The Independent, 8/13/05


Leading actor of the 1960s who specialised in playing
cheerful cockneys

James Booth was a major figure in the British film and
theatre world in the 1960s, specialising in playing cheerful
cockneys with a touch of larceny. The trade magazine Variety
once described him as "a punchy blend of toughness,
potential evil and irresistible charm."

The tall, broad-shouldered actor was particularly associated
with two icons of the period, Joan Littlewood and Lionel
Bart. He starred in Littlewood's screen version of Sparrows
Can't Sing, and on stage he had leading roles in the Bart
musicals Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Twang! His best
remembered screen role was as the heroic soldier in Zulu,
but his career stalled in the 1970s due to his reputation as
a drinker and hell-raiser. "I've always been hot-tempered,"
he confessed, "over-egotistical and in some ways violent."
Settling in the United States, he became a successful
character actor, appearing in David Lynch's cult television
series Twin Peaks, and he also became a writer of note,
scripting mainly action movies.

Born David Geeves in Croydon, Surrey, in 1927, he was the
son of a probation officer. He attended Southend Grammar
School, but left at 17 to join the Army, attaining the rank
of Captain. He was working in the offices of a mining
company when, at the age of 24, he began to take part in
amateur dramatics and was persuaded to apply for a
scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He trained
there from 1954 to 1956 in the same class as Albert Finney,
Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates and Richard Harris.

While there he met the producer Irving Allen, who later gave
him a film contract, and the stage manager Paula Delaney,
whom he married in 1960. He was to say later, "I don't know
what kind of mess my life would be in today if it hadn't
been for Paula and Irving. I'm a very insecure person. I've
always needed someone to give me security. And they both

He made his stage début, as James Booth, with a season at
the Old Vic, "spear-carrying" in eight Shakespeare plays. In
1959 he joined the British People's Theatre Workshop, Joan
Littlewood's company, which had its home at the Theatre
Royal, Stratford East. He played an IRA officer in her
production of The Hostage, then was given a starring role in
Lionel Bart's musical about East End life Fings Ain't Wot
They Used T'Be, which featured Miriam Karlin, Barbara
Windsor, Yootha Joyce and Toni Palmer among its other
players. In her autobiography, Windsor confesses that she
found him "gorgeous" and that they had "a little affair".

The show had started life as a set of pages of dialogue
written by Frank Norman, an ex-prisoner, and offered to
Littlewood, who saw the potential for a musical and enlisted
Bart to write a score, which he did in two weeks. The
semi-improvised show about work-shy "Teddy Boys", small-time
crooks, soft-hearted prostitutes and "bent" policemen opened
in 1959 in Stratford and ran for six sell-out weeks. Later
in the year Littlewood re-staged it with some major
revisions, and in February 1960 it transferred to the
Garrick Theatre, in the West End, where it was a great
success, running for two years.

As the pimp, Tosher, Booth had one of the show-stopping
numbers, "The Student Ponce" ("He'll end up earning a
fortune, but only by using his bonce"). Littlewood later
said of him, "At all hours you'd find him propping up the
bar, a cynical, witty, impossible character, lanky and
agile, with his own peculiar way of tackling life, and

In 1962 Booth spent a season with the Royal Shakespeare
Company, his performances including a memorable Edmund to
Paul Scofield's King Lear in Peter Brook's production of the
play. The same year, Booth played Mick in Harold Pinter's
The Caretaker, at the Oxford Playhouse.

Booth made his screen début in 1959, with the role of the
gangster Spider Kelly in Jazzboat, starring Anthony Newley,
a role he reprised in the sequel, In the Nick (1960). He
gave a fine performance as blackmailing Alfred Wood in The
Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and a broadly comic one in In
the Doghouse (1961), with Leslie Phillips. He had a starring
role opposite Barbara Windsor in Joan Littlewood's only film
as director, Sparrows Can't Sing (1962). Although its title
was more refined than the original stage version's -
Sparrers Can't Sing - the film still had to be sub-titled in
much of America because of the cockney dialect. A mild
comedy, it is notable today for its great cast of character
performers who were Littlewood alumni, including Booth,
Windsor, Yootha Joyce, Roy Kinnear, Victor Spinetti, Avis
Bunnage, Brian Murphy and Murray Melvin.

Booth's flair for comedy was particularly displayed in the
first feature film directed by Ken Russell, French Dressing
(1963), and the following year he had a memorable screen
role as Private Henry "Hookie" Hook, the unlikely hero of
Zulu, the rousing account of the famous battle of Rorke's
Drift in 1879. Also in 1964 he starred at the Comedy Theatre
as the non-confirmist hero of Herb Gardner's play A Thousand
Clowns. He then starred as a cockney Robin Hood in Lionel
Bart's disastrously ill-fated musical Twang! (1965), which
cost the composer all his savings.

Booth then had prominent screen roles in the films The
Secret of My Success (1965), as a naïve policeman, The Bliss
of Mrs Blossom (1968), as Shirley MacLaine's secret lover
who adopts a multitude of disguises, and Robbery (1967), as
a Scotland Yard inspector who nails all but one of a bunch
of train robbers.

He headed a distinguished comedy cast in the patchy
Rentadick (1972), written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman,
and played the father of would-be rock star (David Essex) in
That'll Be the Day (1973). But he had a surprisingly small
part supporting John Wayne in Brannigan (1975), and a role
the same year in the "sexploitation" film I'm Not Feeling
Myself Tonight was indicative of the downward path of his
career at the time.

In 1975 he appeared on Broadway as James Joyce in Tom
Stoppard's play Travesties and accepted an offer to work as
a writer in Los Angeles. He took minor roles in American
movies, including Airport 77 (1977) and The Jazz Singer
(1980), and appeared in such television shows as Gunsmoke,
Bonanza, Mission: Impossible and Charlie's Angels, while
writing scripts for both film and TV. He co-wrote the
screenplay for the comedy starring Farrah Fawcett-Majors,
Sunburn (1979), and he acted in several action movies that
he also wrote, including Pray for Death (1985, a superior
kung fu thriller), Avenging Force (1987) and American Ninja
4 (1991). He found his greatest international fame playing
the cowardly ex-convict Ernie Miles in Twin Peaks (1990).

Returning to the UK, he had television roles as charming
con-men in Minder and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and he was still
acting this year, with a role in the forthcoming film
Keeping Mum, starring Rowan Atkinson.

--Tom Vallance