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Acting Unimaginable

For Ben Kingsley, intense emotion about the Shoah has informed his meticulous performances.

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 10, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Ben Kingsley, above, in a scene from "Anne Frank."  Photo courtesy of Touchstone Television

Ben Kingsley, above, in a scene from "Anne Frank." Photo courtesy of Touchstone Television

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, with an angry glint in his brown eyes. "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. Best-known for his 1982 Oscar-winning turn in "Gandhi,'" he has also played three of the most famous Holocaust survivors ever depicted 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 miniseries "Anne Frank."

During a recent Journal interview, a gaunt Kingsley, 57, said he was "still recovering" from the Frank shoot. "It was sternum-piercing stuff," he confided. "Whenever I turned a corner and saw armored trucks and SS officers, my stomach turned to ice."

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

"I also kept a picture of her on my person throughout most of the filming of 'Schindler's List,''" he revealed. "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, née Krishna Bhanji, is the son of an Indian physician and a British fashion model who was born illegitimate and was loath to speak of her parentage. Nevertheless, Kingsley said, he learned that one of her parents was of Russian and Jewish ancestry. But he 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 Simon 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 birthday, Dec. 31), plastered his bedroom with photographs of the Shoah, and dieted, to appear emaciated in 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 each morning, he put on his costume of stained overcoat with its yellow star. 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 miniseries, based on Melissa Muller's 1998 biography, "Anne Frank." The book and the miniseries refer to five pages that Otto censored from the published diary (they 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. "My next film, '"Sexy Beast,'' is an extraordinarily f-- -- dangerous black comedy in which I play possibly the most violent man on the planet,'" he insisted. "It's going to completely wipe the slate clean."

"Anne Frank" airs May 20 and 21 on ABC.

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