The playwright tells us about the revival of his best-known play, and why he thinks Laurence Olivier was ‘terrible'
Few plays have attracted a greater acting pedigree than Halpern and Johnson which is being revived at the New End Theatre in Hampstead. Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason were the first to play the roles of a Jewish widower and a gentile accountant who meet at the funeral of a woman called Florence.
Johnson is the non-Jewish man she fell in love with. Halpern is the Jewish man she married.
You would think an HBO television production starring Olivier and Gleason - even in 1984, well before the network's Sopranos-driven heyday - would be the stuff of most writers' dreams. But not for Lionel Goldstein, a 73-year-old grandfather with a script-sized CV to his name.
A working-class renaissance man, Goldstein left school when he was 15, worked in his father's East End furrier business before working as a hairdresser in the merchant navy and eventually opening his own ladies' salon in North London."I was very directionless when I was young. I didn't have any idea who I was or what I wanted to be and I just kind of drifted into things," says the one-time antique dealer, taxi driver, gambling-machine repairman, labourer, electrician and property developer who became a playwright, novelist and TV writer for shows such as Crown Court and Howards' Way.
For Goldstein, writing was more a vocation than a way of making money. Which probably explains why he remembers with a shudder the Americanised TV version of Halpern and Johnson.
"Olivier gave a rendition of a Stamford Hill boy who emigrated to America when he was 21 years old," says Goldstein. "He tried to do a North London accent overlaid with more recent Americanese. It was terrible."
Goldstein later adapted the play for Tel Aviv's Cameri Theatre. But it started off as a TV script.
"I'd originally gone to Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud," he says during a break in rehearsals at the New End where he is directing Bernard Kay and Ian Barritt in the roles of Johnson and Halpern.
"I'd put the script through Ralph Richardson's letterbox. Two weeks later the phone went and it was Richardson. He said: ‘Like your play. Who do you have to play opposite me?', and I said well I don't have anyone but I wanted to see what your reaction would be to being offered the part of Halpern. He said: ‘I don't happen to be of the Hebrew persuasion, but I'd be very honoured to play one.'" But HBO went over Goldstein's head and cast Gleason and Olivier. And although it was Richardson's idea to turn the televison script into a play, it was not until an Israeli producer read Goldstein's script that Halpern and Johnson made its stage premiere at the Cameri.
It has since been seen around the world. Clearly, there is something universal about the themes in Goldstein's play - how long-held truths can turn out eventually to be false; how true love is sacrificed for the sake of tradition.
"It's a work of fiction in which very little is invented," says Goldstein. "There really was an accountant (like Johnson) and he did meet a woman (like Florence) who was married and she did come up to town occasionally where they lunched. He was my accountant. I was a ladies' hairdresser then. He used to go up and down Brick Lane doing the books of Jewish immigrants in the East End. That's how he got his training."
Goldstein describes his accountant as a phlegmatic man who, although born on the wrong side of the tracks, was well spoken, if very reserved. Then one day he said something that sent Goldstein's imagination racing. "Went out with a Jewish lass myself once," he said. "She comes up to town occasionally and we lunch." "They were the only words of friendship or intimacy that he ever uttered to me," recalls Goldstein. "I can still remember the pain on his face."
It took 20 years before that conversation evolved into Halpern and Johnson. That led to another Goldstein teleplay called Ann and Debbie which attracted yet another stellar cast with Claire Bloom and Deborah Kerr in the title roles. And there is interest in a third play, a sequel to the original that features Halpern's son.
Yet despite all this, and a possible movie about the real-life Jewish adventurer Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen, Goldstein is modest about the one job in his career that has brought him more recognition than all the others put together.
"I started very late," says Goldstein. "I never had any training or went to a college. I just do it by the seat of my pants. I'm still learning."
Halpern and Johnson is at the New End Theatre, London NW3 until August 31. Tel: 0870 033 2733