by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-10-14
With a career that spans some 50 years, there's more to Leonard Fenton than simply playing EastEnders' genial Dr Legg. SomethingJewish's Caroline Westbrook meets the man himself, currently treading the boards in London.
Leonard Fenton walks into the auditorium of The Finborough Theatre in south-west London already in costume. It's still two and a half hours until that evening's performance of Zadie's Shoes, the play in which he is currently starring, but having been told I would be taking photos as well as interviewing him he has 'gone into character' especially for us.
Now aged 77, Fenton is of course best known for playing Dr Legg in EastEnders, appearing as one of the original cast members from 1985-1997 and then turning up again in 1998 and 2000 (last appearing when Ethel, played by actress Gretchen Franklin, was dying of cancer).
He's continued to work steadily since hanging up his stethoscope for good three years ago, mainly in theatre. And it's his latest effort - among other that we are here to talk about today. Zadie's Shoes, a Canadian play from young writer Adam Pettle, focuses on a young man (played in this production by actor Dylan Smith) who loses the money he had saved for his girlfriend's vital cancer treatment by gambling it away. Desperate, he visits a shul for the first time in years for guidance, and finds the prophetic Eli (played by Fenton), who helps him with words of wisdom and a few gambling tips of his own.
"It's a wonderful play, beautifully written, sad and funny at the same time," Fenton explains, "unlike the soap opera I was in which was just unfunny, there's no fun in it. The way it's written is so delicate that the humour is sort of a relief - I mean, the central character has cancer, and it deals with gambling as an addiction which is very sad".
Having taken the photos on the tiny stage of the Finborough, Fenton remains on the stage for our chat, while I opt for a seat in the equally tiny auditorium, literally a stone's throw from where the plays are performed.
Over the course of half an hour the actor comes across as warm, funny and refreshingly open about everything - from his time on EastEnders and his opinions of the show (he bemoans the lack of humour in the programme these days) to his personal life (he has four grown-up children, and is separated from his cellist wife) to his career both past and present - one which has spanned 50 years and seen him working with everybody from Orson Welles to, er, Dot Cotton
How was your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
Fine, I was working. I was brought up in a very assimilated way, so I used to go to shul on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and many Shabboses -I call it Shabbos, not Shabbat - with my grandparents in the East End. So I spent a lot of time with elderly East European Jews which I have great memories of.
How did the role in Zadie's Shoes come about?
Do you know to this day, I haven't checked with the director, but I've played lots of rabbis and almost-rabbis, in plays by Wolf Mankewitz at the New End Theatre (in Hampstead), and more recently I played a Spanish rabbi at the New End, so I suppose I'm known now for playing these elderly Jewish parts and I think Lauren (director) was seeing a lot of actors at the time. But I've played so many of those parts lately. (At this point Lauren the director walks in and explains that "it wouldn't have felt right to have cast someone who wasn't Jewish in the role")
Do you enjoy doing repertory theatre?
Yes, although this is straightforward theatre. Repertory, where you do a different play every week, isn't so common now, which is sad - it's where all the old actor got all their training. Week after week you would rehearse a play and then in the evening you would perform the play you rehearsed the previous week - you couldn't do it for too long because it was stultifying. But it was good experience for a while.
What encouragement did you have from your family to go into acting?
I didn't. I began life as an engineer, and I didn't even have much encouragement to do that, I was sort of cajoled into it by a headmaster in the East End. I was interested in languages, music, painting, all those things, but there was no question of that during the War, and the headmaster said 'you need a good solid job' so I became an engineer. But even as I was studying it at King's College in London I became very unhappy. But I went into the Army as an engineer, as conscription. When I came out of the Army I felt very guilty about wanting to stop it so I carried on with it for five years, getting more and more depressed with it. Eventually I left and won a scholarship to drama school.
What was your first break in acting?
It was a kind of gentle thing. I got some kind of award from Spotlight, the drama agency and they introduced me to a director who was doing fortnightly rep, which is better than doing weekly rep, and I was away. I went from one repertory company to the other, to Glasgow and Edinburgh, down to Morecambe, back to Sheffield where I started, and then back down to London. And as soon as I came back to London, almost immediately I started work on a play, Chimes At Midnight, with Orson Welles. That was a very exciting experience for me. It was Orson Welles himself who cast me. He was an inspiration on stage and as a person, he used to take us out after the play. He'd been on stage the whole evening and then he'd take us out and entertain us.
What's your family background?
I'm from the East End, and all of my grandparents are from Eastern Europe. One grandmother was from Riga, her husband came from Vilnius in Lithuania. They all came from there, but my mother was born in Newark, New Jersey, and my father was born in London. I grew up in the East End until I was 13, and then I was evacuated, and when I came back I then lived in London for a while until I joined the Army. When I came back I lived all over South-West London while I was an engineer and drama student.
Is the family name Fenton?
No, the family name is Finestein. I had a cousin who died last year whose wife is Elaine Finestein, the novelist and poet, but my father was born in London and he joined the army in 1914 with the name Finestein. He was a very mild, even-tempered man, but people looked askance at him, firstly because it was a German-sounding name, and also the fact that he was Jewish, and I always remember him telling me that he was frequently insulted. He had a friend who was an enormous Yorkshireman who would floor anyone who insulted him! Then in the 1930s Moseley used to have meetings outside our house, because we were surrounded - it was a very poor area and we were the only Jews in the street - and my mother used to swear at him from the window with a baby in her arms, and all the neighbours used to say "No no, we're not talking about you, we're talking about the others". So, in a way I grew up appeasing people.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I had a brother who died young, but three sisters, one of whom is dead now, the oldest one. I'm the second, the oldest of the surviving family.
