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Steven Berkoff biography


 

 

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Leslie Steven Berks was born on 3 August 1937 in Stepney,  London, "a small flat in 104 Whitechapel Road, London" (from Delinquent).

Childhood

Steven Berkoff birth certificate
from Berkoff's birth certifcate

His family background was Jewish Russian and his grandparents fled Russia for Britain in the 1890s.

A young Steven Berkoff
A five-year-old Berkoff (from Daily Mail 20 Feb 2009- click on image for link)

His parents were Alfred (who called himself Al and is sometimes listed as Abraham) who was a tailor with a shop in Leman Street, London and Pauline (who called herself Polly).  He had a sister Beryl.  Al changed the family name from Berkowitz to Berks.  Steven later changed it again to Berkoff.

Berkoff mother
Polly Berkoff, mother.  Berkoff dedicates his diary "In memory of my beloved mother Polly" (photo from Free Association)

 

During the Second World War he, like most children, was evacuated from the bombing of London to the relative safety of Luton in 1942.  After the war the mother and children moved for a few months to Nyack, New York, staying with relatives. 

Steven Berkoff shipping manifest

An extract from the Manifest of Alien Passengers, tourist class, on the Queen Elizabeth ship from Southampton 26 Oct 1947.  Mother Pauline Berks, sister Beryl and Leslie (Steven) aged 10 are listed.  The father did not travel.

Queen Mary manifest

And returning on the Queen Mary leaving 10 Feb and arriving in Southampton.  Berkoff (Leslie Berks) is listed as a student (meaning a schoolchild).  Their address in London is given as 145a Cannon St. Rd.  Sister Beryl did not travel back until later.

They returned to join the father in Anthony Street in London.  Berkoff was educated at the Raines Foundation and Hackney Downs Grammar School, which was also Harold Pinter's old school.  Berkoff had an unhappy childhood "not getting anything I wanted was becoming awfully familiar" (from Delinquent).  His relation with his father was very strained "not having a caring or loving Dad didn't help" (Delinquent p104).  When in 1952 he stole a bike he was sentenced to spend a short while in borstal (children's prison).

As a teenager he had a number of relationships "...back in 1999 he revealed that he had a daughter, then three years later blurted out the existence of a second one..." (Nick Curtis in The Evening Standard 10 Aug 2007 here).  In the article Berkoff is quoted as saying "... One is called Mylea and the other is Sarah. I am in touch with both of them, one more than the other, which has been quite lovely and nourishing for both of us. They are both in their thirties and have very nice husbands and children."

 

Jobbing Actor

He studied at City Literary Institute from 1957-1958 and the Webber Douglas Academy 1958-1959.  He then went to the Laban School of Dance in Morely College.  Later he went to the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris.

Berkoff was a struggling actor, with roles in provincial theatres and bit part in British films.  His first role in a film was in 1959's The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw- in Tales from an Actor's Life Berkoff says "sharing the scene with none other than the glorious, the sexy, the cute, Jayne Mansfield" and his role was "just flopping around the set like grimy drunken cowboys".

His first role on stage was in 1959 in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge as Louis, performed in the Finsbury Park Empire in London.

Finsbury Park Empire - click for source
Finsbury Park Empire, demolished in 1960.  Photo from the Theatre's Trust- click on the image for the source.

In 1965 his acting in Albee's Zoo Story brought him critical acclaim.

 

 

Emerging Director and Playwright

In 1968 Berkoff formed the London Theatre Group and started his career with adaptations of Kafka and Poe such as Metamorphosis (at the Roundhouse, London in 1969), The Trial and The Fall of the House of Usher.

East was his first original play to be performed and established him as a major talent.  He is now performed over the world, and at the yearly Edinburgh Fringe Festival he is the most performed playwright after Shakespeare.

 

Relationships

He has married twice, firstly to Alison Minto in 1970 when he was 32.  In Meditations on Metamorphosis he says "Decisions for me in those days were a matter of life and death. My wife, designer and painter Alison Minto, helped me to conceive the set" (The Independent 2 Aug 1999).

Abraham Berks
Marriage certificate Berkoff and Alison Minto, 13 Jan 1970.  The father is named as Abraham.

 

His second marriage was to to Shelley Lee in 1976 when he was 39.  On the certificate for his marriage his profession is given as Actor/ Director, Lee is listed as a dance choreographer.  His father is listed as Abraham Berks whereas on other documents he is Alfred Berks.

Alfred Berks
Marriage certificate Berkoff and Shelley Lee, 21 Aug 1976.  The father is named as Alfred.

Berkoff currently lives in Limehouse, London in an apartment on the Thames with his partner the classical pianist Clara Fischer - she can be seen as the motorist who has an argument with Berkoff in his film Decadence.  Berkoff says "itís lovely to listen to her. When she plays itís phenomenal.Ē (Ginny Dougary in The Times 21 Mar 2009).

 

Pushing Boundaries

Berkoff also has a film career appearing in major roles in Rambo, Beverly Hills Cop, Octopussy and recently The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as works by Kubrick (Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange) and Antonioni.

Berkoff claims he is now in semi-retirement (conversation with Iain Fisher in 2006), but for example in 2006 he appeared in six films/ tv episodes, acted both in his own plays and on a solo tour with Shakespeare's Villains and did commercial voiceovers.

Thanks to Michelle Cussens for the geneology research.

 

 

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