Steven Berkoff

Steven Berkoff
Born Leslie Steven Berks
(1937-08-03) 3 August 1937
Stepney, London, England, UK
Residence East London
Education Raine's Foundation Grammar School
Hackney Downs School
Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art
Alma mater L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq
Occupation Actor, playwright and theatre director
Years active 1962–present
Notable work Sink the Belgrano! (1986)
Shakespeare's Villains (1998)
Spouse(s) Shelley Lee (m. 1976) (divorced)
Partner(s) Clara Fisher
Awards Total Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award (1997)
LA Weekly Theater Award for Solo Performance (2000)

Steven Berkoff (born 3 August 1937) is an English actor, author, playwright and theatre director. As an actor, he is best known for his performances in villainous roles, such as Lt. Col Podovsky in Rambo: First Blood Part II, General Orlov in the James Bond film Octopussy, Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop and Adolf Hitler in the TV mini-series War and Remembrance.[1][2][3]

Early life

Berkoff was born Leslie Steven Berks on 3 August 1937, in Stepney in the East End of London.[1] He is the son of Pauline (née Hyman), a housewife, and Alfred Berks (né Berkoff), a tailor.[4] His family was Jewish (originally from Romania and Russia).[5][6] Berkoff's father had abbreviated his family surname to "Berks" in order to aid the family's assimilation into Britain. Berkoff later added back the "off" to his own name, and went by his middle name.[7]

Berkoff attended Raine's Foundation Grammar School (1948–50),[8] Hackney Downs School,[9] the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art (1958) and L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq (1965).[10]



Berkoff started his theatre training in the Repertory Company at Her Majesty's Theatre in Barrow-in-Furness, for approximately two months, in 1962.[11]

As well as an actor, Berkoff is a noted playwright and theatre director, with a unique style of writing and performance.[12] His earliest plays are adaptations of works by Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis (1969); In the Penal Colony (1969) and The Trial (1971). In the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote a series of verse plays including East (1975), Greek (1980) and Decadence (1981), followed by West (1983), Sink the Belgrano! (1986), Massage (1997) and The Secret Love Life of Ophelia (2001). Berkoff described Sink the Belgrano! as "even by my modest standards ... one of the best things I have done".[13]

Drama critic Aleks Sierz describes Berkoff's dramatic style as "In-yer-face theatre":

The language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each another, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen and want all their friends to see it too. It is the kind of theatre that inspires us to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation."[14]

In 1988, Berkoff directed an interpretation of Salome by Oscar Wilde, performed in slow motion, at the Gate Theatre, Dublin.[15] For his first directorial job at the UK's Royal National Theatre,[16] Berkoff revived the play with a new cast at the Lyttelton Auditorium; it opened in November 1989.[17] In 1998, his solo play Shakespeare's Villains premièred at London's Haymarket Theatre and was nominated for a Society of London Theatre Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment.[18]

In a 2010 interview with guest presenter Emily Maitlis on The Andrew Marr Show, Berkoff stated that he found it "flattering" to play evil characters, saying that the best actors assumed villainous roles.[19] In 2011, Berkoff revived a previously performed one-man show at the Hammersmith Riverside Studios, titled One Man. It consisted of two monologues; the first was an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Tell-Tale Heart, the second a piece called Dog, written by Berkoff, which was a comedy about a loud-mouthed football fan and his dog. In 2013, Berkoff performed his most recent play, An Actors Lament at the Sinden Theatre in Tenterden, Kent; it is his first verse play since Decadence in 1981.[20]


In film, Berkoff has played villains such as Soviet General Orlov in the James Bond film Octopussy (1983), the corrupt art dealer Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop (1984), the Soviet officer Colonel Podovsky in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and gangster George Cornell in The Krays (1990). Berkoff has stated that he accepts roles in Hollywood only to subsidise his theatre work, and that he regards many of the films in which he has appeared as lacking artistic merit.[21]

In the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975), Berkoff played a police officer, and a gambler aristocrat. His other films include the Hammer film Prehistoric Women (1967), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), The Passenger (1975), Joseph Andrews (1977), McVicar (1980), Outland (1981), Coming Out of the Ice (1982), Underworld (1985), Revolution (1985), Absolute Beginners (1986), Prince's film Under the Cherry Moon (1986), Prisoner of Rio (1988), Fair Game (1995), the Australian film Flynn (1996), and Legionnaire (1998).

