Alan Tilvern

Versatile stage and television actor with a tough-guy image
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The Independent Online

Alan Tilvern, actor: born London 5 November 1918; married 1963 Diane Elliott (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 17 December 2003.

Alan Tilvern was one of those "I-know-your-face" actors. Few people outside the theatrical profession could have put a name to the features of the performer who sprang into unexpected prominence when he played Hickey in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Iceman Cometh in the summer of 1976. He was understudy to Ian Holm, who fell ill during the second preview of the play at the Aldwych Theatre. Harold Hobson described Tilvern's performance as "stunning" and both Herbert Kretzmer and Milton Shulman put him on a par with Edward G. Robinson.

He was born in Whitechapel, London, in 1918, the son of Jewish Lithuanian parents, the name Tilvern being a derivation of Tilovitch. On leaving school he became a barrow boy in Brick Lane, a toughening-up process that stood him in good stead during his Second World War years in the Army. He was invalided out of the service in 1945 and joined Oldham Rep as a juvenile lead.

Other repertory engagements followed and he made his West End début in the late Forties. Appearances in Awake and Sing (Saville Theatre, 1951) and The Queen and the Rebels (Haymarket Theatre) followed. In 1958, he was a notable Gooper in Peter Hall's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Comedy Theatre, which was forced to become a club when the Lord Chamberlain labelled the play too lewd to be granted a licence for the general public.

In the following years he featured, among other productions, in The Wooden Dish, The Trial of Mary Dugan, Nuts and Pal Joey, and a season with Brian Rix's Theatre of Comedy at the Garrick. These firmly established him as a versatile West End character actor.

It was while understudying Sam Wanamaker in Winter Journey that Tilvern's approach to the theatre completely changed. He became interested in Method acting, of which Wanamaker was a star disciple, and Tilvern was inspired by his example. Thus he became a founder member of a group (which included Warren Mitchell) which studied Lee Strasberg and the Method. It gathered on alternate Sunday afternoons in a basement flat in Albany Street where improvisations took place. These were friendly - if serious-minded - workshops, interspersed with lively discussions, although on one occasion blood was spilt.

Tilvern's tough-guy image gave him easy access into the television of the early Fifties, where he played a posse of gangsters and detectives, most of these parts sailing perilously close to either side of the law. He was also a dependable straight man in comedy and made two appearances in Dad's Army. For most viewers he will be best remembered as a regular in Poldark.

He made a considerable mark in almost 40 films, playing cockneys, Americans and a host of mid- Europeans. His versatility did not end there. With his dark, interesting looks and in that era of politically incorrect casting, he could be transformed into a Mexican bandit, Hernandez, in Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), or a North African tribesman, Awaan, in Khartoum (1966), and numerous ethnic types.

But his forte was playing detectives and he gained much approbation as Superintendent Hanna in The Siege of Pinchgut, shot in Australia in 1959, and R.K. Maroon in Steven Spielberg's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). One of his last performances was at Glyndebourne as the detective (non-singing) in a production of Porgy and Bess with Willard White which was filmed and recorded in 1992.

Tilvern was a keen trade unionist, an early advocate of rights for actors which today are taken for granted and he was an active member on the North American committee of the actors' union Equity. Harry Landis, president of Equity, described Tilvern as having great warmth and a dry sense of humour. When out of work, his favourite saying - in Yiddish - was "The telephone rings and life changes".

His was a restless spirit and at one time he enlisted for the BBC's television director's course. He graduated and directed a few episodes of Compact before realising that he did not relish being behind the camera. On another occasion, fancying himself as an entrepreneur, he went into the mail-order business with a friend, selling cuckoo clocks for Christmas. They sold six.

Harry Towb