Harry Landis, who has died aged 95 from cancer, left behind a poor childhood in London’s East End to become a character actor on stage and screen for eight decades. When he stepped out of the wings and into the limelight, he left TV viewers with memories of two very different characters, one gentle and likable, the other downright disgusting.
He spent 18 months in EastEnders (1995-97) as Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor Felix Kawalski, who owned a hairdressing salon in the fictional Albert Square – and kept in the basement his father’s prized collection of butterflies, which he had brought to Britain after having fled the Nazis. Felix thought his parents and sister had perished.
In Walford, he enjoyed the company of other elderly residents – including Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) and Blossom Jackson (Mona Hammond) – and had a chess partner in Jules Tavernier (Tommy Eytle), who provided Blossom with platonic friendship as she and Felix developed deeper feelings.
When the barber discovered that his sister was alive and living in Israel, Blossom joined him on an emotional trip to see him reunited with her. Felix then decided that he wanted to join his sister for good, and Blossom accepted his invitation to live with them in Israel. On a brief return to the soap in 2010, she revealed that Felix had died five years earlier.
On a completely different note, Landis appeared in the sitcom Friday Night Dinner as octogenarian Lou Morris, the selfish, arrogant, aggressive boyfriend of Eleanor Buller (Frances Cuka), whose daughter brings the Jewish Goodman family together over a weekly meal.
He appeared in just three episodes, in 2012 and 2014, but immediately made an impression, when Lou crashed his broken-down old car into the Goodmans’ house on his first visit – demanding they pay for the damaged headlamp. The family is horrified to find out he is married, appalled by his behavior, tired of bragging about the button factory he owns and annoyed by his obsession with wiping his hands on their curtains.
When his wife dies at the age of 94, he becomes engaged to Eleanor, but even she realizes her big mistake – faking a heart attack on their wedding day when the rabbi asks them to exchange vows.
Landis was born Harry Landinski in Stepney, east London, to Sarah and Morris, both of Polish heritage. His father, a taxi driver, left when he was a baby. He and his mother were regular visitors to the local Jewish soup kitchen. “Mum had to plead her case with the Jewish Board of Guardians, all businessmen from north London who acted as if she had failed the site for being poor,” he recalled. “They had no idea about life in the East End.”
Another memory of living in the area was Oswald Mosley’s fascists throwing a brick through their window in the mid-1930s.
Leaving Stepney Jewish School at the age of 14, he worked in a cafe, then as a window washer and milkman before taking a job in a factory. During tea breaks he imitated Max Miller and other musical acts he had seen at the Hackney Empire. His trustees suggested he attend the Unity Theater in King’s Cross, which gave a platform to working-class voices.
He began performing with the amateur company at the age of 15 and returned to it after completing his national service. David Kossoff and Alfie Bass were among his contemporaries.
When he was 20, a scholarship from London County Council enabled him to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama. From there, as Harry Landis, he performed professionally with the Elizabethan Theater Company, performing Shakespeare, then in repertory theatres.
Later, with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theater in 1961, he appeared in The Kitchen as Paul, the pastry chef, based in part on the experiences of the author Arnold Wesker.
The West End beckoned, with roles as Private Albert Huggins in The Amorous Prawn (Saville Theatre, 1962), Bernard in Time Present (performed by the English Stage Company at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 1968), Private Mason in Journey’s End (Cambridge) , 1972), the father in the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mount Morgan (Wyndham’s theatre, 1991) and the Postmaster General in the musical I’d Rather Be Right (Fortune theatre, 1999).
On stage, Landis also directed plays at the Unity Theater (1965-66) and was Artistic Director of the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (1973-74).
He was prolific on television, taking on more than 100 roles in both dramas and comedies. They included Toby Crackit, Fagin’s lock-picking expert, in a BBC serialization of Oliver Twist (1962). He was also seen renting out a heavy to Arthur Daley in a 1982 episode of Minder when Terry is injured.
During his early years on screen, Landis appeared in many war films, including Hell in Korea (1956), sharing a room on location in Portugal with Michael Caine, Dunkirk (1958) and The Longest Day (1962), with Richard Burton . He later appeared alongside Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
He was president of Equity, the actors’ union, from 2002 to 2008, and director of the Equity Charitable Trust from 1994 to 2001.
Landis’ marriage in 1965 to actress Hilary Crane (nee Strelitz) ended in divorce seven years later. He is survived by Ingrid Curry, his partner of more than 30 years, as well as his daughter by marriage, Katy, and his stepson, Simon Crane.
• Harry Landis (Harry Landinski), actor and director, born 25 November 1926; died September 11, 2022