The Times March 21, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Slovenly, ignorant, inept – his attacks on fellow actors are legendary. Does he have a softer side?

Steven Berkoff

You definitely don’t want to be around Johnny Friendly when he smiles, and the same could be said of Steven Berkoff, who plays the murderous, most unfriendly, union boss in his play of Elia Kazan’s classic film On the Waterfront. The acting-directing-writing-theatre-company-founding polymath has his own intimidating form when it comes to interviewers (particularly women) as well as theatre critics, whom he has abused in various ways, with insults, bannings, even a death threat.

With the rapturous reviews of his new production (he is director as well as actor) one might have expected to find Berkoff in a sunnier disposition than usual. But not a bit of it. His mood matches his clothing and setting – black jogging gear, black table and chairs, huge black and white photographs of East End characters (taken by him), more gloom in the monumental canvases of rough-hewn faces by Peter Howson. Even the water lapping against the deck of his Limehouse office, a wall of glass looking out on to the murky Thames, fails to soothe.

Berkoff may be the most charmless person I’ve interviewed, eclipsing even Madonna, which is no mean feat. Eye contact is minimal. Small talk non-existent. Manners have been bypassed altogether. “What’s this about?” he raps out by way of introduction, plonking himself at the head of the table. “What is it called, the thing? Does it have a title, this piece?” About 20 minutes in, more barking: “What’s next? Anything else? Get on with it.”

Actors who have displeased him (because it “tends to be a little bit of a cross to bear being a perfectionist”) are often those who have come through the major theatres – which rejected Berkoff (but, no, he’s not bitter) – pain him with their “slovenly ineptitude…their flaws…and ignorance”.

He says that he has never been snide about a director and I remind him of one that he described as a dictator: “Oh, he was a ghastly kind of power-mad lunatic. I didn’t want to hit him – kill him, maybe – no just avoid him and not look at his ugly…loathsome…smug…smarmy little face,” each word weighted in the verbal equivalent of GBH. The film was called Fair Game. “It died a thousand deaths. I felt the poor man may have been bullied by his producer but he was sarcastic and that’s the worst thing.”

He was bullied himself as a child growing up in the East End; son of Albert, a tailor, and Pauline Berks. Steven was christened Leslie, which he loathed almost as much as Berks. He switched to his middle name, adding “Off” to his surname to preserve the ethnic ring without reverting to Berkovitch, which Albert had abbreviated to assimilate in the adopted country of his Russian forebears.

What with Berkoff’s descriptions of his colleagues in the theatre, and his behaviour towards my sisters in the press – he has described them as “angst-ridden bitches” with “second-rate minds” – I wondered if the bullied had not turned into a bully. But he says: “I’ve never needed to or had the desire to bully because I find the opposite is much more satisfying. To be gentle, loving, caring,” a slow icy smile. “But, occasionally, if something really strikes you as being unjust, to express a little bit of anger is all right.”

There was more than a little anger between his parents, which the young Berkoff witnessed often and absorbed. His father was a gambler, a womaniser and absent for long periods. Rejection and disappointment became leitmotifs in his son’s life and on a personal level, with his 72nd birthday on the horizon, all his memories seem to be pickled in bile and a lot of pain. “As Ibsen knew very well in Ghosts, we inherit the curses of the past. And it could be that the pattern and behaviour of my father or his father has created in me a distrust of marriage, and that, in turn, did not perhaps make me the most perfect passer of the baton to the next generation.” They f*** you up your Mum and Dad? “Well, I think you inherit that pattern of conflict. I always saw them fighting and horrible, horrible shouting when I was young. I can remember it vividly, 5 or 6 years old, and there would be screaming and terrible language. But anyway I think that might have affected me.”

I ask him whether he believes that people’s faces reveal their characters; he does, but says it’s for others to decide what secrets to the soul the Berkoff features might reveal. It is a face, coupled with a certain atmosphere its owner projects, that has provided a lucrative income in an array of cinematic sadists: from the Krays to Rambo (as opposed to Rimbaud, the French poet, whom he had rather hoped the film might be about) to Octopussy.

Berkoff says that he hopes his face denotes trustworthiness which, to him, is the most precious quality in a person: “Trustworthiness – to believe in someone, and you, yourself, to be believed in. Not to be betrayed. That may be a little extreme, to talk about words like ‘betrayal’. But within this industry you need to have people that you can believe in and who believe in you.” His father, he says, betrayed his trust: “Oh totally. Absolutely and utterly, unfortunately. And that’s why I’ve always sought it in other men and sought – perhaps too eagerly – honesty and integrity and response in other men. When I find somebody who’s even remotely loyal or decent to me, I will move heaven and earth to fulfill his needs and I will love him for the rest of my life. When I don’t get it, sometimes I’m apt to become a little more disappointed than I should be; when a man is busy and he’s got other agendas – I can kind of really take it too much to heart.”

