One film almost guaranteed to be on TV this Christmas is the 1964 epic “Zulu, one of several films which has become a regular feature in the festive telly schedules.
It made a star of a certain Michael Caine, but another actor was also marked out for a glittering career following his critically acclaimed role in Zulu. Sadly, James Booth – who played Victoria Cross winner Private Henry Hook – never quite fulfilled that early potential.
Born 90 years ago today in Croydon, Surrey, Booth was the son of a probation officer and educated at Southend Grammar School before leaving at 17 to join the Army, with the outbreak of the Second World War. He served with distinction and rose to the rank of Captain before being demobbed and taking a job with an international trading company.
By now though, he had discovered a love for acting, first during his time in the Army and later with amateur groups. Resolving to pursue it as a career, he auditioned successfully to train at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London and made his first professional appearance as a member of the Old Vic theatre company.
From there he joined Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, based at the Theatre Royal, in Stratford, and was given a starring role in its 1959 production of “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be”, a new Cockney musical comedy with music and lyrics by another up and coming star, Lionel Bart. Booth’s performance led critics to predict a bright future, and for a time it seemed they were right.
He began to appear in feature films, in increasingly bigger roles, so that by the time Zulu came out in 1964 his name was on the publicity posters alongside established stars Stanley Baker and Jack Hawkins, and above Michael Caine. His performance in that film, playing a lazy and insubordinate soldier who displays true heroism when the situation demands it, further bolstered Booth’s reputation, but things were about to change.
The following year Booth showed no hesitation in accepting the lead role in Lionel Bart’s next big project, a stage musical comedy about Robin Hood, called “Twang!!”. Bart was still being feted for the success of “Oliver!” and a couple of other musicals since, but “Twang!!” was a massive flop which was savaged by the critics and closed after just 43 performances to mostly empty houses.
Also in 1965, Booth starred in comedy film “The Secret of My Success”, which also flopped and saw the critics for the first time turning on him for a largely lacklustre performance outshone by his co-stars. Booth’s career stalled then virtually stopped. Around the same time, he turned down the lead role in the film “Alfie” because he thought it too weak. It went instead to Michael Caine and propelled him to further stardom.
Suddenly Booth was out of favour and out of luck, with rumours of his heavy drinking also putting off casting directors who only a couple of years earlier were queuing up to offer him lead roles. In later years Booth blamed a combination of several things for the sudden collapse of his career, accepting that most were of his own making. They included his alcoholism, his failure to make the right connections in the industry and his apathetic approach to selling himself and driving his career.
Most of all he had failed to work hard, because everything had come so easily to him early in his career and he made the mistake of thinking it would continue that way. Roles did still come in, but they were smaller parts in increasingly low budget films or bit parts on TV, and by 1974 Booth was bankrupt, in debt and unable to find work.
Disillusioned, he fled to America, where he would have some success at screenwriting and continued to gain occasional acting work. He lived in Southern California for around 20 years, working steadily but never enjoying his previous acclaim. The one constant in his life was his wife, Paula, who he married in 1960 and had four children with. One of his more prominent roles in later life was in the second series of popular TV series “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”, playing Kenny Ames, a crook living in enforced exile in Spain. He also cropped up in episodes of “Lovejoy”, “Minder”, “Bergerac”, “The Bill” and “Twin Peaks” and continued to work in minor film roles.
In the 1990s he and his wife moved back to Britain, settling in Essex. His final film role was in the 2005 black comedy “Keeping Mum”, starring Rowan Atkinson and Maggie Smith. It was dedicated to his memory, released shortly after his death at the age of 77 on August 11th, 2005. Despite never achieving the stardom predicted early in his career, he never stopped working and found what truly mattered was not his showbiz career, but his loving and supportive wife of 45 years and the children they had together.