Emery Battis, character actor in Shakespearean roles, dies at 96

October 15, 2011

Emery Battis, a veteran stage actor who played dozens of roles with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington during a professional career that spanned more than 70 years, died Sept. 20 at an assisted-living facility in Marlborough, Mass. He was 96.

He had complications from bladder cancer, his son Peter Battis said.

Dr. Battis, who began acting in 1933, was best known as a character actor who played secondary roles in plays by Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and other masters of the theater. He played more than 90 characters in Shakespearean plays and, he often noted, had only one onstage kiss in his life.

At various times, he shared the stage with such stars as Paul Robeson, Colleen Dewhurst, Uta Hagen, Lynn Redgrave, Blythe Danner and Jose Ferrer, but for much of his life, Dr. Battis earned his living as a professor of history in New Jersey.

He gave up teaching in his 50s to devote full time to acting, first at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and later the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. He worked at Baltimore’s Centerstage before moving in 1984 to Washington, where he appeared in almost 70 productions of the Shakespeare Theatre. He received a Helen Hayes Award for his lifetime contributions to Washington theater in 2002.

“He was a tremendous actor,” the theater’s artistic director, Michael Kahn, told the D.C. Theatre Scene Web site. “People tend to remember him for his dramatic roles, but he was also a gifted comedy actor and a great sport.

Dr. Battis acted in all but one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays — the lone exception was “Cymbeline” — and gave his final performance as Marcade in a 2006 production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in the Bard’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

He specialized in smaller parts, often portraying more than one character in the same play. He had a booming, cultivated voice and was adept at using makeup, false noses and wigs to develop a character.

In 1981, he played Shakespeare’s comically wise fool, Falstaff, in an Illinois production of “Henry IV, Part 1.”

Battis’s Falstaff, one critic wrote, “was all that Shakespeare wrote the character to be: braggart, glutton, coward, liar, obscene buffoon, yet blessed with an indomitable spirit and an ability to laugh at himself.”

Dr. Battis’s favorite Shakespearean role was King Lear because “it leaves room for all kinds of invention,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 1993. After a 1967 performance in Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer proclaimed Dr. Battis’s interpretation “the best Lear of our generation.”

He returned to the role at Washington’s Folger Theatre almost 25 years later.

“Two years ago, after finishing performances of King Lear,” he said in 1993, “I received standing ovations. But what satisfied me even more was seeing that people were still weeping as they left the theater.

“That’s when I knew I had contributed to their understanding of human nature.”

Emery John Battis was born May 30, 1915, in Arlington, Mass. He began acting professionally in 1933 and attended a drama and elocution school near Boston before enrolling at Harvard College, which he graduated from in 1942.

During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces and appeared in “Winged Victory,” a play by Moss Hart later made into a movie. After the war, Dr. Battis acted and worked as a stage manager for directors George Abbott and Margaret Webster.

Dr. Battis then went to graduate school at Columbia University, receiving master’s and doctoral degrees in history in 1948 and 1958, respectively.

He taught American colonial history at the old Douglass College, the women’s branch of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., from 1948 to 1968. In 1963, he received an award from the Institute of Early American History and Culture for his book about Anne Hutchinson, who rebelled against Puritan authorities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century.

While living in Washington from 1984 to 2009, Dr. Battis volunteered at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington has named an acting award in his honor.

His first marriage, to the former Elaine Cunningham, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Elizabeth Neuman of Marlborough; five children from his first marriage, Christopher Battis of Reno, Nev., Michael Battis of Kent, Wash., Peter Battis of Chapel Hill, N.C., Robert Battis of Sardis, B.C., and Wendy Battis of San Francisco; three stepchildren, Melanie Neuman of Sudbury, Mass., Peter Neuman of Minneapolis and Audrey Neuman of Hartford, Conn.; a sister; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Dr. Battis’s son Peter noted in a Facebook entry that it was often entertaining to grow up in a household with an actor. Not only could his father quote thousands of lines of poetry and drama but he also had a talent for applying theatrical makeup.

For Halloween one year, Peter Battis wrote, “I amazed my friends with a face covered with hair and a red marble eyeball halfway down my cheek. I figured out then why actors were called ‘players.’ ”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.