William Duell, Ubiquitous Character Actor, Dies at 88

Obituaries   William Duell, Ubiquitous Character Actor, Dies at 88
William Duell, a small, thin-faced character actor who was a familiar presence to generations of television, film and stage audiences, died at his home in Manhattan on Dec. 22. The cause was respiratory failure. He was 88.

William Duell
William Duell

Unprepossessing of stature, Mr. Duell managed to make a distinct impression in role after role. In the original 1969 production of the musical 1776, he injected the aristocratic, puffed-up Continental Congress with a shot of dry-witted, blue-collar reality as the hall's hard-worked custodian. He repeated the role in the film and, in a 1997 revival of the show, played the sickly delegate Caesar Rodney. He was an inmate in the 1975 film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," making the most of his drawn facial features, which occasionally gave him the appearance of a small, hunted, but crafty animal. In the short-lived, 1982 cult show "Police Squad!," which spoofed the cliches of detective dramas, he played Johnny, a shoe-shine boy who seems to have the straight dope on everything under the sun, and would spill it to Leslie Nielsen's Det. Frank Drebin for a dollar.

George William Duell was born on Aug. 30, 1923, in Corinth, NY, to George Leon Duell, who worked for the International Paper Company, and Eliza Janet Harrington. He acted in his first play, Arsenic and Old Lace, at Green Mountain College in Vermont. Following service in the Navy during WWII, he finished his studies at Illinois' Wesleyan University and earned a master’s degree from Yale Drama School.

His New York stage career began auspiciously. He played Filch in the legendary 1950s Theatre de Lys production of Threepenny Opera. (Mr. Duell appeared to enjoy returning to favored works. When the musical was revived by Richard Foreman at Lincoln Center in 1976, he played Crook-Finger Jack.) Parts in the '60s included A Cook for the General, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Ilya Darling.

Off-Broadway, he was a favorite of producer Joe Papp, appearing in New York Shakespeare Festival stagings of The Memorandum, Romeo and Juliet and the 1988 Kevin Kline Hamlet, playing the second gravedigger. Later Off-Broadway jobs included On the Bum, The Underpants and Comedians.

Following some work in live television, his film career began with a small part in 1961's "The Hustler." Other movie credits included "Airplane!," "The Pope of Greenwich Village," "Mrs. Soffel," "Ironweed," "In & Out," "The Out-of-Towners," "Cradle Will Rock" and "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." His parts were often minuscule, but his performances memorable. Mr. Duell never strayed far from the stage, returning to Broadway ever few years. He starred opposite Nathan Lane twice, in the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in which he played Erronius, and the as the tedious, deluded Dr. Bradley in the 2000 production of The Man Who Came to Dinner.

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