April 05, 1982 12:00 PM

When he was tapped to play a Cambridge-educated Jewish sprinter in a movie gamble called Chariots of Fire, British actor Ben Cross knew he’d found a challenge. After all, he reports, “I’m Irish Catholic, I grew up poor, I left school at 15—and I loathe running.”

The fact that Cross succeeds in his role is impressive; Chariots of Fire’s success is even more remarkable. The film tells the unlikely story of two real-life 1924 British Olympians—Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson), an evangelistic Scot, and Harold Abrahams (Cross), a British Jew who called winning his “weapon” against prejudice. As a project, it seemed better suited to Masterpiece Theatre than Main Street. But the gently lyrical blend of music and movement has clicked with critics and audiences. Since its North American release last September, Chariots, which was made in England for $6 million, has grossed $22.9 million. And it has seven nominations in this week’s Oscars, just one fewer than Ragtime and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

For Cross, 34, a veteran of West End Shakespearean and musical productions, his movie debut in Chariots (the title comes from a William Blake poem about religious passion) presented more than the usual artistic hurdles. Physically, he worked out until he could do 600 sit-ups and 500 push-ups daily. He copied the high-kneed running stride recommended by Abrahams in a 1930 training manual. To better understand his character’s rage against anti-Semitism, he talked to a rabbi and recalled a trip he’d made, as part of an acting troupe, to Russia in 1974. “I met five or six Soviet Jews and got to know what they were going through,” says Cross, who became friends with dancers Valery and Galina Panov, then being harassed for requesting emigration. (They have since been allowed to leave.) Claims Cross: “I was knocked around by the KGB and smacked in the face because I went to the Panovs’ flat and spent an evening with them. I realized I couldn’t fight back. What could I do? I had tears of rage, all that. To get revenge I smuggled stuff out for the Panovs, rolls of film and a big spool of tape in the lining of my jacket.”

Cross’ current nemeses are the reviewers who pummeled his latest vehicle, Lydie Breeze, a symbol-strewn Broadway play directed by Louis Malle. In it, Cross played an 1890s Frankenstein actor. Critics called the drama “pretentious idiocy” and “a tree without a trunk,” and it died last month after a three-week run. Snaps Cross: “Critics who approached the play the way they approach every other play are thick and moronic. I enjoyed doing Lydie so much I wouldn’t give a damn if it was slighted by everybody.”

Born in London’s working-class Paddington section, Cross was 8 when his father, a nurse, died of tuberculosis. His Irish mother worked three jobs to support Ben and two older sisters. “We weren’t ruddy-faced impoverished, but toward the end of the week we ate potatoes,” he remembers. He attended Catholic schools, made his stage debut at 12 as Jesus Christ in a class pageant, then quit school at 15 to work as a stagehand before enrolling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Since graduating in 1972 he has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in numerous British productions of American musicals such as Chicago and I Love My Wife. Americans saw him recently as a safari hunter on PBS’ The Flame Trees of Thika, and next month he’ll bob up momentarily in Coming Out of the Ice, a CBS movie about life in a Soviet gulag starring John Savage and, of all people, country singer Willie Nelson as a prisoner. (Says Ice producer Frank Konigsberg of that casting kink: “I chose Willie because he is a uniquely American personality.”)

For Lydie, Cross moved his wife, Penelope, 32, and kids Lauren, 4, and Theodore, 1½, to an apartment in a lower Manhattan neighborhood whose art galleries, restaurants and native habits he enjoys investigating. “Since I’ve been here I’ve gotten into Jack Daniel’s and lighter beer,” says Cross, “and I occasionally enjoy a puff of marijuana. But I’m not a dopehead or an alcoholic.”

How soon the Cross clan returns to London, where home is a two-bedroom flat in Chiswick, depends upon his next job offer. “I came to New York because the work is here,” notes Cross, who’s learned that victory goes to the swift. “The moment I sense things are cooling here, I’ll make tracks.”

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