Shoah dramas continue to compel actor Ben Kingsley

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LOS ANGELES — Actor Ben Kingsley was glowering. He'd been asked to comment on the critics who suggest there are currently too many Holocaust films. "How dare they," he hissed, his brown eyes glinting angrily. If people want to ignore history, they are only digging their own graves."

The British actor ("Death and the Maiden," "Bugsy") had reason to be testy. While best known for his 1982 Oscar-winning turn in "Gandhi," he has also played three of the most famous survivors ever on screen: Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in HBO's "Murderers Among Us," soulful accountant Itzhak Stern in "Schindler's List" and Anne Frank's father, Otto, in the upcoming ABC mini-series "Anne Frank: The Whole Story."

The two-part program airs at 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

A gaunt Kingsley was "still recovering" from the Frank shoot during a recent interview.

"It was sternum-piercing stuff," he confided. "Whenever I turned a corner and saw armored trucks and SS officers, my stomach turned to ice."

But the movie felt serendipitous for the actor. It was Anne Frank, after all, who helped him survive the worst days on his two previous Holocaust films: When he suffered intense bouts of crying on the "Murderers" set, he gazed at a photograph of the young diarist.

"I also kept a picture of her on my person throughout most of the filming of 'Schindler's List,'" he said. "I would glance at it when I was required to do a sequence that was particularly demanding, just to say, 'I'm doing it for you, darling.' Then I would put it back in my pocket and do the scene.

"The mind rejects the number 6 million," Kingsley added. "But when you focus on one face, you begin to comprehend the horror."

Kingsley, born Krishna Bhanji, is the son of an Indian physician and an English fashion model whose parentage was partly Russian Jewish. Born out-of-wedlock, his mother was loath to speak of her background.

The actor did not learn of the Shoah until he saw a Holocaust-themed documentary that placed him in a state of "deep, physical shock," he said. Kingsley was only 9, but he knew that someday he "wanted to help articulate that chorus of pain."

During his childhood, he never suspected that opportunity would come via Hollywood. In fact, Kingsley didn't pursue the theater until he failed his medical school entrance exams. He was a far better student as an actor. To play Gandhi, he fasted, practiced yoga, adopted a vegetarian diet and mastered the spinning wheel.

When Wiesenthal unexpectedly telephoned about "Murderers" in the late 1980s, Kingsley's research was again meticulous. The actor spent days with the Nazi hunter in Vienna (the two men share the same Dec. 31 birthday), plastered his bedroom with photographs of the Shoah and dieted to appear emaciated for concentration camp scenes.

By the time director Steven Spielberg approached him about "Schindler's List," the Holocaust was familiar turf for Kingsley. Nevertheless, he felt as if he were donning the skin of a corpse when he put on his stained overcoat costume with its yellow star each morning. When a Pole made a threatening, anti-Semitic gesture to a fellow actor, Kingsley lunged at the man. "When I left Krakow, I felt like a refugee, because that kind of work displaces the psyche," he said.

Yet the Shoah continued to influence the roles he felt compelled to accept. Kingsley starred in the TNT movies "Moses" and "Joseph" to explore the parallel between ancient and modern anti-Semitism. His understanding of shtetl oppression influenced his Oscar-nominated performance as Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky in "Bugsy."

But when the call came to play Otto Frank last year, the actor was reluctant. He was tired of playing victims. "But I carefully read the script and saw that the Franks were presented as a very cultured, successful middle-class family — not victims by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "It is clear that they became victims. That is an important distinction."

Kingsley busied himself by watching BBC tapes of Otto Frank. But one obstacle remained: the controversy that was plaguing the ABC mini-series, based on Melissa Muller's 1998 biography, " Anne Frank."

The book and the mini-series refer to five pages Otto censored from the published diary, which criticize the Franks' strained marriage. When Spielberg withdrew from the project over the conflict, there was concern that Kingsley might follow suit. However, the two men met at a dinner, Kingsley told the Los Angeles Times, and Spielberg "gave me a big hug and said, 'I'm so glad you're playing Otto.'"

But don't suggest to Kingsley that he is typecast in roles that are serious and angst-ridden. In his next film, "Sexy Beast," he plays "possibly the most violent man on the planet," he said. "It's going to completely wipe the slate clean."

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal