10 June 1895|
23 July 1956 (aged 61)|
Frederick Valk (10 June 1895 – 23 July 1956) was a German-born Jewish stage and screen actor of Czech descent who fled to the United Kingdom in the late 1930s to escape Nazi persecution, and subsequently became a naturalised British citizen. Despite making his later career in the English-speaking world, Valk never attempted to shed his heavy Mitteleuropa accent in either his stage or film work, and it became a trademark, particularly in film where he was often the first choice for a role which called for a German or Central European accent.
Valk made his first appearance on the London stage in 1939, going on to play in numerous productions of classic drama including leading roles in Shakespeare, with his performances as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and in the title role of Othello attracting critical admiration. In 1946 he won the Ellen Terry Award for best actor for his performance in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
Valk also toured overseas, in the 1950s performing at the fledgling Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. When challenged by local journalists that as a Jew he should feel uneasy about playing Shylock, he replied that the assertion made no more sense than saying a Scotsman should baulk at playing Macbeth, that he in fact found a strong pro-Semitic message in the play and that he deplored "that people are beset with prejudices of all sorts and can't bring themselves to wipe their eyes and read and think". Critics responded with fulsome praise for his performance: "Mr Valk works in the grandest continental manner...every gesture breathes intelligence and every vocal note is true". The Canadian Jewish Congress however, who had protested vociferously over the inclusion of the play in the Stratford programme, loathed the production, stating: "We were assured...in advance of the staging of the play that it would not emerge an anti-Semitic production, that Frederick Valk would rise to great heights as Shylock. These predictions did not materialize: the play remains the vilest anti-Semitic production on record."
Valk's strong accent led somewhat ironically to his frequently being cast in film as German officers or functionaries, credited under such titles as "Kommandant", "Gestapo Officer" or "Sturmführer". He also found a niche in a succession of roles as Central European doctors or psychiatrists. Valk's stage reputation meant that the quality of films in which he was offered parts was generally high, with his filmography containing more prestige productions than B-movies and programmers. He never received top-billing in films, but was happy to accept supporting roles in good screen productions. High profile films in which he featured include The Young Mr Pitt and Thunder Rock (both 1942), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Mrs. Fitzherbert (1947), The Magic Box (1951) and The Colditz Story (1955). His most famous screen appearance came in 1945, with the role of the sceptical psychoanalyst Dr. Van Straaten in the classic Dead of Night.
Aged 61, Valk died suddenly in London on 23 July 1956 during the run of the play Romanoff and Juliet in which he was appearing. His wife Diana subsequently wrote a memoir entitled Shylock for a Summer in which she revealed that Valk had been planning to write an autobiography at the time of his death, and had written a note to himself stating: "I don't want to talk at length of my histrionic adventures – the idea of this is to draw a curve of a life, lived in shadow and sun but lived with gratefulness."
- "Frederick Valk Dies - Best Actor of 1946" The Glasgow Herald, 24-07-1956. Retrieved 20-08-2010
- "Jewish Actor Defends Role Of Shylock" Ottawa Citizen, 21-05-1955. Retrieved 20-08-2010
- "Fresh Winds Over Stratford" Ottawa Citizen, 09-07-1955. Retrieved 20-08-2010
- "Shylock Does Us Little Good" The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, 08-07-1955. Retrieved 20-08-2010
- Release date for The Magic Box, in IMDb.
- "An Actor and His Family The Montreal Gazette, 26-07-1958. Retrieved 20-08-2010
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