Obituary, The Herald, 8/17/2005

James Booth

BRIAN PENDREIGH

James Booth, actor; born December 19, 1927, died August 11, 2005.

James Booth, who co-starred with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine in the classic war film Zulu (1964), has died at Hadleigh in Suffolk, at the age of 77.


One of the most promising actors of that generation who broke down the class barriers in British plays and films, Booth starred in a string of British films from the comedy-drama Sparrows Can't Sing in 1963 to the limp sex comedy I'm Not Feeling Myself Tonight in 1976, often playing cockneys, crooks and likeable rogues.


He turned down the lead role in Alfie (1966), because he feared he was being typecast as a cockney. And he never quite attained the international success and recognition of Zulu co-star Michael Caine, who stepped into the breach, or of his friend and fellow hellraiser Richard Harris, with whom he worked at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop company in Stratford East in the 1950s.


In the 1970s, Booth lost a fortune in the property collapse and headed for the US, where he continued to act and also pursued a parallel career as a screenwriter, mainly on action movies. Later years brought recurring roles on the hit television series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-91).


He was born David Geeves in 1927, into a devout Christian family in Croydon, Surrey. His father worked for the Salvation Army and Booth moved around a lot as a child. Although the family were not poor, they lived in some poor areas and he was exposed early on to deprivation and to some colourful characters.


After his father's death, the family moved from the east end of London to Southend, where Booth became involved in amateur drama.
He had a spell in the Army and trained for management at a mining company's London offices, before winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Deciding on a career in acting, he changed his name because he feared as David Geeves he might end up playing only butlers.
His first professional role was as a gangster. Stage manager Paula Delaney asked RADA to send someone along for the part. It was the beginning of a lasting relationship. Several years later, Booth and Delaney married and the union lasted until his death.


In the late 1950s, Booth joined Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, where he appeared in a wide range of productions from Brendan Behan's The Hostage to Puss in Boots and quickly became a key figure in the company.


"At all hours you'd find him propping up the bar", Littlewood recalled, "a cynical, witty, impossible character, lanky and agile, with his own peculiar way of tackling life and acting."


He played a crucial role in one of the company's biggest successes, the musical Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. A portrait of life in London's seedy Soho district, it was written as a drama, without music, when it arrived unheralded at Littlewood's offices. Booth recognised the name of the author Frank Norman as that of the ex-convict, who had recently written the book Bang to Rights, and showed the manuscript to Lionel Bart, who added the songs.


It opened at the company's Theatre Royal in 1959 and transferred to the west end, where it ran for two years. Booth played a pimp.
Films also provided regular work from the late 1950s and his screen career hit new heights with Sparrows Can't Sing (1963), in which he was a seaman returning home after a lengthy absence, with Barbara Windsor playing his unfaithful wife. In Ken Russell's French Dressing (1964), he played a deckchair attendant who undertakes to give a dull seaside resort a new image. Zulu was released in that same year. He played Private Henry Hook, the drunken malingerer, who shows true courage when the small garrison find themselves outnumbered 40 to one by Zulu warriors. The characterisation proved controversial in the face of claims that Hook was really a model soldier.


Booth and Bart were reunited on Twang!! (1965), a stage musical about Robin Hood, but the show was a dreadful flop. The experience bankrupted Bart, and Booth suddenly found no-one wanted to hire him. He was unemployed for a year before making the thriller Robbery (1967), alongside Stanley Baker again.


Despite the involuntary hiatus, Booth returned to the forefront of British film talent and co-starred with Shirley MacLaine and Richard Attenborough in the comedy The Bliss of Mrs Blossom (1968) and with Joan Collins in the thriller Revenge (1971).
Other films include Rentadick (1972), That'll Be the Day (1973) and the John Wayne thriller Brannigan (1975) in the UK, and Airport '77, The Jazz Singer (1980), Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981) in America.


None of the films he wrote could be described as classics the best known is probably American Ninja 2: The Confrontation (1987).
On the small screen he played expat crook Kenny Ames on Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Ernie Niles, a newcomer with a shady past, on David Lynch's surreal soap opera Twin Peaks.


In later years he returned to live in the UK, continued working and has a role in the forthcoming Rowan Atkinson film Keeping Mum. He is survived by his wife and four children.

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