Harry Landis, who died of cancer aged 95, left behind a poverty-stricken childhood in London’s East End to become a character actor on stage and screen for eight decades. When he stepped out of the wings into the spotlight, he left viewers with memories of two very different characters, one gentle and sympathetic, the other simply unpleasant.
He spent 18 months on EastEnders (1995-97) as Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor Felix Kawalski, owner of a barbershop in the fictional Albert Square, who kept his father’s prized butterfly collection in the basement, which he had brought to Great Britain. Brittany after fleeing. the Nazis. Felix believed that his parents and his sister had died.
At Walford, she enjoyed the company of other older residents, including Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) and Blossom Jackson (Mona Hammond), and had a chess partner in Jules Tavernier (Tommy Eytle), who provided platonic friendship for 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 emotional journey to see him reunited 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 telenovela in 2010, he revealed that Félix 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 brings the Jewish Goodman family together for a weekly potluck.
He appeared in just three episodes, in 2012 and 2014, but immediately made an impression, when Lou crashed his beat-up old car into the Goodmans’ house on his first visit and demanded they pay for the damaged headlight. The family is horrified to discover that he is married, horrified by the way he is, tired of his bragging about the button factory he owns, and irritated by his obsession with wiping his hands on the curtains.
When his wife dies at the age of 94, he becomes engaged to Eleanor, but even she realizes her big mistake: faking a heart attack on their wedding day when the rabbi asks them to exchange vows.
Landis was born Harry Landinski in Stepney, east London, the son of Sarah and Morris, both of Polish descent. His father, a taxi driver, left when he was a baby. He and his mother were regular visitors to the local Jewish soup kitchen. “Mum had to plead her case to the Jewish Board of Guardians, all north London businessmen who acted as if she had let them down by being poor,” he recalled. “They had no idea about life in the East End.”
Another memory of living in the area was Oswald Mosley’s fascists throwing a brick through his window in the mid-1930s.
Leaving Stepney Jewish School at the age of 14, he worked in a cafe, then as a window washer and milkman before taking a factory job. During tea breaks, he would imitate Max Miller and other music-hall acts he had seen at the Hackney Empire. His shop steward suggested that he go to the Unity theater in King’s Cross, which gave a platform to working class voices.
He began performing with the amateur troupe at age 15 and returned to it after doing his national service. David Kossoff and Alfie Bass were among his contemporaries.
When he was 20 years old, a London County Council scholarship enabled him to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama. From there, as Harry Landis, he acted professionally with the Elizabethan Theater Company, playing Shakespeare, and then in repertory theatres.
Later, with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court theater in 1961, he appeared in The Kitchen as Paul the pie maker, a role based on the experience of its writer, Arnold Wesker.
The West End attracted, with such roles as Private Albert Huggins in The Amorous Prawn (Saville Theatre, 1962), Bernard in Time Present (performed by the English Stage Company at the Duke of York Theatre, 1968), Private Mason in Journey’s End (Cambridge Theatre, 1972), the father in the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mount Morgan (Wyndham Theatre, 1991), and the Postmaster General in the musical I’d Rather Be Right (Fortune Theatre, 1999).
On stage, Landis also directed plays at the Unity Theater (1965-66) and was Artistic Director of the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (1973-74).
He was prolific on television, 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 renting a heavy from Arthur Daley in a 1982 episode of Minder when Terry is injured.
During his early years on screen, Landis was 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. . Later, 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’s 1965 marriage to actress Hilary Crane (nee Strelitz) ended in divorce seven years later. He is survived by Ingrid Curry, his partner of more than 30 years, as well as his daughter from his marriage, Katy, and his stepson, Simon Crane.
• Harry Landis (Harry Landinski), actor and director, born November 25, 1926; died September 11, 2022