William H. Graham, an acting director and teacher who led the drama department of Catholic University, directed and acted in plays at the Olney Theatre, and gave lessons to clergymen on preaching and politicians on public speaking, died Oct. 15 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. He was 87.
The cause was acute kidney failure, said his daughter, Carole G. Lehan.
For more than half a century, Mr. Graham was a key player on theatrical stages in the Washington metropolitan area. He spent nearly 40 years with CU’s drama department, and with that came an affiliation with the Olney Theatre, for decades under the aegis of the school’s drama department.
He was a former general manager and board president of the Olney Theatre, a Montgomery County venue once known as a “straw-hat” summer playhouse. With his help, Olney “oozed from a summer theater into a year round center for the arts,” Mr. Graham said in an autobiographical note.
In 1977, Mr. Graham became CU’s drama department chairman — succeeding its founding father, the Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke — and ran the department until retiring in 1992.
It was a drama program designed to “develop your talent,” he told his students, not to “help you make a living.”
In leading a drama class, Mr. Graham was quoted by family and friends as having said: “I don’t teach people how to act. I ask questions. Then, when I get their response, I give them directions to do the opposite.” Habitually, he would tell an aspiring thespian, “Give yourself permission to go beyond what you can imagine yourself doing.”
Among the alumni of Mr. Graham’s drama classes are screen actress Susan Sarandon and Arena Stage actors Richard Bauer and Halo Wines.
As a speaking coach, he worked with Victor Crawford (D), who was a member of the Maryland Senate, on his style of public oratory. “We worked on the Gettysburg Address, and I think I must have read it 100 times before he was satisfied,” Crawford was quoted by Dossier magazine as having said. Sonny Jurgensen, the Washington Redskins quarterback who became a radio sportscaster, and Nancy Dickerson, who was an NBC television correspondent, were also among Mr. Graham’s speech students.
As a leader of liturgical workshops, Mr. Graham told homilists to emphasize “personal witness. The preacher must be speaking from faith rather than knowledge. What he is saying has to touch my life and my experience in faith,” according to a 1998 article in the Tablet, a publication of the Catholic Church.
William Howard Graham, a Silver Spring resident, was born March 23, 1926, in Philadelphia. He served in the Navy during World War II, then graduated in 1950 from La Salle University in Philadelphia as a pre-law student.
“As a senior, I ended up being convinced I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” he later said. He soon enrolled at Catholic University, where he received a master’s degree in drama in 1954.
Over the years, he directed or had leading roles in almost 100 theatrical productions, including Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” John Pielmeier’s “Agnes of God,” and William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Under the auspices of the Olney Theatre, he oversaw the National Players, a touring troupe. CU’s drama department no longer has a governing role in the Olney Theatre.
In addition to acting and directing, Mr. Graham narrated programs for the National Symphony Orchestra, National Geographic, Voice of America and PBS.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Mary Alexander Graham of Silver Spring; seven children, Cathy Mays of Gaithersburg, Md., Bill Graham Jr. of Montclair, N.J., Michael Graham of Rockville, Md., Robert Graham of Frederick, Md., Laura Fetters of Bethesda, Md., Liz Graham Parker of Owings, Md., and Carole G. Lehan of Glenelg, Md.; and 22 grandchildren.
In retirement, Mr. Graham continued working as a consultant and became board chairman emeritus at the Olney Theatre, a job he described as that of a “well-meaning kibitzer.”
Of his years in teaching, coaching and theater, he said, “I cannot recall being bored at any time.”