Did you ever go back to engineering or have any other jobs between acting?
I just stayed with acting, but in the early days I did some supply teaching of maths, and I remember teaching in French and English because languages were good for me. I did teach a little bit in the early days but since I started working properly I haven't done any other jobs. I think I was very apprehensive about doing something else, I would have thought it was the beginning of something else and I would have hated it. But most of these wonderful young people I work with do all sorts of other things, it's amazing.
Do you still work as much?
Yes, I still work a lot, but I'm more choosy about the plays I do, I reject more things. I had an amazing lucky break when I did EastEnders, that was great because my four children were all young and things could have been very difficult for an actor, so I was very lucky.
How important is it to you to play Jewish characters, or is it something that just keeps happening?
Well, it's a mixture of the two, it does keep happening because if you do one thing that's reasonably successful people say, "Oh, that's all he can do," which is understandable, but in fact most of the plays I've done recently have been Jewish characters. It's a source of work and they've all been wonderful play. The one I just did at New End, The Bespoke Overcoat, was originally done by Alfie Bass and David Kossoff, and the other play was called The Irish Hebrew Lesson, and that was a wonderful play.
Moving on to EastEnders
we've calculated the amount of Jewish characters in the show and it comes to: Dr Legg, Felix The Barber, Rachel Kominsky, Dr Legg's nephew and the son of one of Nigel's girlfriends who had a barmitzvah. 18 years - five characters. Think there should have been more?
I think there should have been. There should have been many more Asians, of course that's not the East End now, is it? That was the main thing, if it were true to today, there would be a lot more Asians, and older Jews, they would probably be the only ones left there now. The story was, as far as EastEnders was concerned, that I decided to stay in the Square because they were the people I knew. There should have been more Jews and more reference to Jews, but there wasn't and there isn't.
With the reappearance of Dirty Den and other characters such as Nick Cotton, Dot etc., do you think Dr Legg would like to return to the Square?
Well, I think as an actor I'd like to go back, yes, but all the soaps are competing with each other to see how outrageous they can be in terms of hopping in and out of bed, like the recent doctor they had - it's rather far-fetched I think, and if you've got an elderly doctor, and he's good, and he's good to people, it's not very exciting as far as the soaps are concerned, it's not going to get any cliffhangers. But I think there's a lot more room for comedy, and I used to introduce it myself. But Dr Legg is a very fondly remembered character - people stop me in the street several times a day every day and ask me how I am or shout to me.
Do they ever ask you to solve their medical problems?
Well, not so much but sometimes they do ask me. There was one amazing case of a woman who went to a friend of mine who was in the group practice and asked them if she could change to me, and was told, 'No, he's an actor. She got very shirty with him. So that sort of thing happens, but people do joke about it.
Do you miss the show?
I don't - what I do miss is the money. I had it when my children were young and that was a great blessing in a way, but the actual nitty-gritty of working on the show - no I don't miss that very much, I preferred working on Shine On Harvey Moon, because that was beautifully written by Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks. There wasn't that feeling of a unit in EastEnders, everybody was going off at different tangents.
Do you keep in touch with any of the cast?
Not really, I did keep in touch with June Brown, who plays Dot - she's a fine actress, she did all sorts of things like Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth before she did EastEnders, people don't know that but she's a great actress.
Do you get royalties from the re-runs?
I do, I get money from UK Gold, which is useful, and also I make some money from Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, which I did on radio. Also things like Rumpole Of The Bailey, which is sold time and time again.
What do you do to relax away from acting?
I paint, professionally - I have exhibitions. And that gets away from that thing many actors have - waiting for the phone to ring for the next job. Funny thing is, when I'm acting I think about painting, and when I'm painting, I'm thinking 'where's the next acting job' coming from? But at least I tend to be occupied all the time.
How observant are you, Jewish-wise?
I'm not really observant, but in later years I've got to think much more about the philosophy of Judaism and the Torah. I think about it quite a lot in this play because the character I play calls himself a prophet, jokingly, and the way he's teaching this young man makes me think about the Torah. I haven't been observant as far as my family is concerned as well.
Do you remember your Barmitzvah?
Oh yes, I remember that. Partly because this particular grandfather I had who lived in Bow, I used to go and see him every Saturday morning and he used to take me to a man who had his front room made into a little shul in memory of his wife and that's where I met all these old East European Jews who were wonderful, and we used to eat rye bread and salt herring after the service. And I always remember it with great affection, that whole period.
When was the last time you set foot inside a synagogue?
(thinks about this for a long time). The last time I think was for burials of close family, and that's happening a lot with older relatives now. I was only at a memorial service yesterday. I do go to Seder nights, every year because I belong to an organisation called The Celebrities Guild Of Great Britain - Stanley Black, who died recently, was our president - and we raise money for charity, so every year we have a Seder night.
Have your children been to see this play?
No, three of them are coming on Tuesday. They're solidly behind me, they come to see everything. My daughter, who's the youngest of them, happens to be in London at the moment - she's in fashion and she came over from New York where she's living, and went to Milan, to Paris, and she's back in London before she goes back to New York.
Did any of your children follow you into acting?
No, but the youngest boy is very interested in theatre and in acting. I've seen him on stage doing plays in Spanish because he studied Spanish at university, he's a very very good actor, but I wouldn't say to him to do it because it is a struggle. I've been very lucky.
Zadie's Shoes is on at The Finborough Theatre until 1 November 2003
For more information:
tel: 020 7373 3843
The Finborough Theatre is near to Earl's Court, London.