George Grizzard, Tony Winner and Albee Interpreter, Dies at 79

Obituaries   George Grizzard, Tony Winner and Albee Interpreter, Dies at 79 George Grizzard, a seasoned stage actor adept at both leading and character roles, and particularly known for his work with playwright Edward Albee, died Oct. 2 in Manhattan. He was 79.
George Grizzard
George Grizzard Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Mr. Grizzard starred in the original Broadway production of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He played Nick, the cocky young teacher whose teetering marriage to the flighty Honey is maliciously sabotaged by the warring older couple of George and Martha. Mr. Grizzard held his own against stars Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, and — though he had received two Tony Award nominations prior to that time — the play firmly established his name.

The actor surprised many when he left Virginia Woolf after only a few months for the opportunity to play Hamlet in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre. He remained in Minnesota for two years, playing many parts.

Mr. Grizzard was back on Broadway in an Albee play in 1996, when he starred as Tobias, the patriarch of a crumbling, if gentile, clan in a Lincoln Center Theater revival of A Delicate Balance. The production was hailed as a fresh vision of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about family and loyalty, with Mr. Grizzard singled out for his thoughtful, subtle, layered work. Many critics said he was better than the play's original star, Hume Cronyn. This time, he won the Tony Award. (His previous nominations had been for The Disenchanted and Big Fish, Little Fish.)

His final visit to Broadway, in the 2005 revival of Seascape, was also his final collaboration with Albee. The playwright's fantastical tale of a meeting between two humans and two lizards was termed somewhat slight, but again Mr. Grizzard was commended for his ease with Albee's brittle language and his ability to breathe human life into the arch proceedings.

George Cooper Grizzard, Jr. was born on April 1, 1928, in Roanoke Rapids, NC, and grew up in Washington. He attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He worked briefly at a Washington advertising agency, but quit to audition for the newly established Arena Stage. He made his Broadway debut in 1955 in The Desperate Hours opposite a young Paul Newman. The two played escaped convicts. In 1959, he starred in Budd Shulberg's adaptation of his own novel, The Disenchanted, alongside Jason Robards, Jr., who played a dissolute novelist based on F. Scott Fitzgerald. He and Robards worked together again in in 1961 in Hugh Wheeler's Big Fish, Little Fish.

Hollywood came calling in the early 1960s and Mr. Grizzard scored a significant role in Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent." But he never had a prosperous film career. Television treated him much better, giving him work in countless television series and movies.

His other Broadway credits include The Happiest Millionaire, Face of a Hero, Big Fish, Little Fish, The Glass Menagerie, Noel Coward's Sweet Potato, The Gingham Dog, Inquest, The Country Girl, The Creation of the World and Other Business, The Royal Family and California Suite.

Easygoing, charming in a Southern gentlemanly way and philosophical about the life of an actor, Mr. Grizzard never stopped working in his later years, taking Off-Broadway roles in Nicky Silver's Beautiful Child and Paul Rudnick's Regrets Only. He played a gay elder statesman of fashion in the latter play, his final New York stage role. Critics noticed that he was effortlessly able to bring to the role the class, humor and gravitas it required.