Born: December 16, 1947;

Died: August 18, 2020.

BEN Cross, who starred in the Oscar-winning British film classic, Chariots of Fire, and played Spock’s dad in a Star Trek film, once suggested that he saw himself as one of life’s misfits. He reckoned this led to his landing a long line of outsider roles.

“These misfit roles seem to seek me out,” he said in a 1984 interview to promote the mini-series, The Far Pavilions, in which he played an identity-confused British officer in love with a Indian princess. “I always seem to play people not totally at home in the situation we discover them.”

Did his real life role as an outsider result in the actor being cast regularly as someone on the margins of society? And did his natural recalcitrance prevent him from achieving the Hollywood success his talent suggested he was capable of?

His career was certainly marked by statements of defiance and outspokenness, which could easily have been taken for arrogance. Take, for example, his comments on landing the Chariots of Fire role, and working with acting royalty such as Ian Holm and John Gielgud. His quote suggests more than a little hubris. “All the people I had known and admired were suddenly thrown together. But, and I don’t mean to sound immodest, they were in my movie and in Ian Charleson’s movie, and not the other way round.”

Yet when you consider the early life of young Harry Bernard Cross it is hard to see how he could have grown up – in Streatham, South London – without developing a little defiance. His Irish father, Harry, a doorman, died of tuberculosis when he was just eight and the pressure of poverty on his mother, Catherine, who worked as a cleaner, was ravaging. He left school – and home – at 15 and worked as a butcher’s boy, a dishwasher and a window cleaner, while living in a van.

By good fortune he found himself cleaning the windows of Wimbledon Theatre. “After a bit they wanted someone to help with the production sets for a big Joss Ackland musical and I landed lots of carpenter work,” he recalled. He loved this new world of fantasy and adventure and moved on to become an assistant stage manager. But having spent so much time in a range of theatres, one day he looked on from the wings and decided he should be up there on stage. “I’d seen enough to want to do it myself.”

He applied to RADA and transferred his powerful work ethic into his new craft and graduated in 1972, taking with him the prestigious Vanbrugh prize for the performance of the year.

It seems that his irregular entry into acting also informed his sometimes brusque manner. “My main problem is a distinct lack of patience and tact in rehearsal,” he said aged 33. “If you start as a stagehand you get used to shooting your mouth off and saying what you like as you go along. Actors don’t seem to be allowed that luxury.”

A stint in rep theatre was followed by several strong theatre roles such as Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade (1977). That same year, he revealed a powerful singing voice when he landed the lead in the original London production of the musical, I Love My Wife, and he went on to capture the key role of Billy Flynn – another outsider, and Roxie Hart’s lawyer, in Chicago, reviewed in The Stage as “strong and sly as the courtroom superstar”.

The cockiness – or confidence? – was underlined at that time when he was asked about his post-Flynn future. Without thinking he said he expected to go into films. And it happened, with Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), about two sprinters vying for gold in the 1924 Olympics.

When he read the script, without even an audition on the cards, he launched himself into training for three solid months, even though he “hated running”. “You don’t get to be John Hurt by chance,” he once said. And when he did land an audition, lined up against real athletes (the producers being keen to put the actors through their paces), Cross more than held his own.

He did not win acting gold again after this movie, despite its four Oscars and brilliant personal reviews. Was it connected with his talent for speaking his mind? He was dismissive of the Method form of acting, for example, which would have put some noses out of joint: “The whole thing about acting is that you draw on other people’s experiences. I watch them and I listen to them. How I play it is my instinctive interpretation.”

He was also critical of English acting, admitting he preferred American roles because of their emotionalism. “Over here, people hide behind mannerism and technique and don’t come up with any soul. American actors are much freer with the emotions.”

But his talent for playing outsiders was too good to ignore and he enjoyed a successful career playing a collection of irregulars, oddballs – and even Rudolf Hess, in the 2006 BBC production Nuremberg: Nazis on Trial. He also starred in the musical, Rage, about Ruth Ellis, playing the role of the hangman. He managed to get his teeth into a couple of vampire parts. He starred in The Citadel (1983), the BBC adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s novel, and he brought a clever, cold aloofness to the part of Spock’s dad Sarek in the 2009 Star Trek film. He had a lead role in the film, First Knight (1995), alongside Richard Gere and Sean Connery.

You can’t help wonder whether if Cross been able to train his tongue the way he trained the his body for Chariots, and had been less of the outsider, he may have had the leading man roles. But it doesn’t appear to have worried him. He was a multitalented figure who also directed, wrote songs and musicals (he wrote for a “Bulgarian Frank Sinatra”) and indeed he lived in Sofia in recent years.

He also had a sharp sense of humour, and a man who could stand back and laugh at the vagaries of the acting business. “One daily journal, which shall remain nameless, referred to me as a ‘plodding plough horse’ [on reviewing his Chariots performance],” he recalled. “But the movie then went to America, won four Oscars and was re-released. Guess what happened? The same journal got another reviewer in and suddenly I had the ‘grace of an Olympian god’.” He laughed. “Neither is true, of course. I think I was somewhere in the middle: I have all the grace of an Olympian plough horse.”

His first two marriages, to Penelope Butler and and Michele Moerth, both ended in divorce. In 2018, he married his long-term partner artist, Deyana Boneva, in Bulgaria. He is survived by the two children of his first marriage, Lauren and Theo.