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Foster, Barry (1927-2002)


Main image of Foster, Barry (1927-2002)

Barry Foster modestly attributed his success in a wide variety of roles to his lack of distinguishing physical characteristics, speculating that the one exception to this - his mop of white curls - was probably responsible for his being cast by directors who mistook him for John Thaw, Jon Pertwee or Keith Barron. However, the performances for which he is best remembered - as unorthodox Dutch detective Piet Van Der Valk and serial killer Bob Rusk in Frenzy (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1972) - amply demonstrate his versatility.

Born John Barry Foster, he initially worked as an organic chemist before winning a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama, where he befriended future playwright Harold Pinter. Upon graduating he toured Ireland in various Shakespearean productions before making his London debut in 'The Night of the Ball' in 1955. After a minor role in The Battle of the River Plate (d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1956) he appeared in numerous war films, including Yangtse Incident (d. Michael Anderson, 1957), Dunkirk (d. Leslie Norman, 1958), and King and Country (d. Joseph Losey, 1964). He also proved adept at comedy in The Family Way (d. Roy Boulting, 1966).

Television work consisted of supporting roles and guest appearances until 1972, when he was cast as Van Der Valk (ITV, 1972-73, 1977, 1991-92). The combination of Foster's thoughtful, ironic portrayal, the picturesque Amsterdam setting, and a chart-topping theme tune, 'Eye Level', made the show an instant hit with viewers, its leisurely pace providing a welcome contrast to the car chases and gritty realism of rival crime dramas.

In the same year he was cast in Frenzy after Hitchcock saw him in Twisted Nerve (d. Roy Boulting, 1968). The intention was to make the psychotic Rusk a far more likeable character than Jon Finch's irascible protagonist, and Foster successfully employed humour to engage the audience's sympathies in what could have been an extremely unsympathetic role. Most memorable is the scene in which Rusk attempts to retrieve incriminating evidence from the already death-stiff fingers of his latest victim while riding in the back of a potato truck.

In subsequent years Foster continued to extend his range in television and film and on stage, receiving great acclaim for his Prospero in a 2000 production of 'The Tempest'. He was taken ill while appearing in 'Art' in the West End, and died shortly afterwards in hospital.

Richard Hewett

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