Towb, Harry (1925–2009), actor, was born Harris Towb in Larne, Co. Antrim, on 27 July 1925, the second child of Jack (or Jacob) Towb and his wife Bessie (Amelia) Towb (née Sergai). Bessie Towb had been born to a Jewish family in Belfast, while Jack was born in a shtetl (town), Žagerė, in what is now Lithuania. To escape ongoing persecution and possible conscription into the Russian army, Jack's father had fled in 1890 to Swansea, Wales. After his Irish linen business in Larne failed, Jack Towb took the family to join his relatives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but started drinking heavily, and the family split up; Bessie took her daughter and son back to Belfast and made a little money by selling cheap jewellery door-to-door. Later she ran a café in Dublin, and died there in 1957. Harry attended Finiston primary school in north Belfast and afterwards Belfast Technical College. Without either much commitment or success, he took various jobs, including one with Lockheed, the aeroplane manufacturer, but had to borrow money to pay for his father's funeral in 1943. He started a photograph processing business, but after he won a singing competition, and acted in an amateur production directed by the avant-garde Hubert Wilmot (the founder in 1947 of Belfast's Arts Theatre), the young man got three offers of professional acting work in one week.
To his mother's horror, Towb sold his business and joined a touring group in Dublin for a five-week tour. His first professional role was in Derry's Guildhall in 1946, in 'Professor Tim', by George Shiels (qv). In June 1947, with only £20 in the pocket of his 'awful bottle-green suit with heavily padded shoulders', which he hoped looked fashionably metropolitan, he moved to London, where for a few months he had to keep himself afloat by selling men's ties from a market stall. He commented later with amusement that he was trebly barred by the signs that English boarding houses allegedly put up: 'No Irish no Jews no theatricals' (Belfast Telegraph, 2003).
His green suit brought him luck: a television director caught sight of him wearing it at an audition for a stage play, and thought he looked just right to play a spiv in one of the earliest BBC television dramas. Towb also took acting and stage management jobs with various repertory companies in the south of England. In 1950 he secured parts in several successful plays in London's West End, and later in the decade appeared frequently in television dramas. In 1960, James Ellis (qv), who had set up Bridge Productions after controversy within the Ulster Group Theatre, asked his friend Towb to come back to Belfast to take the part of a shop steward in the notable first production of 'Over the bridge', by Sam Thompson (qv).
After the difficulties of his childhood, Towb's lifelong worry about being financially secure meant that he often opted for lesser roles, just to keep working; he was, however, such a gifted character actor, so reliable and so amiable, that he was seldom without employment. He preferred the stage, television and radio to film, but even so appeared, generally in minor roles, in over thirty films, including Above us the waves (1955), The Thirty-nine steps (1959), Patton (1970), Barry Lyndon (1975), Lamb (1985) (playing an Irish priest) and The most fertile man in Ireland (2000). In a career lasting over sixty years, Towb appeared in numerous stage, radio and television plays and broadcast drama series, performing with the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company in England and in the Gate and Abbey theatres in Dublin. He also hosted a television quiz show, and was a talented author, writing short stories, radio plays and television scripts. He starred in several of his own plays performed on RTÉ radio, and in his own bittersweet television drama, Cowboys (1981), adapted from his award-winning short story, about a Jewish Irish-American returning to a Belfast made unrecognisable by the violence of the 1970s. Like his character, Towb retained a great affection for the Belfast of his youth, and often took parts in Dublin and in Belfast. One of his last stage roles was that of Tiresias, in 'Antigone', in the Queen's Festival at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, in 2008.
A trouper in the old sense of the word, he was versatile and amorphous, and could take on characters of any background, with any kind of accent, but was particularly successful in Irish characters; his portrayal of both down-at-heel and wealthy Jewish figures was convincing and often acclaimed. He was well reviewed in a 1978 musical, 'Bar mitzvah boy', at Her Majesty's Theatre, London, and appeared for two years in another, very different, musical, 'Little shop of horrors', from 1983. He very much enjoyed presenting a documentary about the history of Belfast Jews, Odd men in (1983), in which he interviewed his hero, Chaim Herzog (qv). Well able to carry off comedy roles, Towb notably starred with Warren Mitchell in a darkly comic series in 1991, So you think you've got troubles, set in Belfast, about a community leader, 'the Jew-finder general', desperate to recruit more Jews for the synagogue, whether catholic Jews or protestant Jews or even atheist Jews like Mitchell's character.
Towb was a familiar figure to television audiences, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the population watched the same shows. He appeared in many of the most popular series on UK television, including The avengers, Callan, Minder, Heartbeat and The Bill. With a penchant for crime dramas, but generally avoiding soaps, he acted in several programmes of the Z cars series with his great friend James Ellis. As 'Harry', he featured regularly in the 1980s in popular children's programmes called You and me, alongside Cosmo and Dibs, rather ugly life-size furry puppets. He appeared in the Doctor Who episode 'Terror of the Autons' (1971), his character memorably (and terrifyingly) suffocated by a chair. Harry Towb loved acting, and wanted to keep working on into old age, but joked that as he got older he was only offered parts as dying men, as in the hospital drama Holby City.
Towb married in 1965; his wife, Diana Hodinott, was sixteen years his junior, and a successful actress. They had a daughter and two sons, and a notably happy married life, until Towb's death in London on 24 July 2009, after suffering from cancer.