James Rebhorn, Character Actor of Film and Stage, Dies

By Robert Simonson
24 Mar 2014

James Rebhorn
James Rebhorn

James Rebhorn, a character actor who was busy on both stage and screen, died March 21. He had been battling melanoma for many years. He was 65. 

Lean and tall, with a high forehead and long drawn face that could be both merry or sinister, but almost always communicated mental probity, Mr. Rebhorn looked like a figure out of a Grant Wood painting and brought an easy authenticity to the many different roles he embodied. With his effortlessly commanding aura of authority and a quintessentially American brand of straightforward assuredness, he was often cast as doctors, attorneys and government officials. He is perhaps best known for playing the Secretary of Defense in the hit 1992 movie "Independence Day." 

Discussing his role as an expert witness in "My Cousin Vinny," the actor offered what could be taken as an encapsulation of his general acting technique: "Well, I just figured I had to know what I was talking about, was my preparation. I had assumed that the dialogue in the script was accurate, and so I just embraced that and went ahead and delivered it with authority and confidence."

In recent years, he was a recurring character on several prominent series, including "Homeland," in which he portrayed Frank Mathison, the father of Claire Danes' character; "White Collar," where he was Reese Hughes; and "Enlightened," as Charles Szidon. His best-known television appearance, arguably, was in the final episode of "Seinfeld," in which he played the prosecutor that sent the sitcom's four leading characters to jail for, essentially, not being good Samaritans.



He began getting steady work on television and movies in the early '80s, but became a prominent presence in the early '90s, following appearances in hit films like "Basic Instinct," "My Cousin Vinny" and "Scent of a Woman," and parts in films by prestige directors like Woody Allen ("Shadows and Fog"), Mike Nichols ("Regarding Henry") and Brian De Palma ("Carlito's Way").

Other films included "Wind," "Guarding Tess," "Meet the Parents," "White Sands," "Lorenzo's Oil," "8 Seconds," "I Love Trouble," "If Lucy Fell," "The Game," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Far From Heaven."

Mr. Rebhorn began his Off-Broadway career playing various historical characters, included Sterling Hayden and Arthur Miller, in Eric Bentley's blacklist drama Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been. He went on to collect more than a dozen additional Off-Broadway credits over the next three decades, acting at many of New York's most significant nonprofits. Productions included On the Bum, The Overwhelming, Saturn Returns, Innocent's Crusade, Life During Wartime, Othello, Ice Cream With Hot Fudge and Triple Feature.

Over the past decade, he returned to the Broadway stage frequently. He played a father who comes to the painful realization that he has steered his son in the wrong direction, in Arthur Miller's The Man Who Had All The Luck (2002), and a businessman who, amid preparations for a lavish dinner party, quietly harbors the news that he is financially ruined, in Lincoln Center Theater's 2002 revival of Kaufman and Ferber's Dinner at Eight.

In the Roundabout Theatre Company's celebrated 2004 staging of the jury drama Twelve Angry Men, he was a calm, reasoned juror whose self-confidence is shaken toward the end of deliberations. And in the Roundabout's 2007 revival of Craig Lucas' Prelude to a Kiss, he was a father trying to understand the change his daughter has undergone. Other earlier Broadway credits include I'm Not Rappaport and Our Town.

James Rebhorn was born Sept. 1, 1948, in Philadelphia. He graduated from Wittenberg Universitty in Springfield, OH, in 1970, and received his Master of Fine Arts degree in acting from Columbia University in 1972. He was a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

He is survived by his wife, Rebecca Linn, and daughters Emma Rebecca Rebhorn Feldman and Hannah Rebhorn.