Born: January 20, 1930;

Died: November 11, 2021.

DESPITE once estimating his height as “about…just exactly five foot”, Henry Woolf, who has died aged 91, could have laid claim to being a giant of the theatre. One of a generation of fiercely intelligent Jewish contributors to the arts, he was an experienced Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and Royal Court player, who was also a director and – as he put it, “when no-one was looking” – playwright, in London’s fringe theatres during the 1970s.

His life began in Hackney in London’s East End, and ended as a much-loved Emeritus Professor at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan. In 1957, he earned a place in theatrical history, by staging the first produced play by one of his school friends, then a struggling repertory actor, Harold Pinter.

Spherical in face and body, possessing jet-black hair, rectangular eyebrows and a low-pitched voice, Woolf was born in Holborn, his Romanian parents soon moving eastwards to Homerton, in Hackney. In Michael Billington’s 1996 biography of Harold Pinter, the dramatist remembered Woolf’s mother as “a tiny Jewish woman. A real baleboosta” (meaning in charge of the home)”. She never stopped cleaning or polishing. Everything was immaculate.”

Woolf’s lifelong friendship with Pinter began at Hackney Downs Grammar School. After studying at what later became Exeter University, Woolf began a thesis at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where he started acting. As a postgraduate at the-then new drama department of Bristol University, Woolf entreated Pinter to write The Room when material was required for an evening of one-act plays.

The Room’s premiere took place in a converted squash court, with Woolf directing, and playing the abstruse landlord Mr. Kidd. He told Billington that he had “budgeted the production, literally, at one and ninepence, and (the stage manager) went and spent four and sixpence.” Revivals at the Hampstead Theatre in 1960, and at the Almeida forty years later, saw him recreating Mr. Kidd.

Despite warning his friend that “You’ll meet very few people you want to have a drink with”, Pinter got Woolf a job on veteran actor-manager Anew McMaster’s tours of Ireland. Back in Bristol, at its Old Vic, he did The Pier (1958), featuring Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris. He would be in support when O’Toole played the title role of Baal (Phoenix, 1963), by Bertolt Brecht.

Twice in 1960, Woolf was directed by Orson Welles: in his Shakespeare adaptation Chimes at Midnight, which premiered in Belfast and transferred to Dublin; and in Rhinoceros, starring Laurence Olivier, at the Royal Court. The latter also presented The Fire Raisers (1962), directed by Lindsay Anderson, including Woolf and John Thaw among a troupe of singing firemen.

For the Royal Shakespeare Company, Woolf was among the inmates in what became known as the Marat/Sade (1964), directed by Peter Brook, repeating on Broadway the following year, and in the 1967 film version. Again at the Royal Court, Woolf played an ENSA entertainer in Charles Wood’s characteristically military-set Dingo (1967); Disraeli, in Edward Bond’s controversial Early Morning (1969); and the multi-faceted but manipulated central character of Man Is Man (1971), again by Brecht.

Another Brecht was The Threepenny Opera (Prince of Wales, 1972), starring Vanessa Redgrave and Barbara Windsor. Woolf supported with Miriam Margolyes, who remembers him saying to her, "'You would do anything to live life on your own terms'. I was shocked by his perspicacity".

Woolf was Pinter’s first choice to perform Monologue, broadcast on BBC2 in 1973, although the actor preferred his subsequent stage renditions. Bordello (Queen’s, 1974), was a briefly seen musical starring Woolf as Toulouse-Lautrec, with Lynda Bellingham among the nominal institution’s workforce.

With Neil Innes (obituary January 9, 2020), he was a regular on Eric Idle’s post-Python sketch show Rutland Weekend Television (BBC, 1975-76). One episode ended with Woolf complaining “I’m a writer – I’ve had plays on!” His first was Johesus, a two-hander between Jesus and a Lazarus who doesn’t particularly want to be resurrected, first seen in 1973 at the Pool Lunch Hour Theatre in Edinburgh.

Four one-act and full-length plays followed, with titles like Doctor Croak Sends Help (1974) and Steer Clear Of Kafka (1975), and demonstrating Woolf’s understanding of the Theatre of the Absurd that he had so often acted in. As a director of plays on the Fringe, often in lunchtime performances, he specialised in plays by fellow actors.

As a mobster named Frankie Barrow, Woolf terrorised the rag-and-bone pair in Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973). Dwarfed by henchmen, he returned in an episode of their TV series the following year. He was also in the much-repeated BBC Schools series, Words And Pictures (from 1975 to 1978), sharing presenting duties with a monochrome animation named Charlie.

Woolf began teaching at the drama department of the University of Saskatchewan in 1983, later becoming “an absurdist head of department who likes playing lunatics.” For a decade from 1991, he was artistic director of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, based in two large tents.

He returned to Britain for the National Theatre’s revival of The Hothouse in 2007, and read a poem by Pinter at the venue’s posthumous celebration of the playwright in 2009. A memoir by him, Barcelona Is In Trouble, appeared in 2017. Last year, the University of Saskatchewan named a theatre in his honour.

His wife Susan Williamson, whom he met when they were both in Marat/Sade, survives him, along with four children and eight grandchildren.