October 12, 1996
OBITUARY MARK FRANKEL
The tragic death of the actor Mark Frankel occurred just as he was on the verge of a double breakthrough: the US television series Fortune Hunter, in which he played Carlton Dial, ex-British Secret Service, had premiered on Sky TV, and the feature film Roseanna’s Grave in which he played a key role had just completed its final mix.
Frankel, though, was known in this country for two roles in two independent British features, neither terribly good but both mercifully free of the shackles of a cramped television look, and both achieved substantial theatrical release, although to little box-office effect.
He was Leon the Pig Farmer, in Vadim Jean and Gary Sinyor’s 1993 film of that name, top-billed over a motley cast of industry professionals, in an appallingly directed farrago. Nevertheless, Leon the Pig Farmer was cannily exploited, and despite being over-length and vulgar, was widely seen by cinema professionals and the nature of its ramshackle funding drew great attention. In a cast allowed free rein to overact, the pudding-basin-shaggy-dog-hairstyled Mark Frankel acquitted himself well in the leading role, underplaying and securing sympathy for a faintly ridiculous character forced to do overtly ridiculous things. Since the plot never held water (the line of Jewish descent is through the mother, so it doesn’t actually matter who Leon’s father is), it’s a measure of Frankel’s talent that he made the whole exercise eminently watchable.
It led to another film directed by Gary Sinyor, Solitaire for 2 (1995), as arch and as naive as its title, co-starring Frankel as a successful businessman who falls for Amanda Pays, an archaeologist with ESP. The film is neither as funny nor as chic as it thinks it is, but the central performances hold it together, just, suprisingly well. Again, though there was no audience, though its reviews would have kept away even an unpaying audience.
Mark Frankel always wanted to act. Although he achieved success as an under-21 tennis player, his heart was set on the stage, and he took a variety of jobs, including mini-cabbing, to pay for acting classes. After an amateur production of Agamemnon, in which he played the lead, he next went into A Streetcar named Desire at the Stanhope Theatre and then enrolled on a three-year course at Webber-Douglas. On finishing, he played the lead in Days of Cavafy above the Finborough Arms in Earl’s Court, where he was spotted by a casting director, and fetched up in a pair of mini-series – as the young Michelangelo in Michelangelo – A Season of Giants (1991), opposite F. Murray Abraham, and as Orlov in Young Catherine (also 1991). These were followed by the role of Marcel in the six-part Granada Maigret television drama Maigret and the Madwoman (1992), and the part of a billionaire recluse in the 16-part Sisters for Warner Bros. TV.
His casting as Leon the Pig Farmer came about because, quite independently, he was selected for the role by both co-producer and co-director. Leon made him known, and he followed that, before Solitaire for 2, with a “Ruth Rendell Mystery”, Vanity Dies Hard, and a “Rik Mayall Presents”, Clair de Lune (both 1995).
In the press release for Solitaire for 2, Frankel revealed his love of fast bikes, stemming from an early affection for motorcross. At 10 he stripped down a moped, and his then current addiction was for a beloved Harley Davidson. His tragic death in a Hampstead motorbike accident robs British cinema of a promising new matinee idol, important for being, as his work indicates, an overtly Jewish talent, for in Britain, our Jewish matinee idols like Leslie Howard, Michael Rennie or, latterly, Daniel Day Lewis, have been overtly assimilationist, whereas in America such stars as Jeff Chandler, Kirk Douglas, or Tony Curtis revel in their Jewish origins. Mark Frankel’s family also lost his elder brother, Joe, in a 1990 accident.
Admirers still have one movie left though, and in a stroke of serendipitous casting that all movie buffs will note, the two screen Leons share a film together, Leon (The Professional, 1994) Jean Reno, and Leon the Pig Farmer, Mark Frankel in Roseanna’s Grave to be premiered next year.