Turkish Jewish actor Hemi Yeroham is Fawlty Towers’ Manuel

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Turkish Jewish actor Hemi Yeroham is Fawlty Towers’ Manuel

John Cleese's much-loved show opens in London this month

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Turkish-Jewish actor has made a career out of playing low-lifes, which he freely acknowledges. “Yes, foreign villains, asylum seekers, drug dealers!” he says, noting that coincidentally one of these parts was the aptly-named Shifty in ITV’s Benidorm.

The coincidence is more of a link, because once again Yeroham is playing someone from Spain –  iconic waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers, due to hit the West End stage in early May. And for once, Yeroham says, he is playing someone almost universally beloved – even by irascible hotel owner, Basil.

Yeroham, 44, was born in Istanbul, where, he says, he was deeply involved in the Jewish community and its lively amateur theatre. “We did a lot of musicals, and had these recurring characters, a Jewish family who had lots of adventures, something new every year. That was where my love of theatre began, and I remember thinking, oh, I wish I could do this all the time, and not go to school.”

Though there was no real theatrical background in his family, he recalls with amusement his mother playing the lead in one of the Jewish theatre productions. “I was only a chorus boy,  he says, but his father was also “a very funny man” who held court with his stories and jokes.

But when Yeroham announced he wanted to be a professional actor, his parents were less than thrilled. “In those days, if you were a theatre actor, you would be starving, basically.”

Instead he studied business management in Istanbul for a year, gave it his best shot, but then went to Israel to work on a kibbutz for six months, where learning Hebrew, he wondered if he could make it as an actor in the Jewish state. “But your Hebrew has to be really good. We did go to Israel with our Jewish community theatre for two consecutive summers to perform for the Turkish community, but they didn’t have their own theatre.”

Hemi Yeroham as Manuel, Victoria Fox as Polly, Adam Jackson Fox as Basil and Anna-Jane Casey as Sybil in the stage production of Fawlty Towers

Eventually Yeroham came to London, aged 20, and was accepted at Guildford to do an acting degree, but on graduating like most actors realised he could not rely on stage or TV work, and is well known for his radio and voiceovers.

He is hugely amused by his mother’s reaction to one of his jobs – the Turkish-language flight announcements on easyJet. “When my parents came to visit, she got off the plane and started giving me notes – ‘you said that too fast, or too slow’.”

In 2022, Yeroham played someone Jewish for the first time, in Jonathan Freedland’s Royal Court production Jews. In Their Own Words. “A true mensch. kind, sweet, gentle – and also very creative,” is how Freedland describes the actor, who wanting to leave stereotype villains behind told his agent he would love to do comedy. Yeroham had not seen Fawlty Towers when he auditioned for the part of Manuel, and only watched the box set – a gift from his boyfriend – once he got the part.

“It’s so nice to finally play someone lovely,” the new Manuel says. He hadn’t known that Andrew Sachs, who originated the TV role, was Jewish, but was happy to learn what a kind and gentle man he had been.

Manuel, of course, was forever being physically berated by an incandescent Basil, and Sachs was apparently bruised and beaten as some of the stunts went wrong. “I feel very safe – we haven’t done much of that in rehearsals yet. John Cleese has done a brilliant job combining three of the TV episodes, and has written a new finale.” Yeroham will sprinkle a bit of Spanish into his part and reveals that his parents spoke Ladino (the Sephardi equivalent of Yiddish) at home when they didn’t want Yeroham or his younger sister to know what they were discussing.

The actor has triple nationality – Turkish, British and Portuguese, acquiring the latter after Brexit when Spain and Portugal were offering citizenship to Sephardi Jews whose descendants were expelled in 1492. But it is Italian the actor is learning outside of work, when he also hosts friends for in-depth wining and dining. “That gives me the sense of community that I love” says the actor, who recognises much of himself in Manuel: “He’s a people-pleaser,” he says, “and so am I.”


Fawlty Towers opens at the Apollo Theatre on 4 May. fawltytowerswestend.com

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