Steven Berkoff of Stepney by John Rennie
You may know him as the suavely evil gangland boss Victor Maitland, who torments Eddie Murphy in the 1980s smash movie Beverly Hills Cop. Or the villainous Russian General Orlov, Roger Moore’s adversary in Octopussy.
You may know him better for his own plays, drawing deep on his childhood and teenage memories of East End life, to write and produce East and West. Or maybe as the producer and director of 30-odd years of pedigree avant-garde theatre, adapting and bringing new life to the plays and books of literary heavies like Kafka, with The Trial and Metamorphosis.
Steven Berkoff is a tough talent to pin down – which is probably just how he’d want it – but his road to becoming an international movie star and successful producer and director starts back in the 1930s enclave of East End Jewish immigrants, and an endless succession of dead-end jobs.
Berkoff was born in Stepney in 1937. Berkoff’s father Abraham (Al) ran a tailor’s shop in Leman Street, from which the talented cutter would turn out lavishly-made zoot suits for the West Indians who were already settling in London.
He also catered for East End boxers who were making a name for themselves – Jewish fighters like Ted Kid Lewis and Kid Berg, both world champions.
After the war, the Berkoffs returned to the East End following an ill-fated attempt to settle in the US. Home now was two rooms and an outside loo in Anthony Street, off the Commercial Road.
With chickens in the back yard, it was a far cry from the glamour of New York, but there was plenty to entertain the young Steven.
The Troxy Cinema in Poplar was the local venue for Saturday morning films, and there was the Palaseum at the end of the road for the Sunday afternoon film.
Steven was enrolled at Raine’s Foundation in Arbour Square – a first-rate school – where he was a near-contemporary of fellow playwright Harold Pinter.
And his physical welfare was taken care of by regular dips in the lido at Victoria Park in summer, and at Betts Street Baths, off Cable Street, in the winter.
The East End was a fascinating playground, and the young Berkoff would spend hours in Petticoat Lane market, transfixed by the wares at the stamp collectors’ corner and examining the animals in the now-defunct Club Row livestock market for signs of ill-treatment.
It was a world Berkoff would dip into time and again in his later work.
After a succession of aimless jobs in the fabric and garment trades, miserable stints in West End clothes shops, and a spell working in the US Army PX’s in Germany, Berkoff studied drama in London and Paris.
He worked in rep, appearing on TV in 1960s favourites like The Avengers, before forming his own company, the London Theatre Group, in 1968.
Drawing on his East End memories, Berkoff penned his first original stage play, East, first presented at the Edinburgh Festival in 1975.
West, Decadence, Greek, Kvetch, Acapulco, Harry’s Christmas, Lunch, Sink the Belgrano, Massage, Sturm und Drang and Brighton Beach Scumbags followed from the writer’s prolific pen.
Meanwhile, the energetic Berkoff was mounting plays and adaptations in Japan, Germany and Los Angeles – Richard II and Coriolanus for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and touring with his one-man show in Britain, the US, South Africa, Finland, Italy, Singapore and Australia.
But to many he was better known for his film portrayals of sinister heavies, revisiting the East End for his role as murder victim George Cornell in the film of The Krays.
And, at 61, the former East End boy is still busy, with his new book of short stories, Graft, now in the shops, and a run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in Shakespeare’s Villains.
Graft – Tales of an Actor,
by Steven Berkoff,
ISBN:1 84002 040 7, £12.
by Steven Berkoff,
ISBN: 0 571 19629 6, £7.99.