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Character Actor Pat Hingle, 84; Starred in 'The Grifters,' 'Batman'

Pat Hingle had numerous roles on Broadway, including in 1955's
Pat Hingle had numerous roles on Broadway, including in 1955's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," but he is also widely known for his role in four "Batman" films. (By Tony Barnard -- Los Angeles Times)
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By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pat Hingle, 84, a pug-faced character actor who played Commissioner Gordon in four "Batman" films and -- on the other side of the law -- roughed up Anjelica Huston as a bookie in "The Grifters," died Jan. 3 at his home in Carolina Beach, N.C. He had myelodysplasia, a blood cancer.

His best-known role, as Commissioner James Gordon in Tim Burton's 1989 re-imagining of Batman, came more than 30 years after his breakthrough in the 1955 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as the greedy son Gooper. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, his acting teacher, who also directed him in an uncredited role as a bartender in his film debut, "On the Waterfront" (1954).

After "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Mr. Hingle received a succession of prominent Broadway roles. He was nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actor in William Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1957) and played the lead role in Archibald MacLeish's retelling of Job, "J.B." (1958).

The second show led to his casting in the title role of the 1960 film "Elmer Gantry," based on the Sinclair Lewis novel about evangelists.

Before the production began, Mr. Hingle fell 54 feet down an elevator shaft, fracturing his hip, skull, wrist and many of his ribs and losing his left pinky. He also lost the movie role to Burt Lancaster.

"I know that if I had played Elmer Gantry, I would have been more of a movie name," he told the New York Times. But he preferred the stage, telling the Winston-Salem Journal, "I realized very rapidly that in films, an actor has no bloody control over what the audience sees whatsoever."

He disappeared into roles but with his broad shoulders and barrel chest was never hard to notice. After spending four years on a Navy destroyer, he went to college at the University of Texas and fell into acting because he said every pretty woman he saw seemed to be walking toward the theater department.

Working at an Austin movie house, he found himself further inspired in his craft by watching such untypecastable character actors as Hume Cronyn and Walter Huston.

He later terrified Huston's granddaughter Anjelica in "The Grifters" (1990), burning a cigar on her skin in a scene so intense that she spent the night retching.

He was frequently cast in positions of authority. He played Clint Eastwood's boss in "Sudden Impact" (1983) as well as father to both Warren Beatty ("Splendor in the Grass," 1961) and Sally Field ("Norma Rae," 1979).

Mr. Hingle also played a Founding Father, portraying Ben Franklin in the 1997 Broadway revival of the musical "1776," a performance Variety called "the perfect blend of wisdom, compassion and humor."

Martin Patterson Hingle was born July 19, 1924, in Miami. He was 6 when his father, a building contractor, abandoned the family, and his mother moved around to try to find jobs to support the family.

After World War II, he married Alyce Dorsey. They divorced after 32 years. In 1979, he married Julia Wright, whom he met while filming "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?"

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; 11 grandchildren; and two sisters.

He moved to the North Carolina oceanfront after filming "Maximum Overdrive" in 1986. He remained a prolific actor through recent years but always looked back on his college days as his most vital period.

"In three years I did 35 plays and in one of those plays I finally realized that I felt more comfortable than I did anywhere and I was where God intended me to be. I always feel that way," he told the Wilmington Star News in 2007, and then interrupted himself: "Well, shoot a monkey tail, I've got to get to rehearsal."

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