Harry Towb: Character actor of stage and screen who starred with Dirk Bogarde in 'The Sleeping Tiger'
Monday 03 August 2009
Harry Towb was a familiar face on British TV from the 1950s onwards, equally happy in popular dramas and serials as in classic plays, but he also appeared in films and had a considerable stage career.
Towb, who had an Irish mother and a Russian father, was supposedly the only Jew born in Larne, County Antrim. After a spell in Newcastle in County Down, the family moved to Belfast. Jewishness and Irishness were themes to which he returned throughout his career.
After theatre work in Ireland, Towb moved to London, quickly finding success. In a 1950 TV production of Roger MacDougall's play The Gentle Gunman, he played the impatient one of two sibling IRA members during the Second World War. But, though impressive, Towb was not sufficiently famous for the 1952 film, and Dirk Bogarde took the role.
In 1951 he played Jerry Devine, the on-off fiancé who finally abandons the pregnant Mary in a BBC production of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. He also had a small part in The Quiet Woman, a B-movie about post-war smugglers. His career would regularly feature Irishmen and criminals. In 1954, he played the former in the turgid, Methodist-backed biopic John Wesley, and the latter opposite Bogarde in The Sleeping Tiger, pseudonymously directed by a blacklisted Joseph Losey.
1950s television offered a stream of one-off dramas, series and would-be serials. Towb played relatively small roles in dramas like the Francis Durbridge six-part thriller The Teckman Biography (1953). But, while one-offs and short series were welcome, a long-term serial, even in a non-starring role, eluded him. ATV's 1955 Steve Hunter, Trouble Merchant folded quickly. But long-running series did offer the chance to play different roles in various, widely spaced episodes. Hence, occasionally credited as Harris Towb, he played a series of Irishmen in the lightly comic Sherlock Holmes (1954-55).
Reliable and versatile, there were few popular series in which Towb didn't make at least one appearance, including The Avengers, Dr Finlay's Casebook, Dr Who, Minder and Heartbeat as well as comedies like Doctor at Sea and The Fenn Street Gang.
Versed in playing shady characters, police and detective serials provided regular work. Dixon of Dock Green had been running since 1955 and unsurprisingly Towb notched up a few episodes. But this was between 1964 and 1974 when the programme had toughened up from its original "evenin' all" 1950s gentility. This change had partly been a reaction to the arrival of Z-Cars in 1962. The late 1960s and 70s saw Towb appear in that series as well as the follow-up, Softly Softly, and Callan.
Later, Towb moved easily into the even tougher cop dramas, playing a retired gangster in The Bill in early 2001. The character was brought back later that year but he didn't become a regular, though Towb did return in different roles in 2004 and 2007. His appearances in Casualty – again in two different parts – were even more widely spaced, between 1992 and 2006. Though these serials offered regular work, Towb avoided soaps. However, in 2008 he appeared in a couple of episodes of EastEnders as the elderly fiancé of the scheming Janine Butcher.
Towb's Jewish heritage was an important part of his career. In 1981 he starred in his own television play Cowboys, about a Jewish Irish-American returning to Belfast after many years. Two years later he fronted Odd Men In, a documentary about Belfast's Jews, a personal highlight coming when he interviewed the Israeli President Chaim Herzog, who was born in the city. He had a small role in Murderers Among Us: the Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989). But two years later he starred in Lawrence Marks and Maurice Gran's overlooked serio-comic take on sectarianism, So You Think You've Got Troubles? (1991), as a man wanting to increase Belfast's Jewish population.
As with television, his film work centred on character roles in films ranging from the First World War fighter- pilot drama The Blue Max (1966), a single Carry On (At Your Convenience, 1971) to The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (2000).
Though best-known for his TV and film work, Towb had a very notable stage career, including several musicals: Bar Mitzvah Boy (1978), Anything Goes (1989) and, for the National, The Beggar's Opera (televised in 1983) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (2004).
His work for the National also included Brighton Beach Memories, Death of a Salesman and Nikolai Erdman's tragic-farcical The Mandate. He had a stint at the RSC (Sherlock Holmes and Travesties on Broadway) and also starred opposite Shelley Winters in the Broadway production of Saul Bellows' Under the Weather.
Back in Ireland he appeared at the Abbey Theatre (The Importance of Being Earnest), and in Belfast recently played Tiresias in Antigone, and starred in Sam McCready's New York State of Mind. Playing a veteran actor mentoring a young man's attempt to get on to Broadway, Towb said:
"Sam could have written that drama for me. I could have been living my own life when I was on stage in this play."
Harry Towb, actor: born Larne, County Antrim 27 July 1925; married 1965 Diana Hoddinott (three children); died London 24 July 2009.
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