Obituary, Telegraph, 8/16/05


James Booth, the actor who has died aged 77, came to prominence at the height of the social and political changes in post-war British theatre and cinema; but despite his memorable performance as Henry "Hookie" Hook, VC, in Zulu (1964) and numerous stage roles, Booth's career had dwindled by the late 1970s, only to be revived by a part in the cult television series, Twin Peaks (1990).

With his broad grin, cockney gusto, lugubrious looks and comic instinct, Booth typified a new kind of actor, one fitted to a time when convention, authority and middle-class propriety were being publicly flouted. Unpolished, unlettered and unpretentious, he seemed to revel in the rebellious spirit of the early 1960s.

He was an earthy asset not only to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford, east London, with its radical approach to acting, but also to Peter Hall's newly-formed Royal Shakespeare Company. Wide-mouthed, with a long face and nasal speech, Booth was at his best making the least likeable villains attractive, especially in shows which exploited the London underworld (Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be; The Caretaker) or as petty crooks, men on the make and other grades of rascal on film.

Booth was born David Geeves at Croydon, Surrey, on December 19 1927, the son of a probation officer. He was educated at Southend Grammar School, which he left at the age of 17 to join the Army, in which he rose to the rank of captain.

A keen amateur actor, in 1954 he won a scholarship to Rada, where he trained alongside Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates and Richard Harris. It was there also that he met his future wife, Paula Delaney.

After taking the name James Booth, he made his first professional appearance as a member of the Old Vic Company (1956-57) before joining Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in 1958. There he made his mark in Brendan Behan's much-rehearsed, re-written and then re-rehearsed play, The Hostage, in which he ended up playing the IRA officer. He continued in the role when the play transferred to the West End (Wyndham's, 1959).

Other parts with the Theatre Workshop included a splendid Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, and Tosher, the pimp in a Soho gaming club in the Lionel Bart and Frank Norman musical Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. The role suited Booth, who also delighted in the backstage carousing. "At all hours," Joan Littlewood recalled, "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 acting."

There followed a spell of new drama, including a role in Max Frisch's The Fire-Raisers (Royal Court Theatre), in which he played one of the arsonists. In 1962 Booth was suitably menacing as Mick in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker.

That same year he joined the RSC at Stratford-on-Avon for Clifford Williams's revival of The Comedy of Errors, which he followed with the role of Edmund to Paul Scofield's King Lear. But Booth's sneering, sleazy interpretation of the part was not to everyone's taste: "James Booth," wrote Kenneth Tynan, "handles verse with the finesse of a gloved pugilist picking up pins."

Returning to the West End, Booth excelled in Herb Gardner's comedy A Thousand Clowns, and flung himself robustly about as Robin Hood in Joan Littlewood's ill-fated staging of Twang! (Shaftesbury, 1965). Other parts included Archie Rice in The Entertainer. A further spell with the RSC followed, and he played the role of Tristan Tzara in the company's Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties (1975).

Booth's career on the big screen took off in 1959 with the role of the gangster Spider Kelly in Jazzboat. In 1962 he starred opposite Barbara Windsor in Sparrows Can't Sing, Joan Littlewood's only film as a director (the cockney accents in the film had to be subtitled for American audiences). He subsequently appeared in French Dressing (1963) and in Zulu, that classic account of the heroic stand by British soldiers against the Zulu hordes at Rorke's Drift.

After appearing alongside Shirley Maclaine and Richard Attenborough in The Bliss of Mrs Blossom (1968), Booth went on to star in Rentadick (1972), and he played David Essex's father in That'll Be The Day (1973). His favourite roles were, he would say, "those I can relax in".

In the 1980s Booth moved to America. "I wish I'd done it 15 years ago," he said at the time. There he appeared in minor roles in several film and television shows, as well as writing and acting in a number of action pictures. He was back on form as the toadying ex-convict Ernie Niles in Twin Peaks.

Booth had roles on British television in Minder and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, and he had been working on a new film, Keeping Mum, shortly before his death on August 11.

James Booth married Paula Delaney in 1960; they had two sons and two daughters.



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