By Robert Simonson
29 Jun 2007
The cause of death was leukemia. He had been in a coma for several days following surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.
Mr. Burmester was the original Thenardier, the comically unscrupulous innkeeper, in the New York premiere of Les Miserables. He and his scheming wife sang the rollicking anthem to treachery "Master of the House," an audience favorite. The couple were responsible for whatever humor could be found in the dark-hued musical. In act two, he alone delivered the grimmer song "Dog Eats Dog." Critic John Simon said he sang the part with "raucous deviltry."
The actor would go on to play other atavistic, amoral, rural characters. He was Bradley, the cantankerous, one-legged brother in the 1996 Gary Sinise-directed revival of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, and was Sid Davis in a 1998 revival of Ah, Wilderness! at Lincoln Center. Of his performance in the Shepard play, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Burmester is as good as ever as the satanic bully who can turn instantly into a sobbing brat."
Born in Louisville, KY, on Feb. 1, 1944, Mr. Burmester found early work at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, creating roles in Marsha Norman's Getting Out and James McLure's Lone Star. When the two plays were done in New York, they became the actor's Off-Broadway and Broadway debuts, respectively.
On film, Mr. Burmester was a favorite of director John Sayles, who used him "Passion Fish" and "Lone Star." Martin Scorcese directed him in "The Last Temptation of Christ." He was Holly Hunter's father in "Broadcast News," and had a large role as a decompression expert in James Cameron's underwater epic "The Abyss." He also worked for directors such as Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman and John Schlesinger.
Mr. Burmester is survived by his wife, Lora Lee Echobelli, and two children, Daniel and Colette.