Guest Actor Biography
Page 10 of 127


Steven Berkoff

Sager, The Gravediggers

by Pete Stampede

When I first saw "The Gravediggers" in the mid-80's, Steven Berkoff—playwright and egotistical loon—seemed to be the villain in just about every silly big-budget action movie (Rambo, Beverly Hills Cop, Octopussy). I remember being startled to see that, apart from his hair now being shorn in a "skinhead" fashion, he hardly looked any different twenty years later. How ironic for someone who claimed in his autobiography that his plays will still be performed in a hundred years, and compared himself to Shakespeare!

To say that Berkoff is not the most popular person in the industry would be a massive understatement. In his interviews and personal appearances, he seems to take the role of a heavy, which he has invariably been cast in, to new extremes by conveying the impression that he's like that in real life. On one Radio 4 interview, he claimed, without any visible irony, that he is constantly angry from the minute he wakes up, and that his first act is to focus his anger on his toaster. He was born in East London in 1937, where his father was a tailor; some of his heavies have been of the Cockney variety, including his roles in his own plays, and despite usually speaking in a clipped, cut-glass accent, it's clear from his autobiography Free Association (1996) that he fancies himself as a genuine East End villain type in real life. Following an unflattering review of one of his plays by The Guadrian's then theatre critic Nicholas De Jongh, Berkoff made a death threat to De Jongh during a chance meeting in a pub; when De Jongh took this seriously and called in official protection, Berkoff claimed that he had been joking, and that De Jongh clearly didn't have a very good sense of humour. In 1997, Derek Jacobi and other leading actors publicly slated Berkoff for breaking a strike by the actors' union over working on commercials, and stated they would never want to work with him again. And what had Berkoff, the angst-ridden artist, done to break the terms of the strike? Why, a voice-over for McDonalds. Very Bertolt Brecht, I don't think.

To be fair, the early part of his career, largely spent in the now defunct repertory system where he had uncharacteristic roles in farces and drawing-room thrillers, was intriguingly recounted in Free Association: his ego had less chance to assert itself when he was just a jobbing actor. He began appearing in films as an extra, while still at drama school. In Free Association, he admitted to I Was Monty's Double (1958, with Kenneth J. Warren), The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), The Captain's Table (1959) and The Devil's Disciple (1959), as well as unspecified episodes of The Four Just Men (1959), in which Honor Blackman was a semi-regular. I've also spotted him in The Flesh and the Fiends (1959), listening to a lecture by Peter Cushing, while the British Film Institute's database lists him as having an unbilled role in the silly monster movie Konga (1961). He was the Player, performed in mime, in Hamlet At Elsinore (BBC, 1964), much later writing a book about the experience of playing the Dane and its relevance for today: with typical modesty, it was called I Am Hamlet. His vaguely foreign looks ensured his casting in several of the ITC series: a Spanish revolutionary in The Champions, "The Iron Man" (1968), one of Clifford Evans' minions (who all wore costumes suggesting they'd just been beamed down from the U.S.S. Enterprise), in The Saint, "The Man Who Gambled With Life" (1968), and fleeting, sometimes non-speaking appearances as a pilot in several episodes of Gerry Anderson's UFO (1970). Much later, an appearance in an episode of Anderson's abysmal live action series Space Precinct (1994) was surely only done as a favour. Again working for Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, he was a Soviet agent, a role that by now he could do in his sleep, in The Professionals, "A Man Called Quinn" (1983).

He could be spotted as a thuggish interrogator in A Clockwork Orange (1971; no doubt, he saw himself playing Alex), and shortly after began writing and staging his own plays, written in staccato, usually rhyming patterns, violent in themes and (frequently) in language, and with titles like East, Greek, West and just to ring the changes, Brighton Beach Scumbags. Most of these draw on his own background, though some were adapted from existing works such as Greek myths; his adaptation of Metamorphosis in the 80's was well rated, although typically, he couldn't resist comparing himself to Kafka in the publicity. The Cockney villain aspect of his plays got him a role as a con in McVicar (1980), a careless with the facts life story of real life villain and later journalist John McVicar; rather sad to see an emaciated Ian Hendry as a dogged cop in this, his last movie. Berkoff's run of Hollywood villainy followed, culminating in his playing Adolf Hitler in the mini-series War and Remembrance (TV, 1989), but he has been less visible in the mainstream since, not really becoming the all-time screen villain he seemed destined to be. And his self-directed film of his play Decadence (1993), with Joan Collins of all people, barely lasted a week in cinemas. His latest film, Rancid Aluminum (1999) had its release delayed after unenthusiastic responses from test audiences as far back as July 1999, and was not given a press screening on its release last week—now, what does that remind you of?! (What reviews it has had have been decimatory, needless to say.) He has recently appeared in a guest role in the BBC's revival of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)—why the hell can't they leave my favourites alone! Curious, really, that he was never in the original series.

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Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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