James Gammon, Character Actor Adept at Shepard Plays, Dies at 70

Obituaries   James Gammon, Character Actor Adept at Shepard Plays, Dies at 70
James Gammon, a rangy, gruff character actor who found his natural mileau in a slew of plays by Sam Shepard, died in Costa Mesa on July 16. He was 70 years old.

James Gammon
James Gammon

With his grizzled, weather-beaten face and hoarse voice, Mr. Gammon was a natural resident of the mythical and mourned American West Shepard used as the backdrop of many of his plays. Squinting under what seemed to be a never-setting Oklahoma sun, Mr. Gammon would alternately growl, mutter and bark his lines in such plays as the New York premieres of Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind and Simpatico. He starred in the 2000 premiere of The Late Henry Moss at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, alongside Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte and Cheech Marin.

His most famous Shepard foray was arguably the 1996 Broadway premiere of Shepard's Buried Child. Spending most of the play rooted to a rotting couch, Mr. Gammon's Dodge howled ineffectually as a gothic rural hell largely of his own making was disturbed by outside forces.

"Mr. Gammon's Dodge is the play's rotting center," wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times, "a rasping, barking old man whose voice seems to come from a terminal, decades-old cough. Even though he mostly remains stationary beneath a stiff, filthy blanket, he seems to be everywhere on the stage."

He received a Tony Award nomination for his work. He was previously awarded the 1996 Joseph Jefferson Award for Actor in a Principal Role for the same performance at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Wherever a folksy character west of the Appalachians was needed, Mr. Gammon—usually bewhiskered, typically sporting western headgear—found work. His film credits included "Major League," "Urban Cowboy," "The Milagro Beanfield War," "Any Which Way You Can," "Silverado," "Wyatt Earp," "Wild Bill" and "Cold Mountain." He was the father of Don Johnson's title character in the television series "Nash Bridges," and played Coach Lou Brown in the "Major League" film series. Mr Gammon also founded the MET Theatre in Los Angeles. Gammon was born in Newman, IL, on April 20, 1940, the son of Doris Latimer (née Toppe) and Donald Gammon, a musician. His parents divorced. In his early 20s, he worked as a television cameraman in Orlando, but in 1964 he headed to Hollywood. One of his earliest film appearances was an uncredited role in 1967's "Cool Hand Luke."

Other theatre credits included The Drawer Boy at Papermill Playhouse, That Championship Season at Second Stage. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, and their daughters, Allison Mann and Amy Gammon.

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