Actor George Gaynes of Wonderful Town and Out of This World, Dies at 98

Obituaries   Actor George Gaynes of Wonderful Town and Out of This World, Dies at 98
 
George Gaynes, and opera and stage performer whose career bloomed late as a character actor, leading to success on the big and small screens, died Feb. 15 in North Bend, WA. He was 98.
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Mr. Gaynes, who was born in Helsinki, Finland, had been plugging away at his profession for four decades, with decent success, when fame came and found him in his 1960s. Sydney Pollack cast him in a supporting role in "Tootsie," the 1983 film that starred Dustin Hoffman as a difficult actor who becomes a national sensation when he dons a dress for a role in a soap opera.

Mr. Gaynes was cast as John Van Horn, a talentless, lecherous, dim-witted old soap actor who falls for Hoffman’s "Dorothy Michaels." New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby echoed the sentiments of many when he wrote that the actor was "so memorably funny in such memorably funny circumstances that I doubt he’ll much longer remain one of those actors whose looks are as familiar as his name, though one never puts the two together."

Canby’s prediction came true. In 1983, he appeared in Mel Brooks’ "To Be or Not To Be," and the next year he played Commandant Lassard in the wildly successful, low-brow comedy "Police Academy." He went on to play Lassard in all of the franchise’s many sequels, which continued until 1998 and included a short-lived television series.

Also in 1984, he was cast in the TV sitcom "Punky Brewster," as a kindly building manager who finds and adopts a runaway orphan. The family-oriented show was one of many hit comedies in the 1980s that featuring a precocious, wise-cracking tot, and it ran for five seasons.

Television and film work continued in the '90s. He played a recurring role in the Blair Brown vehicle "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," and portrayed a Senator in Linda Bloodworth-Thomason sitcom "Hearts Afire." He played a doctor in "Micki and Maude," which starred Dudley Moore at the height of his fame, and he was a member of the cast of Louis Malle’s praised film "Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street." George Gaynes had a cosmopolitan upbringing. He was born George Jongejans in Helsinki, Finland, on May 16, 1917. His mother, Iya Grigorievna de Gay, was a Russian artist later known as Lady Iya Abny. His father was Gerrit Jongejans, a Dutch businessman. He grew up variously in France, England and Switzerland.

As an artist, he first studied opera in Milan and performed in Italy and France. During WWII, he was interned in Spain for three months, according to The New York Times. After being released, he went to Britain and enlisted in the Royal Dutch Navy.

He moved to New York after the war ended and got work at New York City Opera and in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Considering himself more an actor than a singer, he began landing jobs on Broadway. In 1950, he acted in both The Counsel and the Cole Porter’s myth-inspired musical Out of This World, playing Jupiter. He introduced the Porter songs "I Jupiter, I Rex" and "Hark to the Song of the Night."

He got a meatier part as Rosalind Russell’s suitor Robert Baker in the hit Bernstein-Comden-Green musical Wonderful Town in 1953. As such, he got to sing the songs "What a Waste" and "A Quiet Girl." He still kept his hand in in opera, taking occasional nights off from the musical to sing with New York City Opera.

After a decade-long break, he returned to Broadway in the 1960s, taking parts in The Lad of the Camellias, Any Wednesday opposite Sandy Dennis and Gene Hackman, and Of Love Remembered. His last Broadway role was in Gigi in 1973.

Off-Broadway during the ‘60s, he performed in Brecht on Brecht, a collection of the playwrights poems and songs, alongside Lotte Lenya, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach at the Theater de Lys, (now known as the Lucille Lortel Theatre). The show was well-received and ran a year.

During this time, he often sang in musicals and operettas at City Center. In 1964, he was in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. Wrote the Times, "George Gaynes was leering and unctuous and delightfully obnoxious as the Grand Inquisitor, whose merciful turn of, mind extends only to giving his clients in the torture chamber all the latest papers."

In 1974, he played leading man to Claudette Colbert in Community of Two, a comedy by Jerome Chodorov that toured the U.S. for six months. The show, however, never made it Broadway.

By the 1970s, he had settled into a life of guest work on various television dramas and sitcoms, with the occasional movie ("Altered States," "Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid") or mini-series. Then "Tootsie" came along.

He is survived by his wife, Allyn Ann McLerie, a daughter, Iya Gaynes Falcone Brown, one granddaughter and two great-granddaughters. A son, Matthew, died in a car crash in 1989.

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