James Noble, a stage actor who gained his widest fame playing the dimwitted governor in the sitcom 1980s Benson, but who began his career playing politicians when he appeared in the original run of the Broadway musical 1776, died March 28 at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut. He was 94.
Born March 5, 1922, in Dallas, Texas, Mr. Noble began appearing on Broadway in 1949 in the comedy The Velvet Glove. In 1961, he acted in A Far Country, a hit drama about Sigmund Freud which starred Stephen Hill and Kim Stanley.
He was understudy to both John Hancock and John Dickinson in the 1969 historical musical 1776, coincidentally being revived this week at Encores! in New York. He went on to play both roles and, as such, took part in different sections of the song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” (In the film version of the musical, he played New Jersey representative Rev. John Witherspoon.) In 1976, he took part in Milan Stitt’s critically acclaimed drama The Runner Stumbles.
Off-Broadway, his credits included Electra, Night of the Dunce, The Rimers of Eldritch, The Death of the Well-Loved Boy, Trainer Dean Liepolt and Company, A Scent of Flowers, The Long Christmas Dinner and The Vienna Notes.
Benson was a spin-off from the hit satiric sitcom Soap, in which Robert Guillaume played Benson, the insolent, contemptuous butler to the rich Tate family. The character was so popular, he was given his own series in which he performed the very different function of running a governor’s mansion and staff. (The state the governor governed was never mentioned.)
As played by Mr. Noble, Eugene Gatling needed Benson’s guidance. Kindly and well-intentioned, he was nonetheless an inept and bumbling politician. Mr. Noble's open and friendly face lent the character's guilelessness a certain credibility.
On film, he had small roles in 10, Being There, and Airplane II: The Sequel.
He is survived by his daughter, Jessica Katherine Noble Cowan. His wife, actress Carolyn Coates, died in 2005.