Sir Ronald Harwood

Leading playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter whose Jewishness informed his work


He was perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for Roman Polanski’s emotive Holocaust film, The Pianist, yet Sir Ronald Harwood, who has died aged 85, penned scores of plays and screenplays with a strong Jewish spine to his work. He once told an interviewer that his Jewishness informed everything he did. “I am very Jewish. It is who I am.”

This is evident in Harwood’s keen interest in the Nazi period, which was the subject of various screenplays dealing with individuals who either voluntarily or unwillingly collaborated with the Nazi regime, or with those trying to escape its clutches.

Eternal themes of religious identity and political expediency also engaged him. They reflected issues in his childhood experience at school, and were particularly borne out in his 2001 play, Mahler’s Conversion, about the ambitious Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, (played by Harwood’s cousin, Sir Anthony Sher) who, in order to become court composer in Vienna, must convert to Catholicism.

Ronald Harwood was born in Sea Point, a modest suburb in northwest Cape Town, South Africa to Isobel (née Pepper) and Isaac Horwitz. Known as Ike and Bella, they were first-generation immigrants who had fled Eastern Europe. As a young man, Ike was smuggled out of his native village of Plungé, Lithuania, in a coffin around the turn of the 19th century. Meanwhile, his future wife, Bella, the daughter of Polish refugees, Adolph and Eva Pepper, who had emigrated to England, was born in the East End of London before emigrating to South Africa. Ike and Bella married during the final year of the First World War and had two children, Eve (Evvy) Leonora and Harold Ralph, before the birth of Ronnie.

But it was an unhappy household where the clash between his Polish mother and Litvak father was evident. They barely exchanged a word in their tiny apartment. “We lived on top of each other”, Harwood recalled, “and the atmosphere in the flat was sometimes unbearable.”

He was educated at the local junior school where he was subject to one schoolteacher’s unsuccessful efforts at proselytization, which he resisted with wit and humour. He then moved on to the Sea Point Boys High, where he earned a reputation as an intellectual and a joker. But his real education took place in elocution classes with a local actress and voice coach, Mrs Sybil Marks, without whose influence it is doubtful Harwood would have emigrated to Britain and pursued a career in the theatre.

The death of his father, an interview at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and his clear Anglophilia motivated Harwood to board a boat to England to pursue a career as a stage actor. He left South Africa as Ronnie Horwitz and arrived at Southampton docks, aged 17, on 21 December 1951, as Ronnie Harwood. He had just 7s 6d in his pocket.

He had changed his surname after an English master insisted it was too foreign-sounding and too Jewish for a career in the theatre. He chose Harwood in honour of the famous South African Jewish actor, Laurence Harvey,

Harwood trained for the stage at RADA before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company under Sir Donald Wolfit. His experiences as Sir Donald’s personal dresser between 1953 to 1958 provided the basis of his best known stage play, The Dresser. Initially staged in 1980, the play was adapted into a successful film in 1983, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, both nominated for Academy Awards.

From then on Harwood pursued a successful career writing plays and screenplays with a strong Jewish theme. Operation Daybreak in 1975 dramatised the true story of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich in Prague by the Czech Resistance.

Twenty years later, in 1995, he wrote Taking Sides about the complex German composer Wilhelm Furtwängler and conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. He was Hitler’s favourite conductor but also saved the lives of 120 Jews. The play dramatised the post-war United States denazification investigation of Furtwängler on charges of Nazi collaboration. It inspired Jewish director Roman Polanski to see in Harwood someone who understood the Holocaust film he, himself wanted to make. The result was possibly Harwood’s most famous work, his 2002 adaptation of the autobiography of the Polish-Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist. Szpilman had survived the Holocaust by hiding in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Pianist was Polanski’s first movie to confront the horror he had experienced first-hand during the war. Harwood won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for the film in 2003. Harwood and Polanski again collaborated in 2005 on adapting the classic Charles Dickens story, Oliver Twist in 2005. Holocaust imagery also found its way into the film.

Between those two projects, Harwood wrote The Statement (2003) about the collaborationist Vichy French police official, Paul Touvier, who was indicted for war crimes but who escaped justice. The play, Collaboration in 2008, explored the complicated relationship between the pro-Nazi composer Richard Strauss and the Viennese Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (who later killed himself). That same year Harwood’s An English Tragedy tackled British fascist John Amery.

But Harwood’s most celebrated play was The Dresser, which has been adapted for both the big and small screens. It has been staged numerous times in Britain, as well as in Japan and Mexico.

Harwood won a host of prizes for his screenplays and TV dramas, including a BAFTA for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) and an Academy Award for The Pianist. He was awarded an OBE in 1999 and a knighthood in 2010 for services to drama. The French government made him a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1996. He also received numerous honorary degrees.

He collaborated with almost every major dramatist, including J.B. Priestley and Roman Polanski, and such stage and screen stars as Sir Laurence Olivier and Sheridan Smith. Yet, he was never drawn to the lure of Hollywood, preferring to remain in London. At the same time, his work was distinctive from that of contemporary Jewish playwrights, such as Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Tom Stoppard. He married Natasha Riehle in 1959 and they had three children, Antony, Deborah and Alexandra.

Harwood, who died from natural causes, is survived by his children. Natasha predeceased him in 2013.


Ronald Horwitz: born November 9, 1934. Died September 8, 2020

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