His mother was a pianist but even she let him down, he says. “Could you believe that I begged for a piano, every year since I was 4 or 5, but she said, ‘No, you’ll get over it’ or ‘We’re going to be moving away’. My parents were rather ignorant of my desires or not prepared to fulfil them.”

There were a couple of failed marriages early on, but the most abiding relationship of his life has been with his German partner, Clara Fischer, a handsome woman who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a classical pianist. They were introduced through a mutual friend, about 20 years ago, when Berkoff finally bought a piano and needed lessons. “I practised very hard for some months but by then it was too late and I knew it was too late. Eventually I couldn’t bear it; it was a threat to me so I had to give it up.”

What a curious, cussed cove he is. At some point during the interview I actually begin to enjoy the challenge of the Berkoff experience and not in a masochistic way. There is something oddly relaxing about being with someone who is so utterly careless about conventional conversational decorum. And unlike Madonna, he does have real talent. We had met, years ago, at a party hosted by one of the few women journalists he appeared to like. We stood on a tiny roof garden of a flat in the heart of Soho and he was a different character then, stylishly dressed in a tailored gangsterish suit, like the Zoots that were his father’s stock in trade, and warm, chatty, friendly and engaged. The difference between him then and now left me wondering where he’d lost his mojo; was it age and fatigue or was this cantankerousness a form of play-acting. When I mentioned the occasion, he did not remember it and could barely summon any interest in the woman who was once such a close friend.

For many years Berkoff was a keep-fit nut: swimming in arctic conditions, yoga, a passing flirtation with break-dancing. Now he calls himself “a bit of a lazy slob”, restricting himself – merely – to a few daily sit-ups, press-ups and a walk, as well as the 20-mile weekend hike, “sometimes a run”, along the seafront in Brighton.

When I ask him about his health he says: “It’s excellent. Touch wood.” No ghastly illnesses? “I have had them all but I reject them all.” You haven’t had cancer? “Everything. I had a brush with that when they thought… but it’s gone. I just plain willed it out.” Minor ailments? “A few little niggles. I can’t run as fast as I used to, a little problem in my knee, a dimming of the eyes. All my teeth, except one. But no pains, no arthritis. I think the reason for that is to lead a balanced life. Not to indulge – and to live with another person.”

I say that this Clara seems to have suited him well, and his faded eyes light up. Her concert days are behind her now, but still she plays for him on the gleaming black piano in front of the glass wall opening out on the river. Does it move you? “ Oh, indeed, yes, of course, it’s lovely to listen to her. When she plays it’s phenomenal.” They share a new passion, in any case. “When she got tired of practising seven hours a day, her energy had to go somewhere else and she is a kind of genius of a cook. She’s got about 100 cookbooks and she can do anything: Greek, Turkish, Russian, English, German, Spanish, Italian. And her sushi…” he sighs. “It’s incredible, as good as a Japanese chef.”

For the most part, these feasts are conjured just for their own pleasure. But occasionally friends will be invited: actors – “I’m not one of those actors who says”, he puts on a theatrical voice, which is not a far cry from his own, “‘Oh, I don’t mix with luvvies’”) – but also the odd writer and lawyer, even a couple of old schoolfriends. Is it her cooking that is responsible for his compact but quite pronounced little belly? He roars, and this time with genuine good humour, “Yes! Yes! It’s too much!”

What, I was wondering , would be Clara’s recipe for handling the Berkoff ego. If one were to do the physiognomy test on her, judging from the one photograph I’ve seen of her dating back to 1991 – full lips, strong nose, an open forthright gaze – she does not look like a pushover. “She’s very relaxed but she does have her moments and can be a bit…temperamental,” her boyfriend says. “She’s also a very, very good mimic and does impersonations constantly.” Does she do you? “Yes, she does and then I’m on the floor because she does them when I’m getting angry or in a mood and then she does me and I find it intolerable because I collapse.” Ah, I see, because then she’s won the argument? “Yes,” Berkoff says, “yes, of course.”

On the Waterfront, Theatre Royal, London; 0845 4811870

Related posts:

  1. Oh, what a roguish and pleasant slave
  2. David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime
  3. Peter Hall – my memories of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett
  4. Even Lloyd Webber isn’t sure why Phantom of the Opera is his biggest hit
  5. Out of the shadows