Berkoff was the main character voice in Expelling The Demon (1999), a short animation with music by Nick Cave. It received the award for Best Film at the Ukraine Film Festival. He has a cameo in the 2008 film The Cottage. Berkoff appeared in the 2010 British gangster film The Big I Am as "The MC", and in the same year portrayed the antagonist in The Tourist. Berkoff portrayed Dirch Frode, attorney to Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), in David Fincher's 2011 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Another 2011 credit is the independent film, Moving Target. He also stars in Katherine of Alexandria (2014) playing the role of Liberius.

In 1994, he both appeared in and directed the film version of his verse play Decadence. Filmed in Luxembourg, it co-stars Joan Collins.


In television, Berkoff had early roles in episodes of The Avengers and UFO. Other TV credits include: Hagath, in the episode "Business as Usual" of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; Stilgar, in the mini-series Children of Dune; gangster Mr Wiltshire in one episode of Hotel Babylon; lawyer Freddie Eccles in "By the Pricking of My Thumbs", an episode of Marple; and Adolf Hitler in the mini-series War and Remembrance. In 1998, he made a guest appearance in the Canadian TV series La Femme Nikita (in the episode "In Between").

In 2010, Berkoff played former Granada Television chairman Sidney Bernstein for the BBC Four drama, The Road to Coronation Street. He has played the historical Florentine preacher Girolamo Savonarola in two separate TV productions: the 1991 TV film A Season of Giants, and the 2011 series The Borgias. Berkoff appears as himself in the "Science" episode of the British current affairs satire Brass Eye (1997), warning against the dangers of the fictional environmental disaster "Heavy Electricity". In September 2012, Berkoff appeared in the Doctor Who episode "The Power of Three".[22]

In 2014 Berkoff played a supporting role in the second season of the Lifetime TV show Witches of East End.

In 2016 he appeared in Season 3, Episode 1 of Man Down on Channel Four in the UK.

Other work

In 1996, Berkoff appeared as the Master of Ceremonies in a BBC Radio 2 concert version of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. He provided the voice-over for the N-Trance single "The Mind of the Machine", which rose to No. 15 in the UK Singles Chart in August 1997. He appeared in the opening sequence to Sky Sports' coverage of the 2007 Heineken Cup Final, modelled on a speech by Al Pacino in the film Any Given Sunday (1999).

Berkoff voices the character General Lente, commander of the Helghan Third Army, in the first entry of the PlayStation Killzone video game series. With Andy Serkis and others, he provides motion capture and voice performance for the PlayStation 3 game Heavenly Sword, as one of the main villains: General Flying Fox.

Berkoff appeared in the British Heart Foundation's two-minute public service advertisement, Watch Your Own Heart Attack, broadcast on ITV in August 2008.[23] He also presented the BBC Horizon episodes, "Infinity and Beyond" (2010) and "The power of the Placebo" (2014).

He is patron of Brighton's Nightingale Theatre, a fringe theatre venue.[24]

Critical assessment

According to Annette Pankratz, in her 2005 Modern Drama review of Steven Berkoff and the Theatre of Self-Performance by Robert Cross: "Steven Berkoff is one of the major minor contemporary dramatists in Britain and  due to his self-fashioning as a bad boy of British theatre and the ensuing attention of the media – a phenomenon in his own right."[25] Pankratz further asserts that Cross "focuses on Berkoff's theatre of self-performance: that is, the intersections between Berkoff, the public phenomenon and Berkoff, the artist."[25]

