Harry Landis, the actor and theatre director, who has died aged 95, began his career with Lionel Bart at the Unity Theatre in Camden, and went on to notch up numerous television credits, including a two year stint on the BBC's EastEnders and a hilarious turn as the repulsive Mr Morris in Robert Popper’s Channel 4 Jewish family sitcom Friday Night Dinner.
In November 1995 he made his Albert Square debut as the barber Felix Kawalski, a Jewish-Polish Holocaust survivor and butterfly collector, once suspected of having bodies in his basement, who left the series in May 1997, supposedly to trace long-lost relatives in Israel.
He made his prime time return in the second episode of the second series of Friday Night Dinner, and stole the show as the foul-tempered, potty-mouthed Mr Morris, the 82-year-old married boyfriend of Grandma (Frances Cuka). With his toothbrush moustache, hideous conversational gambits (“Guess how many heart attacks I’ve had!”), obsession with cleanliness (“I’m very hygienical,” he says, wiping his dirty hands on the curtains) and propensity for violence, Mr Morris turns out to be the Goodman family’s worst nightmare.
In a particularly toe-curling scene Morris gets the Goodman sons Jonny and Adam to buy him condoms, but objects: “Not those, they’re too loose.”
Landis’s character reappeared in the third series when, to the family’s horror, his wife having died, he and Grandma become engaged, last featuring in the cliffhanger final episode “The Big Day” in July 2014, when, as the rabbi asks the couple to exchange vows, Grandma saves the day by staging a collapse.
An only child, Harry Landis was a genuine Eastender, born in Stepney on November 25 1931. His father died when he was a baby and he was brought up by his widowed mother in abject poverty.
He recalled taking refuge in her lap when Blackshirts chanting “Get rid of the Yids! Get rid of the Yids!” threw a brick through their window. In a 1996 interview with the Jewish Chronicle he described queuing in the 1930s for a soup and bread at a soup kitchen run by Food for the Jewish Poor: “My mother said she had two children to get a bit more food in that saucepan. One day, they called me in, aged about six, and asked: ‘Have you got a sister?’ I sussed what my mother had told them. I said: ‘Yes.’ They asked: ‘What’s her name?’ And from nowhere came: ‘Rosy.’ My mother kissed me because I didn’t give anything away...”
The experience, he said, had made him a lifelong socialist with an everlasting dislike of pre-welfare state, do-gooding “pompous Jews”.
Landis was educated at Stepney Jewish School until he was 14, when he left with no qualifications, subsequently working pouring tea in a cafe, then as a milkman, window cleaner and factory hand.
While working in the factory he would mimic the music hall acts he had seen at the Hackney Empire and, encouraged by a friendly shop steward, he applied for and won a job at the Unity Theatre, Camden, a radical establishment with links to the union movement, taking part in variety shows in air raid shelters and parks. Aged 20 he won a London County Council grant to train at the Central School of Speech & Drama.
From treading the boards with the Elizabethan Theatre Company and in rep, Landis made his television debut in 1955 in the pilot episode of Dixon of Dock Green, and in 1961 originated the leading role of Paul, the pastry cook, in the first full performance of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen at the Royal Court Theatre.
On television he appeared in several other episodes of the police series and had, mostly Cockney-Jewish, character roles over the years in many other series including Holby City, Jason King, The Saint, My Family, The Bill, Goodnight Sweetheart and Casualty. He also played Fagin’s accomplice Toby Crackit in Oliver Twist (BBC, 1962) and one of Arthur Daley’s slightly crooked cronies in Minder.
He took small roles in several films, beginning with A Hill in Korea (1956) in which he played cockney conscript Private Rabin, and ending with the 2014 Hollywood blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow as “old man 3”.
His stage credits included RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End (Mermaid, 1972), Tom Taylor’s The Ticket of Leave Man (Cottesloe, 1981) and Shaw’s Heartbreak House (Mermaid, 1997). At the 1989 Edinburgh Festival he appeared in the British premiere of George Tabori’s grimly comic Mein Kampf: Farce, as a Jewish bookseller who befriends the teenage Adolf Hitler at a doss house in Vienna and gives him the shave and haircut that changes the preposterous artist into the fascist fanatic.
Alongside his acting career, Landis directed plays at the Unity Theatre, including a well-reviewed production of Death of a Salesman (1966), served as artistic director of the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, and directed national tours of works including The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
An activist in the actors’ union Equity, he served as its president between 2002 and 2008 after winning election as the “Blairite” candidate against the actress Sally Treble, who was supported by, among others, Ken Dodd and Tony Blair’s father-in-law, Tony Booth.
A dramatic highlight of Landis’s time in the post was his presidential address at Equity’s Annual Representative Conference in 2008 when he accused Bill Kenwright, the producer behind some of London’s most successful musicals, of being the “worst payer’’ in the West End – an outburst denounced as “blatantly slanderous’’ by a colleague at Kenwright’s production company.
Harry Landis was unmarried.
Harry Landis, born November 25 1926, died September 11 2022