By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Robert Prosky was round, and so was his talent. His name on a cast list was like the guarantee on the label of a premium brand: As you sat and waited for him to appear, you knew you could count on something solid, packed with flavor.
Lovers of TV drama will remember him as the avuncular sergeant, Stanislaus Jablonski, who greeted the rank-and-file cops at the start of each shift in the final seasons of "Hill Street Blues." Movie fans might recall his dependably sturdy supporting turns in a range of films, from "Broadcast News" to "Mrs. Doubtfire." Broadway playgoers will reflect on the formidable impression he made as a Soviet arms negotiator in "A Walk in the Woods," or the wake of despair he left as a has-been real estate agent in "Glengarry Glen Ross." Both earned him Tony nominations.
But it was Washington audiences that forged the most enduring and intimate of kinships with Prosky, who died Monday, five days short of his 78th birthday. As a longtime company member at Arena Stage, he had an astonishingly tenacious bond with theater in these parts. Joining Zelda Fichandler's resident troupe in 1958, he appeared over the years in 126 productions, including a performance as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" once upon a time that people who've been around the theater here still talk about.
Actors aren't monuments. But those who make their homes in a particular city, who show up for work in play after play, year after year, have a claim on some sort of landmark status. A theatergoing habit has much to do with an exploration of the new. It also, however, involves a cultivation of what one appreciates in familiar things -- a special seat in a given playhouse; a composer whose tunes you can listen to over and over and over; an actor who fills you with a sense of reassurance, even while playing the heavy.
Prosky had that comforting aura. Yesterday, as word circulated of his death -- it was just a few weeks ago that he appeared at Theater J for a tribute-type evening of reminiscences -- Washington theater people seemed especially stricken, in the way a family can be startled and upended at the loss of a patriarch.
With that centered air and doughy, workingman's mug, he did seem like a relative who could be sitting at your Thanksgiving table, someone worthy of your trust. Filling the void on "Hill Street Blues" in the mid-1980s created by the death of a beloved original cast member -- Michael Conrad, who played the roll-call sergeant from the show's inception -- could not have been easy. But Prosky, in typical no-nonsense fashion, eased the transition and slipped in seamlessly to the ensemble. So naturally, in fact, that the backstory created for Prosky's character had him working in another precinct for years before he actually showed up in the series.
He wasn't a chameleon, exactly, but still, he brought finely calibrated permutations of himself to every performance -- a blend of technique and that genetic inheritance, presence. In his final Broadway play, the 2004 American premiere of "Democracy," Michael Frayn's inspiring account of the rise of West German leader Willy Brandt, Prosky played a political party leader, the scheming Herbert Wehner. It was a measure of Prosky's skill that Wehner seemed a cog of wily complexity in the play's fascinating political machinery.
I should disclose that Prosky did not have much use for me. In a scathing letter to The Post in 2003, after I'd panned an Arena play in which he appeared, he wrote, in essence, that I was a blight on the theater. I didn't read it closely for the longest time -- it stung too much to have this respected eminence, for whom I had not an iota of animus, so angrily disparage me.
But you have to grow a thick skin doing what I do, even as a fine actor must keep his skin transparent, sensitive to stimuli and reactive to intimations of injustice and abuse. I will chalk his anger up not only to the friction that can be engendered between those who act and those who express an opinion about it, but also to the unadulterated passion he brought to the job.
And of course, it was more than a job. Somehow, Prosky's success as an actor needs to remain vital in the bloodstream of acting in these parts. It's nice that people who energetically support the arts and have boatloads of money get their names on the buildings that present the city's plays. Wouldn't it be cool, though, if the men and women who make less quantifiable but still bankable contributions got etched into the walls, too? No one in this town would dispute that the name Robert Prosky will forever have a capital ring to it.