Stephen Greif obituary

The Crown and Blake’s 7 actor who performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre

The character actor Stephen Greif, who has died aged 78, performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre during Laurence Olivier’s time as artistic director before carving out a television career, best remembered for playing the villain of the piece in the cult sci-fi series Blake’s 7 and the sitcom Citizen Smith.

In Blake’s 7, he played Travis, the evil Terran Federation’s ruthless one-eyed space commander hunting down the resistance group on Earth led by Roj Blake (played by Gareth Thomas). As well as wearing black leather, Travis was distinctive for his eyepatch and prosthetic arm with a built-in Lazeron destroyer – the result of wounds sustained in a previous encounter with his nemesis.

The character was psychotic in his obsession to capture Blake. “He liked killing, he liked orders, and the more killing that the orders involved, the better,” Greif said in a 2008 interview with the Den of Geek website.

Stephen Greif as Scott Ginsburg, with Jerry Hall, during rehearsals for Benchmark at the New End theatre in Hampstead, London, 2002.
Stephen Greif as Scott Ginsburg, with Jerry Hall, during rehearsals for Benchmark at the New End theatre in Hampstead, London, 2002. Photograph: PA/Alamy

Blake’s 7 was devised by Terry Nation, previously the creator of the Daleks in Doctor Who, and Greif became a favourite on the fan convention circuit, despite leaving after the first series, in 1978, having suffered an achilles tendon injury from playing squash, and tiring of his character’s repetitive storylines. He said he was finding them “boring” and Travis “two-dimensional”, so recommended Brian Croucher to take over the part, and the programme continued for another three series until 1981. Ironically, Travis’s storylines became more varied and exciting.

Greif (pronounced as in “strife”) appeared in Blake’s 7 during the middle of his run in the first three series (1977-79) of Citizen Smith as Harry Fenning, the local gangster who runs the Vigilante pub. The comedy, written by a pre-Only Fools and Horses John Sullivan, starred Robert Lindsay as the “urban guerrilla” Wolfie Smith, styling himself on Che Guevara and leading the Tooting Popular Front, in reality a small group of inept, commitment-shy friends in south London. Wolfie was called “Trotsky” by Harry, the Mr Big whose watering hole they frequented and to whom he frequently owed money.

For the next 40 years, the actor took dozens of mostly one-off character roles on television – and in the occasional film – showing his range by switching between crooks, doctors, detectives and lawyers. He was last seen on TV in the 2020 series of The Crown playing the House of Commons speaker Sir Bernard Weatherill, granting Geoffrey Howe (Paul Jesson) leave to address fellow MPs with his resignation speech, a withering – and ultimately fatal – attack on Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson).

Stephen Greif as Donata, with Natalie Dormer, in the 2005 film Casanova.
Stephen Greif as Donata, with Natalie Dormer, in the 2005 film Casanova. Photograph: TCD/Alamy

Stephen was born in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, to Pauline (nee Rubinstein), of Polish and Russian heritage, and Franz (known as “Ferry”) Greif, a business entrepreneur who was born in Vienna to a Polish father and Hungarian mother, and lived in Britain from 1935.

The family moved to London and Stephen attended Sloane grammar school, Chelsea, where he excelled in sport, then Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). He went through jobs at a TV and radio electronics factory and as a negotiator at a West End estate agency before being accepted – at his third attempt – to train at Rada. He graduated in 1967, having won six awards while there, including one for best actor.

Greif turned down a season with Birmingham repertory theatre to take small roles with the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1968, followed by a US tour the following year. He then joined the Prospect theatre company on tour and in the West End (Mermaid theatre, 1969, and Piccadilly theatres, 1970) to play both Thomas Mowbray in Richard II and the Earl of Pembroke in Edward II. Seasons followed with the National Theatre company (1971-75).

He returned to the National to play Biff, eldest son of Warren Mitchell’s Willy Loman, in an acclaimed revival of the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman (1979-80). Greif, whose performance earned him a nomination for a Laurence Olivier award, was recommended for the part by Mitchell after he played his son in a 1975 BBC Play for Today, Bernard Kops’s Moss.

Stephen Greif as Maurice, with Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour, in Fallen Angels at the Apollo theatre, London, 2000.
Stephen Greif as Maurice, with Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour, in Fallen Angels at the Apollo theatre, London, 2000. Photograph: Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

His later stage roles included Maurice Duclos in Noël Coward’s comedy Fallen Angels at the Apollo theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, from 2000 to 2001 (“Greif wittily plays the French lover as an ambulatory shrug,” wrote the Guardian critic Michael Billington) and both John Faa, king of the western Gyptians, and – bringing suitable authority to the part – Father President, head of the consistorial court, in His Dark Materials, based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy novels (National Theatre, 2003-04).

The actor revived his Blake’s 7 character in audio adventures from 2012 until his death. His voice was also heard in many commercials and as a narrator of video games and television documentaries.

In 1980, Greif married Judith Price; they separated after three decades together. He is survived by their twin sons, Daniel and Joe.

• Stephen John Greif, actor, born 26 August 1944; died 23 December 2022


Anthony Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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