Obituary: Jock Levy, actor and co-producer of The Hungry Miles, documentary

Abraham Jerome "Jock" Levy was born in the East End of London in 1916, the youngest of three children. His family moved to Sydney in 1926 with the support of an uncle who had successfully migrated some years earlier. However, the promised support from the uncle never materialised, nor did the uncle, so the family was forced to seek help from the Salvation Army when they arrived in Sydney.

unnamed.jpgFor a short time, Levy attended Paddington Public School but the onset of the Great Depression forced him to leave school and find work to help the struggling family survive. He had many jobs as an adolescent including grocery delivery boy, ball boy at White City and house painter's assistant.

The family's subsequent move to Bondi altered his perception of the world forever. Levy always said that he was educated at "Bondi University", where a group of unemployed emigre European intellectuals would gather in the quadrangle at the back of the pavilion to debate current events. There Levy and his brother Lew would be inspired by discussions about philosophy, art, music, politics and the increasing threat of Hitler and Mussolini.

His first-hand experience of poverty and unemployment and his increasing awareness of the growing anti-Semitism and militarism of Fascism and Nazism forged a determination in Levy to help combat this threat. Totally self-taught, he was attracted to the outlet of theatre and was excited by the possibility of expressing a political and ideological point of view through this medium. "Entertainment with a message" was the hallmark of his subsequent career in theatre and film over 45 years.

Levy's activities include a long and remarkable career in the Jewish Youth Theatre, the New Theatre in Sydney (where he was honoured with life membership), other radical theatre, mainstream theatre, the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit and mainstream film and television production.

In 1940, he was conscripted into the army and soon after he volunteered for the AIF (Army Service Corps), but was discharged on medical grounds in 1943. He then joined the war effort by working at Hawker de Havilland (Sydney).

From 1937 to 1982 Levy acted in or directed 44 plays mainly for Sydney New Theatre. Many of his productions were regarded as pioneering works. They included the premieres of plays by Australian playwrights including Oriel Gray, Katharine Susannah Prichard and Dymphna Cusack. His production of Aristophanes' famous sexual comedy Lysistrata, his acting in and direction of the anti-racist play Deep are the Roots by d'Usseau and Gow and Sean O'Casey's The Star Turns Red, all received outstanding reviews. His work was consistently dedicated to his belief that art could effect social change.

Levy's acting ability was recognised by Marien Dreyer, a journalist working for Pertinent magazine. She said, "And finally, Jerome Levy … gave a performance that I cannot ever remember seeing equalled, either professionally or on the amateur stage … And then you get someone who is young, good-looking, and blessed with the ability to act, to hold his audience silent and eager whose voice is used as nature intended it – and who can be heard in the far back rows – and there you have Jerome Levy."

From 1953-1958 Levy contributed to the production of 16 films for the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit, which he helped to form in 1953 with Keith Gow and which Norma Disher later joined in 1954. The formation of the film unit was the first time anywhere in the world that a union sponsored a film unit as a means of expressing its point of view to its membership and the wider community.

unnamed_(2).jpgArguably their most famous film, The Hungry Miles (1955) recreated the days of the Depression in Sydney in 1930 using as actors the actual men who had experienced the Depression on the waterfront. This, together with their film-making skills, made the film so credible and moving in its depiction of suffering and hardship etched into the faces of the veterans, that many television series and documentaries have used the footage to powerfully evoke the era. The film won first prize and the Gold Medal at the Warsaw Youth Festival in 1957. It was also shown to Maritime Union members in the Patrick Stevedores dispute of 1998 to give them a sense of their history and to inspire them to maintain their industrial position.

Additionally, from 1954-1971 Levy acted in or provided technical expertise on more than 20 mainstream films including On the Beach and the Whiplash television series. In Cecil Holmes' film Three in One(1957), Levy played the lead role of Darkie in Frank Hardy's story The Load of Wood. This story focused on the Australian ethos of mateship and again it expressed Levy's strongly held principles of a "fair go for all".

Levy's award of an Order of Australia Medal in 2010 was in recognition of his contribution, commitment and outstanding public service to the Australian film industry through the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit and as a producer, director and actor.

Paddy Crumlin, national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), told his members on hearing of Levy's passing: "Jock … formed an integral part of the famous and ground-breaking film unit in the WWF that was one of the first and most effective independent film making and documentary initiatives in Australia. [It] not only captured the great history and struggles of our unions but went on to inspire a new generation of film makers in Australia … [He remained] an important and much loved and respected union leader in his own right."

Levy married Jeanette Shaw in 1942. She remained his inspiration and life partner for more than 65 years until she passed away in 2004. Levy is survived by sons Brett and Gregg, their wives Helen and Sue and four grandchildren.