Among the greatest compliments Thomas Derrah received were not from the directors and actors who loved him or the critics who admired him, but from theatergoers who, at a telling moment, ignored him.
On stage he held audiences in thrall, inhabiting roles so thoroughly that to those watching he actually was each character — not an actor portraying a fictional invention. The transformation was so complete that upon leaving a theater, he walked by fans unnoticed. Two decades ago, while playing multiple roles in a Broadway production of “Jackie: An American Life,” he offered to sign a Playbill one night as he and the other actors pushed past autograph-seekers, only to have a quizzical fan ask: “Who are you?”
Mr. Derrah, who was 64 when he died Thursday, was a rarity in Boston’s theater world: an iconic figure who achieved renown as a character actor, his star glimmering over the past 38 years in scores of roles, instead of one defining part.
“There is no recipe for acting,” he told the Globe in 2000. “You ask who, what, when, where, why, and how of your character. You discover what your character wants, then add the element of imagination. That, to me, is when it takes off.”
He moved to Greater Boston at the end of the 1970s as a founding member of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, where he subsequently lived for many years with his husband, the playwright, director, and actor John Kuntz. Mr. Derrah, who had been honored with Elliot Norton awards for best actor and sustained excellence, also had taught at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the ART Institute for Advanced Theater Training.
In his more than 100 roles with the American Repertory Theater “you never really saw Tommy Derrah. You saw the character, each one different,” said Robert Brustein, the ART’s founding director. “His personality was there all right, but he managed to transform a role in such a way that you were looking at the character, not the actor. He was special.”
Paula Plum, who appeared in productions with Mr. Derrah at the ART and elsewhere, said he was “an utter chameleon, unrecognizable from one character to the next. He had kaleidoscopic range. And as a person, he was magnificent in his generosity to everyone in the theater community. He was generous and humble.”
Mr. Derrah “was a genius – so far above everyone that knew him and worked with him,” she added. “He was theater royalty. He was so beloved.”
Thomas Lendall Derrah grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the second of three children born to Robert Lendall Derrah and the former Margaret Lailer. His father worked in insurance, his mother helped out in the office, and as a boy, Mr. Derrah was smitten by the magic of acting while putting on plays in his family’s garage and attending children’s theater productions.
He graduated from the University of Southern Maine, where a classmate was the actor Tony Shalhoub. The two also graduated from the Yale School of Drama and were ART founding members. “Tommy has this amazing ability to move and to stretch himself, literally, figuratively, and physically,” Shalhoub, whose credits include his Emmy-award winning run in the TV series “Monk,” told the Globe in 2000.
Gaining or losing 20 or more pounds for a role wasn’t out of the question for Mr. Derrah, who also possessed a powerful voice with a dramatic range. “I’d ask myself, ‘How did he get from the Tommy I know to that? What road did he have to go down?’ ” recalled Shalhoub, who added: “We’re all hard on ourselves, but his standards were just higher than everybody else’s, certainly a lot higher than mine.”
Indeed, Mr. Derrah once said that “with any character, you have to be patient, gather a lot of information. It feels so awful for the longest time, and then it starts to get better. You’re trying to come up with a person who lives in this world, in this play. Sometimes I’m not happy until the end of rehearsal, and sometimes never.”
To audiences, though, Mr. Derrah communicated the unalloyed joy of performing, even if the role was serious, the play tragic. “He was devilish and hilarious, on stage and off,” Plum said. “He was gifted, funny – just a darling person.”
With an ever-present sense of humor, he delighted in breaking up other actors. “He was like a big kid. He never forgot how to play and have fun,” said Kuntz. “He made things up out of thin air in rehearsal and even on the stage. Even the most rehearsed piece was slightly different.”
They met in 2001 while performing Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” on Boston Common, and married about a decade ago. “Tommy and I really spent every second together. If we didn’t, we were waiting so we could be together,” Kuntz said. “I never met anyone who could make me laugh the way Tommy did.”
Mr. Derrah’s first Boston production was Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” outside of City Hall. He didn’t think he’d build his career here after arriving to help found the American Repertory Theater, but one season led to the next and he stayed. He also acted in films such as “Mystic River,” in Broadway and Off Broadway productions, and with other Greater Boston theater venues, such as the SpeakEasy Stage Company, and had directed, too.
“I don’t want to be corny about this,” he told the Globe in 1986, “but I think that there’s really a renaissance happening here.”
In addition to his husband, Mr. Derrah leaves his siblings, Bob of Harwich and Bette-Lou Scott of Lewisburg, Pa. A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Friday in Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Story Chapel.
Mr. Derrah was diagnosed with cancer this summer, and 11 days after surgery he traveled to China to direct students in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Though doctors believed surgery had left him cancer-free, upon returning home he began a precautionary course of chemotherapy, and a fatal infection developed during treatment.
“It’s a deplorable and horribly premature loss of a really great artist and human being,” said Brustein, who added, “I’m in deep mourning for him.”
Likening an actor’s performance to that of a musician in a chamber ensemble, Mr. Derrah melded into casts. And sometimes, a single role offered the opportunity to essentially be more than one character, as was the case at the Stoneham Theatre this year, when he portrayed Major Von Pfunz, a Nazi commander, in Moira Buffini’s play “Gabriel.”
“Multiplicity, thy name is Derrah,” Globe theater critic Don Aucoin wrote. “Any Boston theatergoer can tell you of his chameleonic gifts. The role of Von Pfunz allows this consummate performer the room to stretch, as the major morphs from silky guile to full-on menace to something like vulnerability and back again.”
In his career, Mr. Derrah portrayed everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Ted Kennedy, from Aristotle Onassis to Truman Capote to an elderly woman.
“I’m a character actor,” he said with a laugh in 2000. “If people get sick and tired of me, they would run me out of town, so I have to hide, put on disguises.”