Barry Nelson, Durable Star of Stage Comedies, Dies at 86

Obituaries   Barry Nelson, Durable Star of Stage Comedies, Dies at 86
Barry Nelson, the likable, average-Joe star of some of the biggest Broadway comedies of the '50s and '60s, died April 7 while traveling in Bucks County, PA, it was reported. The cause was not immediately known. He was 86.

Blonde, square-jawed and pleasantly handsome, he was frequently cast in mildly risqué romantic comedies in which he was thrown into a volatile situation with a spunky, unconventional female. In The Moon Is Blue, his first major Broadway hit, his partner was Barbara Bel Geddes, who played the upfront actress Patty O'Neill, who speaks frankly about the possibility of losing her virginity to Mr. Nelson's architect, Donald Gresham. The Otto Preminger-directed comedy ran 924 performances.

Mr. Nelson and Bel Geddes were paired up again in Jean Kerr's 1961 comedy Mary, Mary, about a divorcing couple who, despite the presence of new romantic partners, get back together in the nick of time. Kerr had written the comedy for Bel Geddes after seeing her in The Moon Is Blue. "At first I was a little reluctant about having Barry Nelson in the play," said Kerr. "I was afraid it might make my play seem like Son of The Moon Is Blue. But Barry is a fine actor and that seemed to be the most important consideration."

The show ran for 1,572 performances, making it one of the longest-running plays in Broadway history.

In 1965 Mr. Nelson was cast as a philandering dentist who invents a wife as an excuse to not commit to his girlfriend Toni, played by Brenda Vaccaro. When he finally "divorces" his wife to marry Toni, things get complicated when Vaccaro demands to meet the fictitious woman. The dentist must then draft Lauren Bacall to stand in for the wife.

The show, directed by Abe Burrows, was another smash, running 1,234 performances. All three plays were made into films, but Nelson was cast in only one of them, Mary, Mary. Barry Nelson began his acting career in Hollywood, playing supporting roles in MGM movies. He never made the impact in film that he did on stage, however.

Mr. Nelson's Broadway debut was in Moss Hart's wartime play Winged Victory, followed by a performance in another Hart play, Light Up the Sky.

Mr. Nelson and Bel Geddes co-starred one more time, in Edward Albee's 1967 flop adaptation of a Giles Cooper play, Everything in the Garden. The actor had better luck in another Albee play, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner Seascape, in which he played one half of an old couple who encounter two talking lizards on the beach. It ran only 63 performances, but the play has found a more lasting place in dramatic literature.

He continued to work steadily throughout the '70s. In 1975 he starred in the Broadway production of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquest. He received a Tony Award nomination, his only such honor, for his performance in the Martin Scorsese-directed John Kander and Fred Ebb musical The Act. In his final Broadway appearance, he stepped into the role of producer Julian March in 42nd Street. He later toured with the show.

Barry Nelson was born Robert Haakon Nielsen in Oakland, CA, on April 16, 1920, to Scandinavian parents. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1941. He was signed to an MGM contract that year, according to the New York Times, and began to appear in films like "Shadow of the Thin Man" (1941) and "Johnny Eager" and "Dr. Kildare’s Victory," both in 1942. His most famous film role was perhaps his last: the spooky Stanley Kubrick film "The Shining," in which he briefly appears as the manager of the haunted Overlook Hotel.

On television he starred in the series "The Hunter" and "My Favorite Husband." In an interesting footnote, he was also the first person—and, to date, the only American—to play James Bond, starring in a 1954 American TV adaptation of "Casino Royale." "At that time, no one had ever heard of James Bond," he said in a 2004 interview. "I was scratching my head wondering how to play it. I hadn't read the book or anything like that because it wasn’t well known.

His marriage to Teresa Calli ended in divorce. His second wife, Nansilee Hoy, survives him.

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