Harry Landis, who died aged 95 from cancer, left a poor childhood in London’s East End to become a character actor on stage and on screen for eight decades. When he stepped out of the wings into the spotlight, he left television viewers with the memory of two very different characters, one kind and understanding, the other simply hateful.
He spent 18 months in EastEnders (1995-97) as Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor Felix Kawalski, who owned a barber shop in fictional Albert Square, storing his father’s prized butterfly collection, which he had brought in the cellar. in Britain after fleeing the Nazis. Felix believed that his parents and sister were dead.
In Walford, she enjoyed the company of other senior residents – including Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) and Blossom Jackson (Mona Hammond) – and had a chess partner in Jules Tavernier (Tommy Eytle), who provided a platonic friendship. to Blossom as she and Felix developed deeper feelings.
When the barber found out that his sister was alive and living in Israel, Blossom joined him on an exciting journey to see him reunite with her. Felix then decided that he would join his sister forever and Blossom accepted his invitation to live with them in Israel. In a brief return to the soap opera in 2010, he revealed that Felix had died five years earlier.
In a very different vein, Landis appeared on the sitcom Friday Night Dinner as octogenarian Lou Morris, the selfish, arrogant and aggressive boyfriend of Eleanor Buller (Frances Cuka), whose daughter reunites the Jewish Goodman family over a weekly meal.
He appeared in just three episodes, in 2012 and 2014, but he immediately made a splash, with Lou crashing his battered old car into the Goodmans’ house on his first visit and asking them to pay for the damaged headlight. . The family is horrified to find he is married, horrified by his ways, tired of bragging about the button factory he owns and irritated by his obsession with cleaning his hands with curtains.
When his wife dies at the age of 94, he gets engaged to Eleanor, but she too realizes his big mistake: faking a heart attack on their wedding day while the rabbi asks them to exchange vows.
Landis was born Harry Landinski in Stepney, east London, to Sarah and Morris, both of Polish descent. His father, a taxi driver, left when he was a child. He and his mother were regular visitors to the local Jewish canteen. “Mom had to plead her case with the Jewish Board of Guardians, all north London businessmen who acted as if she let her down because she was poor,” he recalled. “They had no idea of life in the East End.”
Another memory of life in the area was Oswald Mosley’s fascists throwing a brick out the window in the mid 1930s.
After leaving Stepney’s Jewish school at the age of 14, he worked in a bar, then as a window cleaner and milkman before finding work in a factory. During tea breaks, he imitated Max Miller and other music hall shows he’d seen at the Hackney Empire. His shop assistant suggested that he go to the Unity Theater in King’s Cross, which provided a platform for the voices of the working class.
He began acting with the amateur company at the age of 15 and returned after serving nationally. David Kossoff and Alfie Bass were among his contemporaries.
When he was 20, a London County Council Scholarship allowed him to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama. From there, like Harry Landis, he acted professionally with the Elizabethan Theater Company, playing Shakespeare, then in repertory theaters.
Later, with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theater in 1961, he appeared in The Kitchen as Paul, the pastry chef, a part based on the experience of its writer, Arnold Wesker.
The West End beckoned, with roles such as Private Albert Huggins in The Amorous Prawn (Saville’s Theater, 1962), Bernard in Time Present (played by the English Stage Company at the Duke of York Theater, 1968), Private Mason in Journey’s End (Cambridge theater, 1972), the father in the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mount Morgan (Wyndham Theater, 1991) and the Postmaster General in the musical I’d Rather Be Right (Theater of Fortune, 1999).
On stage, Landis also directed plays at the Unity Theater (1965-66) and was artistic director of the Marlowe Theater, Canterbury (1973-74).
He has been prolific on TV, playing more than 100 roles in both dramas and comedies. They included Toby Crackit, Fagin’s lockpicking expert, in a BBC serialization of Oliver Twist (1962). He was also seen taking on a heavyweight for Arthur Daley in a 1982 episode of Minder when Terry is injured.
During his early years on screen, Landis starred in many war films, including Hell in Korea (1956), when he shared a room in Portugal with Michael Caine, Dunkirk (1958) and The Longest Day (1962), with Richard Burton. Subsequently, he appeared alongside Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
He was president of Equity, the actors’ union, from 2002 to 2008, and director of the Equity Charitable Trust from 1994 to 2001.
Landis’ marriage in 1965 to actor Hilary Crane (nee Strelitz) ended in divorce seven years later. He is survived by Ingrid Curry, his partner for over 30 years, as well as the daughter of his marriage, Katy, and stepson, Simon Crane.
• Harry Landis (Harry Landinski), actor and director, born on November 25, 1926; died on September 11, 2022