Layne Fulford, whom he married in 1998, and a daughter, Emma, from his marriage to McGowan, which ended in divorce.