Awards and honours

In 1991, Berkoff's play Kvetch won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Comedy. In 1997, Berkoff won the first Total Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award.[26] In 1998, he was nominated for a The Society of London Theatre's Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment for his one-man show Shakespeare's Villains.[18] In 1999, the 25th-anniversary revival of the play East, directed by Berkoff, received the Stage Award for Best Ensemble work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 2000, he won the LA Weekly Theater Award for Solo Performance, again for Shakespeare's Villains.[10][27] Also in 2000, his play Messiah, Scenes from a Crucifixion received a Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.[28] In 2001, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia won a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel.[29]

The Berkoff Performing Arts Centre at Alton College, Hampshire, is named for Berkoff.[30] Attending the Alton College ceremony to honour him, he stated:

I remember in my younger days questioning what life means. Finding a place like the Berkoff Performing Arts Centre, I found myself as a person. Having a place like this sowed the seeds of the man I think I am today. A place like this is the first step in changing the life of a person. There's something about theatre that draws people together because it's something connected with the human soul. All over the UK, the performing arts links people with a shared humanity as a way to open the doors to the mysteries of life. We should never underestimate the power of the theatre. It educates, informs, enlightens and humanises us all.

He taught a drama master-class later that day, and performed Shakespeare's Villains for an invited audience that evening.

Personal life

Berkoff lives with his partner, Clara Fisher, in London.[1][10]

Defamation lawsuit

In 1996, Berkoff won Berkoff vs. Burchill, a libel civil action that he brought against Sunday Times journalist Julie Burchill after she published comments suggesting that he was "hideously ugly". The judge ruled for Berkoff, finding that Burchill's actions "held him to ridicule and contempt."[31]

Political and religious views

Berkoff has spoken and written about how he believes Jews and Israel to be regarded in Britain. In a January 2009 interview with The Jewish Chronicle, in which he discussed anti-Israel sentiment in the aftermath of the Gaza War, he said:

There is an in-built 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.[32]

Interviewer Simon Round noted that Berkoff was also keen to express his view that right-wing Israeli politicians, such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, were "wretched".[32] Asked if British antisemitism manifested itself in theatre, Berkoff responded: "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."[32] Berkoff also referred to the Gaza war as a factor in writing Biblical Tales: "It was the recent 'Gaza' war and the appalling flack that Israel received that prompted me to investigate ancient Jewish values."[33]

Speaking to The Jewish Chronicle in May 2010, Berkoff criticised the Bible but added, "it inspires the Jews to produce Samsons and heroes and to have pride". Berkoff went on to say of the Talmud in the same article: "As Jews, we are so incredibly lucky to have the Talmud, to have a way of re-interpreting the Torah. So we no longer cut off hands, and slay animals, and stone women."[34]

In a Daily Telegraph travel article written while visiting Israel in 2007, Berkoff described Melanie Phillips' book Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within, as "quite overwhelming in its research and common sense. It grips me throughout the journey."[35]

In 2012, Berkoff, with others, wrote in support of Israel's national theatre, Habima, performing in London.[36]


References in popular culture

In the 1989 romantic comedy The Tall Guy, struggling actor Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum) auditions unsuccessfully for an imaginary "Berkoff play" called England, My England. In the audition, characters dressed as skinheads swear repetitively at each other and a folding table is kicked over. Afterwards, Dexter's agent Mary (Anna Massey) muses, "I think he's probably mad ..."

"I'm scared of Steven Berkoff" is a line in the lyrics of the song "I'm Scared" by Queen guitarist Brian May, issued on his 1993 debut solo album Back to the Light.[37] May has declared himself to be an admirer of Berkoff[38] and his wife, Anita Dobson, has appeared in several of Berkoff's plays.


