THERE were three lives of David Kossoff — the actor, the Bible commentator and the evangelist. In a way all three were very closely connected, although his work with the Bible had practically nothing to do with his evangelism — which, in turn, was disconnected from any kind of conventional religious practice. But perhaps because of that fact, it turned into a religious experience more sincere than many garbed in tradition. His evangelism was a one-man effort — to call it a one-man show almost belittles what he did — to rid the world of the scourge of hard drugs, the kind that had killed his 25-year-old son Paul.
Kossoff was not a religious man in any formal definition of the term and yet in his two previous “lives” as the actor and as the Bible commentator, he had seemed to epitomise many people’s ideas of an Old Testament prophet. Some of his greatest roles were playing, if not rabbis, then rabbis manqués — grey-haired elderly men (he specialised in aged characters even while still himself young) with Russian-Yiddish accents living in London’s East End.
That part, at least, was real. He was born in 1919, the son of Louis Kossoff and his wife Anne in the centre of what was then regarded as the teeming ghetto to which Jews like his parents had come after stepping off the ships that had brought them from Russian persecution.
In film roles like those of the tailors in Wolf Mankowitz’s two best motion-picture productions, A Kid for Two Farthings and The Bespoke Overcoat, he epitomised the wisdom and the suffering of men of the generation he was supposed to be portraying. In the latter piece in 1957, he was repeating the role of Morry he had already played on stage at the Arts Theatre in June 1953 and again at the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, the following year.
There were many similar roles for him: as Mendele in The World of Sholem Aleichem at the same theatre — a part he recreated in a South African production in Johannesburg — as Nathan in The Boychik, also at the Embassy, and as Schissel in The Tenth Man at the Comedy in April 1961. The following year, he played Mr Baker in another similar role of the Jewish patriarch in the comedy Come Blow Your Horn at the Prince of Wales. Then he was Morris Seidman in Seidman and Son at the Playhouse in 1965. In New York, at the off-Broadway Fleur-de-Lys theatre he acted the part of Cohen in Two Weeks Somewhere Else. Back in London, at the Mermaid in January 1970, he played Morry Swartz in Enter Solly Gold, and three years later, was Aaron Bromberg in the play Bunny at the Criterion.
Despite those characterisations, he would say that he did not live a terribly Jewish life. His wife, Jennie Jenkins, whom he married in 1947, was not of his faith. Indeed, those roles apart, he did not totally restrict himself to Jewish patriarchs. One of his most famous early radio roles was in the longrunning postwar series, Journey Into Space. In the 1960s his most successful television part was as a cockney in the longrunning The Larkins.
Kossoff was not an easy man to know. He could be abrasive and made it very clear he had no intention of suffering gladly anyone he might himself have regarded as a fool. He was as impatient as he was generous with his talents.
He had had no intention of becoming an actor after leaving his East London elementary school. He went to art school and set out to be an interior designer, mostly of furniture. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was working as an aircraft draughtsman.
His first stage appearance was at the age of 23 at the intensely left-wing Unity Theatre in November 1942, playing the part of Juan Rojo in the Spanish Civil War play The Spanish Village. He stayed with the Unity, playing a variety of parts for three years, and directing as well as acting in plays that were put on specially to entertain people spending night after night in air-raid shelters.
Kossoff was almost as practised a hand at playing Russians as he was portraying aged Jews. In any number of plays the sight of a white-coated scientist speaking with a foreign accent signalled the appearance of David Kossoff. But his most notable Russian role was as Colonel Alexander Ikomenko in Peter Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels which he played at Wyndhams from November 1952.
He played a Russian again — this time a KGB spy — in the Katharine Hepburn-Bob Hope film The Iron Petticoat. But although he had made his film debut in 1950 in The Good Beginning, it was in The Bespoke Overcoat and A Kid for Two Farthings that he shone. He also appeared in Freud in 1962 and in The Ring of Spies two years later.
He had joined the BBC drama repertory company in 1945, and his easily-recognised voice was heard in hundreds of radio plays. But it was in 1961 that he scored his greatest success in the medium. He started reading his Bible stories in Thought for the Day segments. They became so popular that before long, he had several series in his own right, each of which spawned bestseller pamphlets which in turn became books. They later also formed a television series.
The stories were highly original interpretations of tales like the Jonah and the Whale episode — told in what could fairly be described as the Very Unauthorised Version According to Kossoff. Later, he ventured not altogether successfully into the New Testament. He admitted that he moved from Old to New with a degree of trepidation and only after countless requests to do so from the BBC.
He also wrote his own individual prayer book, which he called You’ve Got a Moment, Lord? In the early 1980s, he also wrote Stories From A Small Town, based on the folk tales of 19th-century Jewish Russia.
At a charity variety performance in the mid-1950s Kossoff had declared on stage, “I am proud to say that I am the father of two sons who are NOT geniuses. They are just very normal.” Alas, that was not true. Paul, his elder son, who had achieved success as a rock musician, got hooked on drugs and fell a fatal victim of the habit.
It affected Kossoff so intensely that he vowed to give up almost all his professional work to devote his time to fighting the drugs trade and the misery it brought. Free of charge, he began touring the country soon after Paul’s death with his show The Late Great Paul. It was far from maudlin. He told jokes, enthralled audiences in professional theatres and in small, draughty village hills alike with his folk tales. With a white beard and the wisdom he dispensed, he seemed more like a rabbi than ever.
Kossoff’s wife Jennie died in 1995. He is survived by one son.
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David Kossoff (1919-2005)