John Barry Foster’s acting career began and ended on the stage. At the age of 20 he won a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama where he befriended future playwright Harold Pinter. After two years training, Barry went on tour with Andrew McMaster and fellow actors Patrick Magee and Kenneth Haigh through the Republic of Ireland. Their repertoire included thirteen plays (mostly Shakespearean but also included J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’). Barry’s first role was as Lorenzo in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
In 1955, he hit the lights of London with ‘The Night of the Ball’ at the New Theatre and six years later had his first starring role as Cornelius Christian in ‘Fairy Tales of New York’. During the remainder of the decade, Barry played through an immensely varied array of characters ranging from Adhemar in the French comedy ‘Let’s Get a Divorce’ to King John and Macbeth at the Nottingham Playhouse. He appeared with Dame Wendy Hiller in ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and with Lotte Lenya in ‘Brecht on Brecht’ at The Royal Court. His portfolio also included two Pinter plays, ‘The Basement’ and ‘The Tea Party’. In 1963, he also acted on Broadway, San Francisco and Los Angeles in a double bill: ‘The Private Ear’ and ‘The Public Eye’ by Peter Shaffer. Time Magazine (October 18,1963) described his performance as Cristoforou as “a remarkable and indefinable creation” and “the most antic and mythic embodiment of Life Force since Zorba the Greek danced off the pages of Nikos Kazantzakis novel”.
While he had appeared in film roles since the mid-1950’s, it was on the small screen where Barry Foster had his greatest success, specifically as the trench-coated Dutch detective Van der Valk (1972). Introduced by the catchy theme song ‘Eye Level’ (a British chart topper in 1973), this 1970s TV series was filmed on location in Amsterdam and featured a rather off-beat type of detective: introspective, often rash and moody, at times anti-establishmentarian, yet with great compassion, wit and intelligence. Barry Foster himself remarked about the popular Van der Valk: “He is understanding and does not disapprove. That isn’t his job, anyway. He’s a lovely guy to play, a thoughtful, unorthodox cop with a touch of the private eye” (The Independent, 13/2/2002).
Other notable television roles followed. Among the best of them was as Kaiser Wilhelm in BBC’s excellent miniseries Fall of Eagles (1974). He was again perfectly cast as eccentric spook Saul Enderby, one of Smiley’s People (1982), played with typical aplomb and dry humour. In 1978, Barry lent his voice to an impersonation of the great detective Sherlock Holmes in a 13-part BBC radio series. In films, Barry will be best remembered as the serial killing grocer Bob Rusk in Hitchcock’s thriller Frenzy (1972). From the 1980s, Barry Foster concentrated once again on the theatre. In 1995, he toured Australia with Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ (playing the part of Inspector Goole), directed by Stephen Daldry. Five years later, he starred as Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ and, just prior to his untimely death, appeared with Nigel Havers and Roger Lloyd Pack in the play ‘Art’ at the London Whitehall theatre. Barry Foster was a singularly accomplished and likeable actor who once explained his versatility thus: “I’m neither very tall nor very short. You can’t look at my face and say ‘he’s the killer’, or ‘the guy next door’ or ‘the mad scientist’. All I’ve got is my curly hair – which everyone thinks is a wig anyway” (The Telegraph, 12/2/2002).
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