James Booth

Leading actor of the 1960s who specialised in playing cheerful cockneys

James Booth was a major figure in the British film and theatre world in the 1960s, specialising in playing cheerful cockneys with a touch of larceny. The trade magazine Variety once described him as "a punchy blend of toughness, potential evil and irresistible charm."

The tall, broad-shouldered actor was particularly associated with two icons of the period, Joan Littlewood and Lionel Bart. He starred in Littlewood's screen version of Sparrows Can't Sing, and on stage he had leading roles in the Bart musicals Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Twang! His best remembered screen role was as the heroic soldier in Zulu, but his career stalled in the 1970s due to his reputation as a drinker and hell-raiser. "I've always been hot-tempered," he confessed, "over-egotistical and in some ways violent." Settling in the United States, he became a successful character actor, appearing in David Lynch's cult television series Twin Peaks, and he also became a writer of note, scripting mainly action movies.

Born David Geeves in Croydon, Surrey, in 1927, he was the son of a probation officer. He attended Southend Grammar School, but left at 17 to join the Army, attaining the rank of Captain. He was working in the offices of a mining company when, at the age of 24, he began to take part in amateur dramatics and was persuaded to apply for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He trained there from 1954 to 1956 in the same class as Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates and Richard Harris.

While there he met the producer Irving Allen, who later gave him a film contract, and the stage manager Paula Delaney, whom he married in 1960. He was to say later, "I don't know what kind of mess my life would be in today if it hadn't been for Paula and Irving. I'm a very insecure person. I've always needed someone to give me security. And they both did".

He made his stage début, as James Booth, with a season at the Old Vic, "spear-carrying" in eight Shakespeare plays. In 1959 he joined the British People's Theatre Workshop, Joan Littlewood's company, which had its home at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. He played an IRA officer in her production of The Hostage, then was given a starring role in Lionel Bart's musical about East End life Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, which featured Miriam Karlin, Barbara Windsor, Yootha Joyce and Toni Palmer among its other players. In her autobiography, Windsor confesses that she found him "gorgeous" and that they had "a little affair".

The show had started life as a set of pages of dialogue written by Frank Norman, an ex-prisoner, and offered to Littlewood, who saw the potential for a musical and enlisted Bart to write a score, which he did in two weeks. The semi-improvised show about work-shy "Teddy Boys", small-time crooks, soft-hearted prostitutes and "bent" policemen opened in 1959 in Stratford and ran for six sell-out weeks. Later in the year Littlewood re-staged it with some major revisions, and in February 1960 it transferred to the Garrick Theatre, in the West End, where it was a great success, running for two years.

As the pimp, Tosher, Booth had one of the show-stopping numbers, "The Student Ponce" ("He'll end up earning a fortune, but only by using his bonce"). Littlewood later said of him, "At all hours you'd find him propping up the bar, a cynical, witty, impossible character, lanky and agile, with his own peculiar way of tackling life, and acting."

In 1962 Booth spent a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, his performances including a memorable Edmund to Paul Scofield's King Lear in Peter Brook's production of the play. The same year, Booth played Mick in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, at the Oxford Playhouse.

Booth made his screen début in 1959, with the role of the gangster Spider Kelly in Jazzboat, starring Anthony Newley, a role he reprised in the sequel, In the Nick (1960). He gave a fine performance as blackmailing Alfred Wood in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and a broadly comic one in In the Doghouse (1961), with Leslie Phillips. He had a starring role opposite Barbara Windsor in Joan Littlewood's only film as director, Sparrows Can't Sing (1962). Although its title was more refined than the original stage version's - Sparrers Can't Sing - the film still had to be sub-titled in much of America because of the cockney dialect. A mild comedy, it is notable today for its great cast of character performers who were Littlewood alumni, including Booth, Windsor, Yootha Joyce, Roy Kinnear, Victor Spinetti, Avis Bunnage, Brian Murphy and Murray Melvin.

Booth's flair for comedy was particularly displayed in the first feature film directed by Ken Russell, French Dressing (1963), and the following year he had a memorable screen role as Private Henry "Hookie" Hook, the unlikely hero of Zulu, the rousing account of the famous battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879. Also in 1964 he starred at the Comedy Theatre as the non-confirmist hero of Herb Gardner's play A Thousand Clowns. He then starred as a cockney Robin Hood in Lionel Bart's disastrously ill-fated musical Twang! (1965), which cost the composer all his savings.

Booth then had prominent screen roles in the films The Secret of My Success (1965), as a naïve policeman, The Bliss of Mrs Blossom (1968), as Shirley MacLaine's secret lover who adopts a multitude of disguises, and Robbery (1967), as a Scotland Yard inspector who nails all but one of a bunch of train robbers.

He headed a distinguished comedy cast in the patchy Rentadick (1972), written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and played the father of would-be rock star (David Essex) in That'll Be the Day (1973). But he had a surprisingly small part supporting John Wayne in Brannigan (1975), and a role the same year in the "sexploitation" film I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight was indicative of the downward path of his career at the time.

In 1975 he appeared on Broadway as James Joyce in Tom Stoppard's play Travesties and accepted an offer to work as a writer in Los Angeles. He took minor roles in American movies, including Airport 77 (1977) and The Jazz Singer (1980), and appeared in such television shows as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Mission: Impossible and Charlie's Angels, while writing scripts for both film and TV. He co-wrote the screenplay for the comedy starring Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Sunburn (1979), and he acted in several action movies that he also wrote, including Pray for Death (1985, a superior kung fu thriller), Avenging Force (1987) and American Ninja 4 (1991). He found his greatest international fame playing the cowardly ex-convict Ernie Miles in Twin Peaks (1990).

Returning to the UK, he had television roles as charming con-men in Minder and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and he was still acting this year, with a role in the forthcoming film Keeping Mum, starring Rowan Atkinson.

Tom Vallance

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