John McMartin, Seasoned Stage Actor, Dies at 86

Obituaries   John McMartin, Seasoned Stage Actor, Dies at 86
 
The veteran actor was a favorite of Sondheim, Prince and Fosse, and played Ben Stone in the original Follies.
John McMartin
John McMartin

John McMartin, the dignified, white-haired character actor who was equally adept in musicals and plays, has died. The cause was cancer. At press time, the exact date of his death could not be learned. He was 86.

Mr. McMartin had a steady career, with his stage credits stretching back to the late 1950s, and not ending until All the Way in 2014, in which he played the conservative, old-school Senator, Richard Russell, opposite the brash Lyndon Johnson of Bryan Cranston. It was a prototypical role for Mr. McMartin, whose thatch of silver hair and patrician, gentlemanly bearing led him to often be cast as establishment figures such as preachers, professors, businessmen and bluebloods.

However, in his skilled hands, those potentially starchy figures were frequently molded into subtle, nuanced and slyly funny characters. His sometimes slyly subversive performances were, to a certain extent, communicated through his remarkable voice, a silvery, sing-songy whisper that could invest the most throwaway line with a wealth of meaning and wit.

He was a favorite of some of the most famous creators in modern theatre history, including Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince and Bob Fosse. Mr. McMartin’s most famous stage role was that of Benjamin Stone, the jaded, regretful titan of business in Stephen Sondheim’s multi-layered masterpiece of show-business melancholy, Follies. McMartin takes with him a piece of seminal Broadway history. He was the last surviving principal cast member from the original Follies, in which he co-starred opposite Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins and Gene Nelson.

Rare archival footage has recently emerged.


Forty years after he first performed Ben's chilling song "The Road You Didn't Take," an 81-year-old McMartin took on the daunting task of revisiting the song for Sondheim!: The Birthday Concert at Avery Fisher Hall in 2010.

A close second was the original Sweet Charity, in which he plays the meek Oscar Lindquist, with whom Gwen Verdon’s title character almost ends happily ever after. He recreated the role in the film version opposite Shirley MacLaine.

He received his first Tony Award nomination for Sweet Charity. His versatility as an actor was illustrated when he got his second nomination for his performance in a 1973 revival of Moliere’s Don Juan. (He won a Drama Desk Award for the portrayal.) Further Tony nominations came for his Cap’n Andy in the 1994, Harold Prince-directed revival of Show Boat; High Society, a stage version of the movie musical, in which he played a sodden, upper-crust skirt-chaser; and the 2002 revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, in which he played the role of the Narrator.

Mr. McMartin never won the Tony Award, but he did win a second Drama Desk Award for The Great God Brown in 1973, and a Theater World Award for Little Mary Sunshine in 1960.

Other notable Broadway roles included J.V. “Major” Bouvier in the musical Grey Gardens, based on the real lives of Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric Long Island cousins; Thomas Jefferson in John Guare’s Free Man of Color; a 1974 revival of Duerrenmatt’s dark fable The Visit, directed by Harold Prince, in which he played the doomed Anton Schill. He returned to the latter material when he played Schill in the first staging of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical version of the play, presented at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2001.

Off-Broadway, he played Alceste, the protagonist in Moliere’s The Misanthrope at the Public Theater in 1977; the title role in Julius Caesar at the same theater in 1988; and was in A.R. Gurney’s autobiographical play Indian Blood, in which he put all his powers to work playing the crafty, not-as-respectable-as-you-might-think head of a Buffalo clan.

Though less a presence on film and television, he made an impression as one of the Washington Post editors in All The President’s Men and as a lecherous researcher in a guest appearance on Cheers.

John McMartin was born August 21, 1929, in Warsaw, Indiana. A marriage to producer Cynthia Baer in 1960 ended in divorce. He is survived by his two children from that marriage, Kathleen and Susan. His partner for many years was actress Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of Irish Repertory Theatre. She, too, survives him.

Offstage, Mr. McMartin was far from the archetypal actor. Quiet, self-effacing and retiring, he disliked publicity and seldom gave interviews. He was a regular at Sardi’s, and the staff knew to leave him to himself. When asked in 2002 by Playbill about the laudatory reviews and honors that greeted his performance in High Society, he replied, “I'm rather shy anyway. I feel uncomfortable. You don't like to be confronted. You'd rather overhear good things.”

Today’s Most Popular News: