David Kossoff

Actor, writer and raconteur

Actor, writer and story-teller, David Kossoff was an amiable and versatile performer who had successes in theatre, film, radio and television. On stage, he memorably created the Jewish tailor of Wolf Mankowitz's
The Bespoke Overcoat, on television he had a hit series,
The Larkins, and on screen he won the British equivalent of an Oscar for his portrayal of a kindly tailor in
A Kid for Two Farthings.

David Kossoff, actor, writer and illustrator: born London 24 November 1919; twice married (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Hatfield, Hertfordshire 23 March 2005.

Actor, writer and story-teller, David Kossoff was an amiable and versatile performer who had successes in theatre, film, radio and television. On stage, he memorably created the Jewish tailor of Wolf Mankowitz's The Bespoke Overcoat, on television he had a hit series, The Larkins, and on screen he won the British equivalent of an Oscar for his portrayal of a kindly tailor in A Kid for Two Farthings.

A noted purveyor of Jewish lore, he demonstrated his skill as a raconteur in several one-man shows in the theatre, and through his readings of bible stories on radio and television. Though the dapper, moustached actor was often cast as the archetypal Jewish East-Ender, he invested such characters with a warmth and humanity that avoided stereotype. After his son Paul, the guitarist with the rock group Free, died of heroin addiction, much of his later life was given to campaigning against hard drugs.

Kossoff was born in 1919 to Russian parents in the East End of London, where his father worked in a garment factory. After training as a draughtsman at the Northern Polytechnic, he worked as a furniture designer and aircraft draughtsman while privately studying acting. He made his stage début at the left-wing Unity Theatre in the play Spanish Village (1942), about the Spanish Civil War, remaining with the Unity until 1945, during that time writing and directing many shows performed for members of the services and for people sheltering from air-raids.

In August 1945, the Second World War over, he joined the BBC Repertory Company, where he remained for six years, acting in hundreds of radio plays - including the cult sci-fi series Journey into Space. He returned to the theatre in 1952 to take over the role of Colonel Ikonenko in Peter Ustinov's comedy The Love of Four Colonels. At the Arts Theatre in 1953 he created one of his best-remembered parts, that of the conscience-stricken tailor, Morry, in The Bespoke Overcoat, adapted by Wolf Mankowitz from a Gogol short story. Kossoff and his co-star Alfie Bass repeated their acclaimed performances in Jack Clayton's film version in 1955, which won the best short film prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Other theatre appearances included Ustinov's No Sign of the Dove (1953), Mankowitz's The Boychick (1954), as the narrator Mendel in The World of Sholom Aleichem (1957), and as part of a quorum formed to exorcise an evil spirit from a young Jewish girl, in Paddy Chayevsky's The Tenth Man (1961). He also had a notable personal success as the Jewish patriarch in Neil Simon's comedy Come Blow Your Horn (1962), shocked at the wild life style of his two sons and declaring that any man over 30 who is not married is a wastrel.

His film career began modestly, with a small role in a B-movie about the pitfalls of hire purchase, The Good Beginning (1953), but the following year he made a strong impression in Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings. Adapted by Wolf Mankowitz from his own short story, it told the whimsical tale of a young boy who believes that his pet goat, with its one horn, is actually a unicorn he has been told about by a kindly tailor, Kandinsky.

Kossoff's flair for comedy resulted in roles in revue - Stars in Your Eyes (1960) - and pantomime - Baron Hardup in Cinderella (1971) - both shows at the Palladium. His other films included Anthony Asquith's The Young Lovers (1954) and Ralph Thomas's The Iron Petticoat (1956), playing a KGB spy in the Cold War comedy starring Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn. In Philip Leacock's sensitive tear-jerker Innocent Sinners (1958), he and Barbara Mullen were a kindly, hard-up couple who, with the help of a lonely spinster (Flora Robson) are able to adopt an unruly teenager. In the Peter Sellers comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), Kossoff played Professor Kokintz, a role he reprised in the sequel, Mouse on the Moon (1963), and in John Huston's Freud (1962) he played Freud's father. His last film was Staggered (1994).

On television, Kossoff played the Sheriff of Nottingham in a six-episode version of Robin Hood (1953), and the following year he played Morry again in a television production of The Bespoke Overcoat. In 1958 he created his best-known role, that of Alf Larkin, the resourceful but henpecked cockney husband of battle-axe supreme Peggy Mount in the television series The Larkins, written by Fred Robinson. It was a hit, and in 1959 he and Mount starred in a screen version, Inn for Trouble, in which the couple inherit a decrepit pub which they put on its feet by selling a particularly potent beer.

Kossoff also had considerable success performing his own material. In 1957 he compiled a one-man show at the Arts Theatre, With One Eyebrow Slightly Up, and in 1963 he performed another one-man show, Kossoff at the Prince Charles, which he later took to Adelaide and New York, with the title, A Funny Kind of Evening with David Kossoff. In his own play On Such a Night (1969) he starred as an actor-manager playing Shylock in a touring edition of The Merchant of Venice.

In 1961 he started reading his own adaptations of bible stories on "Thought for the Day" on the radio, and their success spawned best-selling books. He also appeared on television in his own series, Storytime, telling his bible stories with an endearing wit and self-deprecating humour. Asked by Who's Who in the Theatre to name his favourite parts, he replied, "Big ones", and he described his hobby as "writing best-sellers".

Tom Vallance

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