Actor Yehuda Barkan, Star of Israeli Cinema Classics, Dies of Coronavirus at 75

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Yehuda Barkan, April 5, 2019.
Yehuda Barkan, April 5, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli actor, director, screenwriter and producer Yehuda Barkan died Friday at the age of 75 of complications from the coronavirus, which he had contracted three weeks ago. His death was announced after Shabbat ended; his funeral was held on Sunday at the Rehovot cemetery.

Barkan was hospitalized on Yom Kippur at Hadassah University Hospital, En Karem in Jerusalem after his condition worsened. On Tuesday, he was transferred to intensive care after suffering sustained breathing difficulties.

Barkan is survived by four children, seven grandchildren and countless fans who were raised on “Charlie and a Half” (1974), “Snooker” (1975), “The Skipper” (1987) and other films, which have become Israeli classics.

Barkan was born in 1945 in Netanya to parents of Romanian descent. His stage career began during his military service in the Northern Command entertainment troupe, and upon his release, he joined another troupe made up mainly of former military performers.

He launched his film career in the 1960s, and began receiving lead roles after partnering with director Menahem Golan. In the years to follow, he starred in a number of "bourekas films," a comic-melodrama genre centered around the relationship between Israel's Ashkenazi and Mizrahi communities. In 1974, he played the character Charlie Ben-Hananya in “Charlie and a Half,” directed by Boaz Davidson, about a couple from different socio-economic backgrounds, which earned him a cult status.

Yehuda Barkan at the Ofir Prize ceremony, September 22, 2019.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

In the 1980s, Barkan acted in an Israeli version of “Candid Camera,” which he wrote and directed with Yigal Shilon. The two continued to collaborate on a number of films and TV shows along the same lines. In 1987, Barkan starred in the first of a three “Skipper” films, playing Chico Ben-David, a Tiberias fisherman and single father trying to prevent his wealthy wife from gaining custody of their son. The film was considered one of the most successful melodramas ever produced in Israel. In 1990, Barkan starred in a film whose script he also wrote: “Kiss on the Forehead,” in which he played a truck driver doing military reserve service and trying to capture a serial rapist.

In 1993, he starred in, wrote and produced the film “Wanted: Four-Legged Husband.” The film was a box-office flop and put Barkan deep in debt. Last year, he told Haaretz that it was that failure that set him on a spiritual search that ended with his finding God.

“In most of the movies I produced I had partners, but in ‘Four-legged Husband’ I was alone and I lost big time. A total collapse – a historic flop," he said. "I started going back to religion two years before that and I guess God purposely gave me this slap just then, at the beginning of my career as an observant Jew.” Barkan said in the interview that he turned down parts in many films because of standards of “modesty,” which did not meet those of his religious faith.

The economic crisis and his newly religious lifestyle distanced Barkan from movie and TV screens. He played supporting roles in a number of films, but only returned to prime time with the 2010 drama series “Yellow Peppers,” in which he played the grandfather of the series’ protagonist, a child with autism. The show was a major success, and Barkan’s performance earned him praise from critics.

Barkan was a vocal supporter of Likud's Miri Regev during her stint as culture minister. Regev sought to withhold funding from films that did not suit her right-wing worldview. Barkan explained his position: “BDS in my opinion is the outcome of years of people seeing Israeli films that were anti-Israel. That’s how a movement starts that says ‘if the Israelis are anti-Israel and show what happened to the Palestinians, then we’ll raise an outcry.’ But none of them were in Israel, and none of them lived in the south and got hit by missiles. After they do that – then let them stand up against Israel.”

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