George Grizzard, 79; Versatile Actor of Stage and Screen

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

George Grizzard, 79, a Tony Award-winning stage actor who was also a versatile presence on film and television for five decades, died Oct. 2 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. He had lung cancer.

Mr. Grizzard grew up in Washington, where he performed at Arena Stage before distinguishing himself on Broadway in the mid-1950s. He won the Tony for best actor in a 1996 revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" as a seemingly refined husband in a family filled with tensions and secrets.

"Mr. Grizzard is all dozy rectitude until cornered, when he, too, explodes," New York Times theater reviewer Vincent Canby wrote.

Over the years, Mr. Grizzard became a respected interpreter of Albee and playwright A.R. Gurney. He also gave sharply defined performances in many genres, saying that he hoped to stress the humanity in every part.

He received Tony nominations as a supporting player in "The Disenchanted" (1958), in which he played a naive literary acolyte, and in "Big Fish, Little Fish" (1961) as a brash novelist. In both shows, he appeared opposite the gravelly voiced scene-stealer Jason Robards Jr. and other veteran actors. John Gielgud directed Mr. Grizzard in the second.

Mr. Grizzard appeared in the original production of Albee's scorching marital drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1962) as a virile and ambitious college biology teacher.

In a cast that included Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen as a sparring older couple, Mr. Grizzard and Melinda Dillon played a young and seemingly golden husband and wife. A night of hard drinking and psychological warfare nearly destroys them all.

Mr. Grizzard was singled out by Times theater critic Howard Taubman for presenting "geniality to intensity with shattering rightness."

But Mr. Grizzard left after three months, later telling the Associated Press that he found the role exhausting and depressing.

"That's the guy Edward wanted destroyed," he said, "and he did a pretty good job of doing just that. And the audience . . . every time George and Martha stuck another knife in, they laughed and clapped."

Mr. Grizzard also had what he considered a better offer: to star as Hamlet -- his first leading role in a Shakespeare drama -- at the Guthrie theater in Minneapolis. The decision to leave such an established Broadway show for a regional theater was not an isolated case for Mr. Grizzard, who described himself as a restless actor.

He told a reporter decades later that he did not like being obligated to one show for very long, regardless of the caliber. "It's like being in a velvet jail," he said.

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