William Paterson, Veteran Regional Theatre Actor of Cleveland Playhouse and ACT, Dead at 84

Obituaries   William Paterson, Veteran Regional Theatre Actor of Cleveland Playhouse and ACT, Dead at 84 Actor William Paterson, a dedicated regional theatre actor for 45 years, including years with American Conservatory Theatre starting in its first season, died the morning of Sept. 3 at the age of 84 at his home in San Francisco.
William Paterson.
William Paterson.

Mr. Paterson was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. At his request, there will be no memorial service. The family suggests that donations in his memory may be made to Hospice by the Bay.

The actor wrote a 1997 biography, "Solid Seasons," in which he told of his work around the United States: "A tantalizing phrase for stage actors is 'continuous employment.' I have achieved that elusive goal for 45 years by eschewing Broadway and staying put at two regional theatres."

At The Cleveland Play House, Mr. Paterson made his company debut in Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine in 1947. In 1967, he resigned from the Playhouse to join American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in its first San Francisco season, where his first role was James Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Born on July 7, 1919, in Buffalo, NY, to a Scottish American family that included parents John Hardie and Eveleen Burns Paterson and sisters Elizabeth and Kathleen, he was introduced to theatre indirectly when during his senior year at Nichols Day School for Boys he was sent to take a speech class at the Studio Theatre in Buffalo.

According to biographical information provided by ACT, A class exercise that required reciting a scene from Victoria Regina awoke in him a love for plays and also, incidentally, turned out to be the only formal training in acting in his life. Later at Brown University, he joined the Sock and Buskin drama club, appearing in classics by Shakespeare and contemporary political dramas by Clifford Odets and Irwin Shaw. He spent his college summers acting in summer stock at the newly built Pine Grove Playhouse in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. In 1941, Paterson graduated with honors in English literature and then joined the United States army for a four-year stint, during which time he saw nine months of combat in Europe. He earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service, was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, which earned him a Purple Heart, and was also awarded five campaign stars for Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe.

After a year of uncertainty following his return home, he landed a job at The Cleveland Play House, already an established company that would herald the coming regional theatre explosion. The troupe began in 1916 as an ameteur venture, part of the so-called Little Theatre movement.

For 20 years he would perform seven to ten plays in repertory at the Play House, and in his fourth year there he met and wed Cora Beams, a hair stylist who often worked on Playhouse productions. They were married 42 years until her death in 1993.

Mr. Paterson's favorite roles in Cleveland were in productions of Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Much Ado About Nothing, Tiger at the Gates, Sunrise at Campobello, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Life With Father, Major Barbara and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

His summers were spent performing at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, where the Cleveland company would stage seven of the most popular shows of the previous season. He also took time out occasionally for live television, films, and four national tours with his own one-man biographical shows, in which he played supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Benjamin Franklin, among others.

In 1967, Mr. Paterson moved to San Francisco at the invitation of ACT founder and then artistic director Bill Ball, "leaving the established and conservative comfort zone of The Cleveland Play House for the anything-goes atmosphere of the brand new Bay Area theatre company," according to ACT.

In his 30 years at ACT he appeared in major roles in You Can't Take It with You, Jumpers, The Matchmaker (which toured to the Soviet Union), All the Way Home (which toured to Japan), Buried Child, The Gin Game, Painting Churches, The Doctor's Dilemma, The Circle, The Taming of the Shrew, Saint Joan, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, The Cocktail Hour, Pygmalion, Home, Gaslight, Mrs. Warren's Profession, and in 1998, Mary Stuart, his final appearance on the Geary Stage, directed by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff. He also created the role of Scrooge in ACT's now-classic production of Dickens' holiday fable and performed the role for 14 seasons.

During his years with ACT, Mr. Paterson won numerous awards, including Drama-Logue and Bay Area Theatre Critics' Circle awards, and served for nine years on the San Francisco Arts Commission and for two years as a trustee of The American Conservatory Theatre Foundation.

He also joined his wife Cora, a much-in-demand volunteer for both social and political causes, as a political volunteer and twice served as Dianne Feinstein's campaign treasurer. In 1996 ACT awarded Mr. Paterson an Honorary Master of Fine Arts Degree in Acting.

Mr. Paterson is survived by his stepdaughter Pat Paterson of Nantucket, MA, his sister Kathleen Snedaker and nephew Stephen Quick, both of Washington, DC, his niece Gail Scott of Sydney, Australia, and his grandnephews Justin Quick and Daniel Scott.