Graber grabs lifetime award

At 78, veteran stage actor Yossi Graber is still passionate about his work and always stops to smile and "see the lighter side of life."

Yossi Graber 370 (photo credit: Gerhar Alon)
Yossi Graber 370
(photo credit: Gerhar Alon)
If necessity is the mother of invention, then possibly failure provides a constant platform for ensuing success.
78-year-old actor Yossi Graber would certainly go along with that premise, especially in view of the fact that, on Friday, he will receive the Israeli Theater Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony that will take place at Gesher Theater in Jaffa at 12 noon. The event will be attended by Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and many of Graber’s professional cohorts.
It has not always been roses for Graber, but he says the knocks he has taken over the years only serve to keep his guard up and to spur him on to strive for ever higher artistic levels.
“I was fired four times by theater companies,” he declares, “and that leaves scar. But in the end I am grateful for those rejections. It has always left me wondering whether I am good enough, or whether I am talented.”
This latest award, recognition by his peers, must surely go some way to healing that scar. Graber says he is very grateful for the award but, at the end of the day, it is not his fellow actors he looks to for vindication.
“Since the announcement [about the award] was made people have come up to me in the street to congratulate me and to say I deserve the prize. That, for me, means everything. They are the people I perform for.”
Over the last half-century Graber has worked in numerous areas of the acting and entertainment business, starting out as a teenager on Voice of Jerusalem radio, which broadcast from a studio in Tel Aviv.
“That was during the British Mandate,” Graber recalls. “I loved doing that and I still love radio more than anything.”
He also acted, from the age of 12, in the local Bimateinu children’s theater, and managed to get some formal studies in, at the Nisan Nativ Acting Studio, during his IDF service.
Graber subsequently had stints at the Cameri Theater and at the Habima Theater, but his services were dispensed with by both companies. It was a trying time for Graber and, for a while, he worked as an air steward for El Al. But the love of theater, which he first discovered when his parents took him to see a production of Orot BaAfella (Lights in the Dark) at the Matateh Theater in Tel Aviv never waned.
Despairing of his chances of making on the Israeli scene Graber enrolled at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, where his fellow students included the likes of Albert Finney, Diana Rigg, Peter O’Toole and Alan Bates.
While Graber says his command of English is “not quite what it used to be” he has retained his affection for a particularly British trait.
“The British are so good at making fun of themselves,” he says. “That is something Israelis don’t have, which is a shame. It helps you not to take yourself too seriously, and to keep an even keel.”
He was also in the right place at the right time.
“I was in England from 1955 to 1958, when the Goon Show was a hit,” he recalls. The Goons comedy act comprised Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine and irrepressibly wacky Spike Milligan. Their radio show ran from 1951 to 1960, although Bentine left in 1953, and opened a new rich seam of humor which later spawned such world famous acts as Monty Python.
“The Goons were wonderful,” says Graber, adding that he remains something of an anglophile to this day. “The British have such wonderful drama schools, and produced such great actors and directors. They are a benchmark for the rest of the world.”
Meanwhile, Graber says he initially responded to his latest award – his other kudos include the David’s Harp award, and Actor of the Year in 2002 – with a certain degree of suspicion.
“You know they often give lifetime awards to people who are at the end of their career, or are so sick no one expects them to live much longer, so I had mixed feelings about it.”
However that was soon allayed by the judges’ explanations for the award.
“They said I was in the middle of my career, so that made me feel a lot better,” says Graber with a chuckle.
One might also add that, far from winding down as he enters his golden years, Graber maintains a punishing work schedule.
“I am in four productions right now – Hamlet, Tuesdays with Morrie, Warm Family and Makolet – and I’m in the middle of rehearsals for two roles, each, in Richard II and Richard III,” he says, “so you could say I’m keeping busy.”
Graber tends to smile and laugh a lot.
“I had a tough but good upbringing,” he explains. “We lived in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Makhloul. Everyone was poor, and my parents left the house for work around 6 a.m. and came back and six or seven o’clock in the evening, so my sister and I were left to our own devices.”
Graber feels that gave him a solid start in life.
“I had all sorts of tasks, like walking the dogs – we always had a few – and washing the floor. So when things get tough I just smile. It’s important to keep things in perspective and to see the lighter side of life.”