Obituary: Tristram Jellinek

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The Independent Online
Tristram Jellinek, actor and antique dealer: born London 28 August 1933; died London 4 November 1995.

Tristram Jellinek combined the dual careers of actor and antique dealer with aplomb and in both professions he made his own distinctive mark. As a character actor who gave many a sharply etched cameo, he was a familiar face in feature films and on television. As an antique dealer, he achieved a reputation for having a keen eye for a bargain, backed by a very personal taste. To both careers he brought an attitude of fine critical discernment combined with fastidious application.

When Jellinek returned to acting just over 10 years ago, he struck a useful vein in the portrayal of a certain brand of English upper-class acerbity, a characteristic which won him a lucrative contract when in 1985 he was chosen to play a disdainful duke in a long-running American television commercial advertising Schweppes Tonic Water, purveyed as a prime necessity in the pursuit of an aristocratic life style. He also appeared in movies such as Greystoke, Another Country, Revolution, White Mischief, M. Butterfly and A Handful of Dust, giving to each of his directors an immediate, finely judged character without fret or fuss. His television appearances included such plays as Selling Hitler and The Old Devils and popular series such as Widows and One Foot in the Grave.

It was, however, for the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, that most daring of British repertory companies, that he did his best work. As Pawnie in Philip Prowse's arrestingly febrile production of Noel Coward's The Vortex (which transferred to the Garrick Theatre, in London, in 1990), he brought to the role of the elderly tabbycat boulevardier a feline relish which did not mask a touching sense of inner desolation. As Karenin (in Anna Karenina, 1987) he was again ideally cast as Tolstoy's painfully decent but passionless cuckold. In 1990 he appeared with Glenda Jackson as the Chaplain in Mother Courage, in 1991 as a boilingly choleric Anthony Absolute in The Rivals and in 1993 as the desperately beleaguered Dr Rance in Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw.

Jellinek was born in London in 1933, to a father of Czech origin and an English mother, but he was brought up mainly in the Home Counties. After school in Dorset, Sussex and Hampshire and two years' national service with the RAF regiment at Boscombe Down, he won a scholarship to RADA to train as an actor. His first jobs were in repertory in Harrogate and Eastbourne and he later appeared in a variety of plays at Richmond, Leatherhead and Hornchurch, playing everything from a Japanese denizen of The Teahouse of the August Moon to Simple Simon in Mother Goose.

In 1959 he appeared in the West End with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Visit directed by Peter Brook and in 1964 he was in a production of Oblomov at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, with Spike Milligan and Joan Greenwood. But in spite of such frequent stage employment and steady work in films and television (he appeared in 13 episodes of Harpers W1) his ardour for acting was taking second place to his early obsession with antiques.

Beginning with a stall in the Portobello Road in the late Sixties, he became an expert in pottery and graduated to a shop in Peel Street, Kensington. Later he was in partnership in the Brompton Road and finally in the mid- Eighties he opened a charming shop, Lindsay Antiques, in Church Street, Kensington (named after his partner Lindsay Shand, who died earlier this year), which became a Mecca for connoisseurs and leading London decorators and reflected Jellinek's flair for finding sometimes unlikely articles and, by dint of his sense of display and presentation, making them covetable wares.

His innate flair was much in evidence both in his successive houses in Notting Hill Gate, filled with fine and unusual furniture and decorated with panache, and also in his country retreats in the Cotswolds, first in a late-18th-century Gothic manor-house and later a pretty cottage in the grounds.

Although as an actor Jellinek specialised in defining a kind of English froideur, in real life he was a warm companion who relished gossip and employed an enjoyable vein of waspish humour. In appearance he could have modelled for an austere Roman bust, a look which suited his sometimes imperious manner. Asked on stage by a nervous young actor what he should do next, he furiously whispered: "Not much - and probably just as badly."

It was fitting that his last performances, as the Inquisitor in Schiller's Don Carlos, were given at the Glasgow Citizens, in an environment that he had always found adventurous and congenial and where his intelligence and professional exactitude were properly valued. Typical of the insouciance and fortitude with which he faced his long illness was the fact that he missed only two performances and been playing on stage until six weeks before his death.