  1. 1 2 3 "Steven Berkoff". Contemporary Writers. British Council. Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  2. "Steven Berkoff". Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  3. "Steven Berkoff". (Yahoo! Inc.). Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  4. Else Kvist. ""Normally I'm the villain" says Steven Berkoff". Bromley Times.
  5. Sorrel Kerbel (2003). Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Routledge. pp. 155–156. ISBN 1-57958-313-X.
  6. Alan Levy (24 July 2002). "Steven Berkoff: Caught in a web". The Prague Post. Retrieved 16 April 2009.
  7. Room, Adrian (2010). Dictionary of Pseudonyms: 13,000 Assumed Names and Their Origins. McFarland. p. 58.
  8. "Famous Personalities from Raine's Foundation School: Steven Berkoff (1948–1950)" (Press release). David A. Spencer (publicity officer), The Old Raineians' Association. Retrieved 27 September 2008.
  9. Michael Coveney (4 January 2007). "Steven Berkoff: The Real East Enders". The Independent. UK. Retrieved 27 September 2008. In his latest play and in an exhibition of photographs, Steven Berkoff revisits his past in the vibrant melting-pot that was riverside London.
  10. 1 2 3 "Steven Berkoff". Celebrities. Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  11. Peter Purves' autobiography "Here's One I Wrote Earlier ...", hardback edition, Green Umbrella Publishing, page 70. ISBN 978-1-906635-34-3.
  12. Akbar, Arifa (17 September 2010). "Steven Berkoff: Rise of an 'up and coming nobody'". The Independent. London.
  13. Steven Berkoff, "Free Association: An Autobiography", Faber and Faber, 1 July 1996, p.373. ISBN 978-0571176083
  14. Aleks Sierz (2001). In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0-571-20049-8.
  15. "Steven Berkoff directing". Retrieved 2 September 2012.
  16. "South Bank 1988–1996 – Stage by Stage – National Theatre". Retrieved 2 September 2012.
  17. "Past productions 1986–1990 – Past Events – National Theatre". Retrieved 2 September 2012.
  18. 1 2 Society Of London Theatre
  19. "Evil roles are 'flattering'". BBC News. 1 August 2010.
  20. "Steven Berkoff's new play". Tenterden Forum. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
  21. "Steven Berkoff early films".
  22. "".
  23. Fiona Ramsay (4 August 2008). "ITV to Air British Heart Foundation's Two-minute 'heart attack' Ad". Media Week. (Haymarket Group). Retrieved 27 September 2008.
  24. "Nightingale Theatre: Patron Steven Berkoff". Retrieved 30 September 2008.
  25. 1 2 Annette Pankratz (2005). "Steven Berkoff and the Theatre of Self-Performance, by Robert Cross". Modern Drama. 48 (2005): 459. doi:10.1353/mdr.2005.0035.
  26. Total Theatre Award Past Winners. Retrieved 29 August 2012.
  27. Steven Leigh Morris, "The 21st Annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards", L.A. Weekly, 12 April 2000. Retrieved 29 August 2012.
  28. "Berkoff's Messiah Tour Gets the Green Light",, 27 August 2001. Retrieved 29 August 2012.
  29. "2001 recipients | The Bank of Scotland Herald Angels". Retrieved 29 August 2012.
  30. "Front of Berkoff Performing Arts Centre".
  31. Mark Lunney and Ken Oliphant (2007). Tort Law: Text and Materials (3rd ed.). London and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 704. ISBN 978-0-19-921136-4.
  32. 1 2 3 Simon Round, "Interview: Steven Berkoff", The Jewish Chronicle, 22 January 2009. Retrieved 2012-10-17.
  33. Steven Berkoff, "Press release for Biblical Tales", New End Theatre. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  34. Jessica Elgot, "The Bible, rewritten by Steven Berkoff", The Jewish Chronicle, 21 May 2010. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  35. Steven Berkoff, "A Tale of Tel Aviv", The Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2007. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  36. Arnold Wesker, Ronald Harwood, Maureen Lipman, Simon Callow, Louise Mensch MP, Steven Berkoff, "Letters: We Welcome Israel's National Theatre", The Guardian, 10 April 2012. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  37. "Back to the Light". Retrieved 1 October 2008.


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