Who's a Friend of George Grizzard?

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Everett Collection

George Grizzard c. 1960

The best ones make it look easy. Acting is a business of a thousand tiny judgments and intuitions, all to make the craft disappear and the character materialize. George Grizzard, who died this week at a much-too-young 79, had that gift. Of course he was Nick in the original production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Of course he was John Adams in the PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles. When he played any number of brash young men in TV anthology series, he was those men, as just as easily, or magically, the flinty gents of Judgment at Nuremberg and revivals of Albee's A Delicate Balance and Seascape on Broadway over the past decade.

You may not have known who George Grizzard was; renown on the stage (he won a Tony for Best Actor in A Delicate Balance) doesn't translate to mass fame as it once did. But whether you saw him as an oilman in Comes a Horseman with Jane Fonda, as an imperious lawyer on Law and Order or the ghost of Rue McClanahan's husband (a recurring role!) on The Golden Girls, you knew that that actor was those people. As Andre Bishop told the Los Angeles Times, "What was remarkable about his acting was he didn't seem to be acting at all. There was no sense of effort or strain. . . . The curtain went up and there was George, just being this character."

He had come to Broadway, out of Washington. D.C., and the University of North Carolina, to play a bad guy holding a nice family hostage in the 1955 thriller The Desperate Hours. (One of his fellow thugs was the young Paul Newman, who told the Times this week, "When we were on the stage together, he was the best thing around.") He lightened up in his next play, The Happiest Millionaire, then played opposite the luminous Rosemary Harris in The Disenchanted. (Grizzard and Harris would team again in the '0s, for a revival of The Royal Family, and in the '90s for A Delicate Balance.) In all he graced 21 Broadway plays over 51 years, his reputation escalating until he was one of the few acting eminences around whom a producer could build an important revival.

In the '50s, on live TV drama in New York, and then in the filmed anthologies in Hollywood, he often played the nice-looking young man who was either hiding something from others or deluding himself. Watch him in reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as an escaped mental patient who charms lonely Phyllis Thaxter in Fog Closing In, or the struggling writer fleecing an established one in Act of Faith. He's terrific in two episodes of The Twilight Zone: one as a fellow seeking a love elixir, the other as a man returning to his home town to find that no one remembers him. His face could exude menace or be blankly naive; but it wasn't what he did, it's who he became. A thing called... acting!

He came on my radar in the early '60s. I saw him on stage in Virginia Woolf, where he was Nick, a cocky young professor whom an older college couple (Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen) have fun unmanning on their way to their own, more melancholy accommodation with reality. He also made an impression in a big movie, the political drama Advise and Consent, as a snaky, pre-Cheney Wyoming Senator, trying to blackmail a colleague for an early brush with homosexuality. In my innocent appreciation, I didn't think he was good at playing bad guys; I thought he was a bad guy. Maybe that's why I also assumed that his surname rhymed with lizard. (It's GrizZARD.) Later, catching up with his early work, I wondered if studio casting directors were as naive as I was — if they saw some steely sang-froid in his playing of these roles that persuaded them he was too chilly a presence for Hollywood stardom.

All that, as you can guess by now, was acting, as my wife Mary and I instantly realized when we met George in the '90s. The man was a pussycat, warm and modest, his strong opinions on politics and the performing arts mediated by a Southern affability. On stage he was master of the quiet revelation of cosmic disappointment — the existential wince — but when the makeup came off he gave every evidence of enjoying his time on earth: spinning anecdotes about the actors and playwrights he knew, or devouring a Bay's English muffin, or working on his flower and vegetable garden in his New Preston, Conn., home. When Mary curated a Museum of Modern Art exhibition on Hitchcock, and the director's daughter Pat came to New York, George graciously and eagerly joined us at Orso to reminisce with her about their days in Golden Age TV.

We got to know George because his partner of nearly 40 years was William Tynan, who was a stage and TV actor before he became a TIME arts reporter of exceptional knowledge, ingenuity and patience. He retired in 2000 but has continued his active interest in the theater, as a Tony voter and a perfect complement to George. The two met when they played in The Boys in the Band in Florida in the late '60s. Both were strong personalities who challenged and supported each other. Their time together marked what to me was, in all but name, one of the great marriages.

Though he did recurring TV guest bits, George didn't make the big bucks playing a dad or a lawyer on one of those long-running series whose residuals have provided silk cushions for hundreds of lesser actors. Few actors can accept only the roles they love in guaranteed masterpieces. George was a working actor, who took projects as they came his way. He once observed with a grunt and a smile that of all his work in the '80s he was probably best known as Tom Hanks' scowling, finally humiliated future father-in-law in the rowdy film Bachelor Party. Even the best actors learn that, in considering the importance of good or bad luck in their careers, the only appropriate gesture is a shrug.

Every actor is not just the sum of the parts he got, but the subtraction of the ones he didn't. All those what-ifs have to be the most poignant section of an actor's résumé. George had been cast in a meaty role in Primary Colors but director Mike Nichols replaced him with Larry Hagman. Then there are parts that could have been bigger than they were. Eager to work with Woody Allen, George signed up for Small Time Crooks, where he was in exactly one scene. (Even there he was hard to spot: viewers got a good look at his left ear but not much else.) I'd love to direct you to the DVD or VHS of The Adams Chronicles, but that doesn't exist. Nor were his performances in all those Albee productions, or his 1963 Hamlet for Tyrone Guthrie, recorded for posterity. As the 19th-century tragedian Edwin Booth said, stage acting was "sculpting in snow." The imposing snowmen George built may be found only in the memories of those lucky enough to have seen them.

We last saw George early this year in a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation of Paul Rudnick's Regrets Only. This time he was a fashion designer who moves from comfortably gay to politically gay. Again he was matched with a firecracker actress (Christine Baranski), and again he gave a performance that located every laugh without strangling it. I thought the play was funny and poignant, halfway to profound, but the proposed move to Broadway never materialized. George did, though, when Mary and I and some friends greeted him after the final curtain. Vibrant on stage, he seemed a little more subdued now, but as always was congenial to old friends or new acquaintances. We figured George was bound to last as long as his mother, who lived to nearly 102.

Fate is a playwright who writes final acts that are often horribly abrupt. Shame on Fate for taking George when he was still at the top of his illustrious game, with so many other complex characters to morph into.

Last night, a few hours after learning of George's death, I flipped idly through TV channels. And there was George, in his final movie role, as Ryan Philippe's character 60 years later in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. Gasping for air, a tube up his nose, a good man making needless apologies to a loving son, George was doing what many an actor finds himself doing: rehearsing his own death. It was just pretend — his usual consummate acting job. Dying on film, he lived again.

Impossibly, I wanted this to be a making-of documentary, where Clint whispers, "Cut!" and George springs sprily out of bed and says cheerfully to the cast and crew, "Let's go out for a nightcap." And it's all happening right now, and forever.