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'Downton Abbey': Will Tom Branson leave the estate?

'I think Tom's place now is at the Abbey,' Leech said of his character Tom Branson, the former chauffeur who married a high-born Crawley daughter. 'I think it's his home.' 'Downton Abbey' aired its season five premiere in the U.S. on Jan. 4.

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    'Downton Abbey' stars Allen Leech (l.), Tom Cullen (center), and Michelle Dockery (r.).
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"Downton Abbey" star Allen Leech has a winning way with accents.

The Irish-born actor employs his native brogue in portraying Tom Branson, the former chauffeur who's become a landed-family insider on the PBS series that returned Sunday for its fifth season. But moviegoers hear a Scotch lilt from Leech's World War II code breaker in "The Imitation Game."

And, for an audience of one, Leech seals his adroitness with an impish take on the posh English tones of "Downton Abbey" creator and writer Julian Fellowes.

When a nanny was discovered mistreating Tom's toddler daughter last season, Leech recalls, he asked Fellowes if Tom could punish the wayward servant.

"I don't think another death on our hands is what we need," Leech said, mimicking Fellowes – who, despite asking, has yet to hear the canny impression.

"As soon as he fires me," Leech said, smiling.

There appears little danger of that. Leech's Tom has become an integral part of Lord Grantham's estate and the series. Tom may lack the elan of the late, lamented Matthew, but his solid warmth, coupled with Leech's helpful handsomeness, make him a worthy Downton leading man.

During a promotional visit here for "Downton Abbey," Leech was careful to avoid giving away details of the latest season – which, to the frustration of some viewers, comes to America after it airs in the U.K. – but he was willing to revisit past threads that are woven in for his character.

Tom, a single father since the death several years before of his high-born wife, is increasingly uneasy in the embrace, however kind, of his wealthy in-laws. Fanning his discontent: an attractive woman who wants him to return to his onetime radicalism.

Teacher-firebrand Sarah Bunting, played by Daisy Lewis, "certainly has reignited his passion for political life but also for change," Leech said. That has Tom seriously mulling a different life in America for him and his daughter.

"Bear in mind, the family aren't enamored of him going anywhere, which is a long way from season two," he said, laughing over Tom's rocky path in wooing Lady Sybil.

Leech's career has moved along nicely since he found, as a child appearing in school plays, that acting allowed him to exercise his imagination.

The real epiphany came at age 11, when he played the Cowardly Lion in a stage production of "The Wizard of Oz" and bumped into a schoolmate's father. The man mentioned that acting was his full-time job.

Immersing himself in the magic of "Oz," he said, "really invigorated me ... and then happening to meet someone who was a professional at this. It just completely changed my outlook on what I wanted to do."

(For movie buffs, he's unrelated to Cary Grant, whose birth name has the same pronunciation but a different spelling, Leach; "I've tried to claim him on different occasions," Leech joked.)

Among Leech's credits: the 2003 movie "Cowboys & Angels" and the TV series "Rome" and "The Tudors." He insists he's content to remain part of "Downton Abbey" until its run concludes, and sees Tom's "happy ending" coming within the boundaries of the grand estate.

"I believe he needs to find love, and he needs to find acceptance from that family for that person that he loves. Because I think Tom's place now is at the Abbey. I think it's his home."

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