What better place to talk to Steven Berkoff about his new stage adaptation of the classic Hollywood movie On the Waterfront than on the waterfront — more specifically in Berkoff’s studio perched a few feet above the Thames in London’s Docklands?
It is an appropriate setting to discuss a topic that has long been dear to his heart. As a teenager growing up in the Jewish East End, Berkoff felt a great affinity with the film, which was released in 1954 and starred Marlon Brando as docker Terry Malloy in a story about mob violence and corruption among New York’s longshoremen.
“I saw that film many times,” says Berkoff, as another river cruiser emerges from the mist. “It was our film when we were in our teens. We felt an affinity with the people of Brooklyn, of Hoboken [New Jersey]. Like the characters in the film, we lived in an area full of life and vitality and conversation. Of course, at the time we didn’t think of it as street life, we thought of it as the slums — people couldn’t wait to move out.”
Not Berkoff, however. The veteran writer, director and actor, who in a long career has adapted Kafka, directed Shakespeare, written provocative plays and appeared (usually as the baddie) in Hollywood films such as Beverly Hills Cop and Rambo, as well a making a memorable Bond villain in Octopussy, still lives but a mile or so from his birthplace in Stepney. Now 71, he still has the energy and drive of the East End Jewish boy on the make — and the enthusiasm not only to direct but to take the key part of Johnny Friendly in the production which opens at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, next week.
When Berkoff was invited by Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for the film and later turned it into a novel and a stage play, to direct a version, he responded immediately.
“How could I resist? It’s a phenomenal piece. But I didn’t want to put Schulberg’s changes in. When he re-wrote the script as a stage play, he changed the ending. He thought that the realistic thing would be that Terry, like his brother, would be murdered. The director [of the film], Elia Kazan, didn’t like this. He wanted Terry to rise, almost Christ-like.
“That is why we love this film. We don’t leave the cinema crying — we go out thinking: ‘Thank God’. In the Jewish world, for some reason, all our heroes usually end up dead, from Samson onwards.”
Berkoff was insistent that his adaptation should have the ending of the original film. “I told Schulberg I didn’t like changes. I thought I could say it to him — after all, he’s 93 now. I said there was no way we could do it his way because the ending has been enshrined. You can’t change the myth. Nobody will accept it. They will riot.”
Of course, it is unlikely — whatever the changes to the script — that a middle-class West End audience would start tearing up seats, unless perhaps it was an audience full of Steven Berkoffs. Such is his fierce passion for his work that one could imagine him taking up arms to protect the authenticity of a play’s ending.
He is determined to be as faithful as possible to the movie. “It’s a homage to the film. It’s all about the street… The atmosphere is heightened on stage because the villains, the gangsters, are always on-stage — moving, waiting. They don’t just sit in the dressing room playing Scrabble.”
There were some big casting calls to be made, not least of which is Berkoff’s decision to act in the play as well as to direct. “The producers kept saying they wanted a face — a name. I’ve been around a number of years…” He is insistent, however, that Simon Merrells, who plays the Brando role, is very much the star of the piece. “We have a collection of the most amazing actors I’ve ever worked with. Merrells was born to play Malloy. He doesn’t need to worry about the comparison. Brando’s part was not difficult or unique. What Brando gave to it was his own personality. DeNiro or Pacino could both have played it as well as Brando — maybe better.
“We also have the phenomenal music of Mark Glentworth, who I have been working with for 20 years, and the lighting man is a genius. He has done lighting like I have never seen before in my life.”
Berkoff may be extremely complimentary about his colleagues, but he is known for his forthright views on a number of issues, views that would make him a natural for television’s Grumpy Old Men. For example, on the recent interlopers to his beloved East End he has this to say: “We have one or two artists floating around as if they own the place and they have attracted a crowd of thrill-seeking yuppies, sitting in cafes with their laptops trying to soak up a bit of street-cred. I don’t like that.”
But to be fair to him, his scorn is matched by his enthusiasms. “Phenomenal” is one of his favourite words.
“There is another East End. I was in Brick Lane the other day and there was a terrific street trade, so much going on — an East End revival. Young people selling handicrafts, statues, painting, silks, scarves, clothes. There are a lot of creative people here. It’s phenomenal.”
However, he laments the passing of the Jewish East End and the spirit he used to know. Jews in this country, he feels, are not as proud of their identity as are their counterparts across the Atlantic.
“In England they feel too self-conscious about it. England is not a great lover of its Jews. Never has been. The English way of life is culturally rather refined if not effete. There is a slight distaste of the foreigner.”
Berkoff is convinced that the great outpouring of anti-Israel sentiment over the Gaza operation is motivated by something darker.
“There is an inbuilt dislike of Jews. Overt antisemitism goes against the British sense of fair play. It has to be covert and civilised. So certain playwrights and actors on the left wing make themselves out to be stricken with conscience. They say: ‘We hate Israel, we hate Zionism, we don’t hate Jews.’ But Zionism is the very essence of what a Jew is. Zionism is the act of seeking sanctuary after years and years of unspeakable outrages against Jews. As soon as Israel does anything over the top it’s always the same old faces who come out to demonstrate. I don’t see hordes of people marching down the street against Mugabe when tens of thousands are dying every month in Zimbabwe.”
To put the record straight, Berkoff is keen to add that right-wing Israeli politicians, like Ariel Sharon and latterly Binyamin Netanyahu, are “wretched”.
Does this British antisemitism manifest itself in the theatrical establishment? Berkoff ponders for a moment: “They quite like diversity and will tolerate you as long as you act a bit gentile and don’t throw your chicken soup around too much. You are perfectly entitled occasionally even to touch the great prophet of British culture, Shakespeare, as long as you keep your Jewishness well zipped up.”
He adopts an upper-class accent: “As long as you speak like us and get rid of your accent you are perfectly acceptable. In Spain, they used to call these people marranos — secret Jews.
“Well, I’ve never been secret.”
Stepney, East End of London, in 1937
Studied drama in London and Paris. Formed the London Theatre Group in 1968. Has appeared in many Shakepeare plays and adapted Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe for the stage. Played the bad guy in hit Hollywood movies Rambo and Beverly Hills Cop, and was a memorable Bond villain in Octopussy. His plays with Jewish themes include Kvetch and Sit and Shiver
Lives in the East End with German pianist Clara Fischer.