Pinter was born on 10 October 1930, in Hackney, east London, the only child of British parents of Jewish Eastern European descent: his father, Hyman "Jack" Pinter (19021997) was a ladies' tailor; his mother, Frances (ne Moskowitz; 19041992), a housewife. Pinter believed an aunt's erroneous view that the family was Sephardic and had fled the Spanish Inquisition; thus, for his early poems, Pinter used the pseudonym Pinta and at other times used variations such as da Pinto. Later research by Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter's second wife, revealed the legend to be apocryphal; three of Pinter's grandparents came from Poland and the fourth from Odessa, so the family was Ashkenazic.
Pinter's family home in London is described by his official biographer Michael Billington as "a solid, red-brick, three-storey villa just off the noisy, bustling, traffic-ridden thoroughfare of the Lower Clapton Road". In 1940 and 1941, after the Blitz, Pinter was evacuated from their house in London to Cornwall and Reading. Billington states that the "life-and-death intensity of daily experience" before and during the Blitz left Pinter with profound memories "of loneliness, bewilderment, separation and loss: themes that are in all his works."
Pinter discovered his social potential as a student at Hackney Downs School, a London grammar school, between 1944 and 1948. "Partly through the school and partly through the social life of Hackney Boys' Club ... he formed an almost sacerdotal belief in the power of male friendship. The friends he made in those daysmost particularly Henry Woolf, Michael (Mick) Goldstein and Morris (Moishe) Wernickhave always been a vital part of the emotional texture of his life." A major influence on Pinter was his inspirational English teacher Joseph Brearley, who directed him in school plays and with whom he took long walks, talking about literature. According to Billington, under Brearley's instruction, "Pinter shone at English, wrote for the school magazine and discovered a gift for acting." In 1947 and 1948, he played Romeo and Macbeth in productions directed by Brearley.
At the age of 12, Pinter began writing poetry, and in spring 1947, his poetry was first published in the Hackney Downs School Magazine. In 1950, his poetry was first published outside of the school magazine in Poetry London, some of it under the pseudonym "Harold Pinta".
Pinter was an atheist.
Pinter began to direct more frequently during the 1970s, becoming an associate director of the National Theatre (NT) in 1973. He directed almost 50 productions of his own and others' plays for stage, film, and television, including 10 productions of works by Simon Gray: the stage and/or film premires of Butley (stage, 1971; film, 1974), Otherwise Engaged (1975), The Rear Column (stage, 1978; TV, 1980), Close of Play (NT, 1979), Quartermaine's Terms (1981), Life Support (1997), The Late Middle Classes (1999), and The Old Masters (2004). Several of those productions starred Alan Bates (19342003), who originated the stage and screen roles of not only Butley but also Mick in Pinter's first major commercial success, The Caretaker (stage, 1960; film, 1964); and in Pinter's double-bill produced at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1984, he played Nicolas in One for the Road and the cab driver in Victoria Station. Among over 35 plays that Pinter directed were Next of Kin (1974), by John Hopkins; Blithe Spirit (1976), by Nol Coward; The Innocents (1976), by William Archibald; Circe and Bravo (1986), by Donald Freed; Taking Sides (1995), by Ronald Harwood; and Twelve Angry Men (1996), by Reginald Rose.