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Ben Cross: Non-Jewish Actor Who Excelled at Playing Jewish Roles

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Sean Alexander reflects on the Jewish roles of Ben Cross who passed away on August 18th.

Inevitably, the obituaries for actor, Ben Cross, who died yesterday aged 72 following a short illness, started with his starring (and arguably name-making) role in 1981’s Chariots of Fire, in which Cross played the real-life Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams. He and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) portrayed Jewish and Christian runners both competing for Olympic Gold in 1924. The film’s success – four Oscars, including Best Picture – was at that time a rare example of a ‘British’ film winning big at Hollywood’s most feted awards ceremony. 

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Cross as Harold Abrahams (left) in Chariots of Fire (1981)

Cross was born Harry Bernard Cross on December 16th, 1947 to a working-class and devoutly Catholic family in London. Like the New Testament Joseph, Cross’ early jobs included being a carpenter, becoming ‘Master Carpenter’ for the Welsh National Opera.   

From an early age, Cross’ predilection for acting was clear: aged 12 he even played ‘Jesus’ in a school pageant, as well as performing in a number of other grammar school plays.  Entering the RSC in 1977, Cross performed regularly at the Duke’s Playhouse, with roles in both the Jewish Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the Biblical musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Cross’ career both before and after his signature role proves that his performance as the Jewish Abrahams was only one of a number of Jewish-centric roles.  Entering RADA in 1970, Cross’ graduation led to a first film role in 1977’s A Bridge Too Far, the screenplay for which was by William Goldman, himself a fourth generation American of Jewish emigrants. But it was Cross’ leading role in the 1978 production of Chicago (one of many stage successes for the Jewish Barry Weissler), playing lawyer Billy Flynn that was responsible for him winning the Chariots role. 

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As vampire Barnabas Collins in TV’s Dark Shadows (1991)

While the rest of Cross’ career failed to match the heady attention of Chariots of Fire, many of his roles continued in a Jewish vein.  1991’s TV revival of Dark Shadows saw Cross take the lead of the vampiric Barnabas Collins — Jews having long since been stereotyped as vampires and parasites.  Solomon (1997) saw Cross play the title role, whilst 2004’s Spartacus and 2010’s BenHur both included roles for Cross (as Glabrus and Emperor Tiberius respectively) that mined Jewish subject matter, if not to the same extent as their illustrious cinematic forebears.   

2006 saw Cross play Rudolph Hess, second in command to Adolf Hitler in the BBC’s acclaimed Nuremberg: Nazis on Trial, a rare example of Cross playing someone on the opposite side of the Jewish divide.  2007’s When Nietzsche Wept saw Cross play Joseph Breuer opposite Armand Assante as the self-described anti-Semite philosopher. 

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Video cover for Solomon (1997)

In later years, Cross’ roles were largely in low budget fare or bit parts in major studio pictures.  One of these was as Sarek, father of the Vulcan Spock, in 2009’s reboot of the TV and film franchise, Star Trek, directed by the Jewish JJ (Jeffrey Jacob) Abrams.  The implicit Jewishness of the Vulcans had long since been established in the franchise: the Vulcan hand salute of greeting introduced by Spock actor Leonard Nimoy, having witnessed the same gesture as an orthodox Jew in boyhood.  Cross’ role as Sarek was brief and largely overlooked, but it nevertheless added to an already burgeoning list of credits playing Jewish or Jew-centric characters whether on stage, TV or film.   

Fittingly, Cross died on 18th August, 2020, in Vienna, that most celebrated of Jewish cities and home to father of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud. 

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As Sarek, father of Spock, in the 2009 Star Trek reboot

Perhaps the BBC’s Religion Editor, Martin Bashir, best summed up Cross’ thespian legacy, and his most famous role, when he tweeted in tribute, ‘The Magnificent Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire captured the burden of being an outsider, the hostility toward his Jewish antecedents and how even success is isolating.’

Cross’ Catholic upbringing may have made him an outsider in Jewish terms, but performance-wise his Jewish credentials were often second to none. 

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Sean Alexander is a PhD Candidate at Bangor University, exploring Jewishness and Judaism in the films of David Cronenberg.
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