John Burgess obituary
Character actor who was an ensemble player to the core
by Mike Leigh
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 2 January 2011
John Burgess obituary | Stage | The Guardian
John Burgess, right, and Ben Caplan in Mike Leigh's 2005 play Two Thousand Years.
John Burgess, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 77, was a versatile and highly intelligent character actor who appeared in several productions at the National Theatre in London. He joined the National in 2000 for Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tim Supple, and appeared in Remembrance of Things Past, co-adapted by Harold Pinter, with whom John enjoyed a friendship. He also performed in Trevor Nunn's The Relapse (2001) and The Alchemist (2006), but was injured out early in the run.
It was at the National that John and I collaborated joyously. I had much enjoyed working with this direct, drily humorous man back in 1978, when he was in my abandoned RSC Aldwych project Ice Cream (not to be confused with Caryl Churchill's later piece of the same name). So when Nick Hytner invited me to create a play for the National's Cottesloe theatre in 2005, and I decided to explore my own socialist-Zionist background, John was an obvious choice for Two Thousand Years.
I had spent my life wondering if I would ever find the elderly Jewish actor capable of "doing" the cantankerous, passionate, funny old characters of my early life. And here at last he was. John played Dave – an ex-kibbutznik, disillusioned with Zionism, but still a passionate socialist who was volatile, emotional, always ready for an argument.
John himself was creative, open to experiment and improvisation, truthful and organic. Yet he was always an old-fashioned precision-monger in the best sense. A real professional, and a delight to work with, he was an ensemble player to the core, but always his own man. His work was firmly rooted in the real world, and it is sad that we will be denied the richness of his octogenarian characterisations.
John was born into a middle-class, north London Jewish family. His father was variously a jeweller and garage owner. He was educated at St Paul's school in London. At 17 he won a scholarship to Rada, where Joan Collins was his classmate. His course was interrupted by national service, which took him to Germany. Despite completing his Rada training, and spending four years in repertory, including a tour with the Elizabethan Theatre Company, he felt that his career had not really taken off. After marrying Lana Cyzer in 1959, he went into the menswear business for 10 years – successfully – and fathered three sons, Harvey, Paul and Andrew.
By 1970, John had become disenchanted with his life. Divorced, he and his new wife, Sylvia, moved to Canada, where he took a degree in English at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. He now aspired to an academic life, but a spell working on the university radio station convinced him to return home to the boards in Britain. Sylvia stayed behind, and they divorced amicably.
Following more rep, notably at Folkestone, Canterbury, Oxford and Birmingham, John joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he appeared throughout the 1970s and 80s, both at Stratford and the Barbican. His RSC credits included Coriolanus, Henry VI, Richard II, As You Like It, Money, The Great White Hope and Queen Christina, in which he gave a perceptive Descartes. He also played Vlok in The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs.
His television and film career now blossomed, with Jack Gold's Sakharov (1984), Paul McCartney's Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), in which he played Paul's chauffeur, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990). He was also in Lovejoy, The Bill, Holby City, Casualty, EastEnders, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries and Poirot, but it was his six-year stint as David "Bing" Crosbie in Brookside (1992-98) that made him popular with a wider audience.
A lifelong socialist, John was especially passionate about actors' rights. He served on the Equity council and ran his close friend Harry Landis's successful campaign for the Equity presidency. In 2002, he was active in defeating the attempted coup by a group of rightwing actors who were perversely convinced that Equity had been politicised by Labour members, to the disadvantage of ordinary performers. He also worked tirelessly for the Unity Theatre Trust.
John loved art, reading, cricket and travel. On an RSC four-actor tour of Hamlet and King Lear, he fell in love with Tucson, Arizona, where, with his encouragement, two of his sons now live. He is survived by his sons, his grandchildren Luca and Maya, his brother Michael and his sister Wendy.
John Herman Louis Burgess, actor, born 2 February 1933; died 15 November 2010