Obituaries

John McMartin, 86, versatile and prolific actor of stage, screen

Mr. McMartin and Angela Lansbury toasted the opening performance of “A Little Family Business” in New York.
Associated Press/file 1982
Mr. McMartin and Angela Lansbury toasted the opening performance of “A Little Family Business” in New York.

NEW YORK — John McMartin, one of the most recognizable actors on Broadway and television, who played a meek tax accountant in the musical “Sweet Charity” on stage and screen and had a starring role in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies,” died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 86.

The cause was cancer, said Charlotte Moore, his companion and the artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theater.

Mr. McMartin, a versatile actor and singer, was a favorite of the director and choreographer Bob Fosse, the producer and director Harold Prince, and Sondheim — who, asked by the critic Frank Rich in 2000 to name his favorite star performances in a musical, unhesitatingly singled out two: Alfred Drake in “Kismet” and Mr. McMartin in “Follies.”

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He made his first big splash on Broadway in 1966 opposite Gwen Verdon in Fosse’s “Sweet Charity.” As the claustrophobic Oscar Lindquist, he quailed in a broken elevator while Verdon bucked up his spirits with “I’m the Bravest Individual,” handling the tough assignment of playing Mr. Nice Guy to a bundle of emotional dynamite. At Fosse’s invitation, he traveled to Hollywood to repeat the role opposite Shirley MacLaine in the movie version in 1969.

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His role as the drunkard Vino in Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” disappeared as the musical made its way to Broadway, but Sondheim made up for it. In 1971 he cast him in “Follies” as Benjamin Stone, a successful businessman who wonders, in the song “The Road You Didn’t Take,” if he has made the right choices in life. Mr. McMartin revisited the song in “Sondheim!: The Birthday Concert” at Avery Fisher Hall in 2010.

Mr. McMartin later played the narrator in the 2002 revival of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” earning the last of his five Tony Award nominations. (He never won.)

As a member of the New Phoenix Repertory Company in the 1970s, Mr. McMartin was directed by Prince on Broadway in the Eugene O’Neill play “The Great God Brown” and a musical version of the Friedrich Durrenmatt play “The Visit.” He later appeared as Cap’n Andy in Prince’s 1994 revival of “Showboat.”

In his later years, Mr. McMartin’s mellifluous baritone and distinguished looks kept him in constant employment as a patrician father, a professor, or a politician on the stage and screen and in dozens of television appearances. His last stage role was as the Georgia senator Richard Russell, alongside Brian Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson, in “All the Way” in 2014.

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John Francis McMartin was born on Nov. 18, 1929, in Warsaw, Ind., and grew up in St. Cloud, Minn. His father, Royal, was a traveling salesman, and his mother, the former Alice Sniska, was a homemaker.

After graduating from high school he enlisted in the Army and served with the 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper. While performing in service shows, he got the acting itch.

He attended Columbia College in Chicago but did not earn a degree. Instead he found work with a summer stock company in Allentown, Pa., where he met the actress Eileen Brennan. After gaining more seasoning at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, he headed to New York, where Brennan, a step before him, invited him to join the cast of “Little Mary Sunshine,” an operetta that opened off-Broadway to rapturous reviews in 1959.

For his performance as the forest ranger Billy Jester, a Dudley Do-Right before the fact, he received a Theater World Award, created to honor younger stage performers. Other honorees that year included Warren Beatty, Carol Burnett, Patty Duke, Dick Van Dyke, and Jane Fonda.

In 1960 he married Cynthia Baer, one of the show’s producers. The marriage ended in divorce.

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In addition to Moore, Mr. McMartin leaves two daughters, Susan and Kathleen; a brother, James; a sister, Mary Schultz; and three grandchildren.

Fosse cast him in two flops, “The Conquering Hero” and “Pleasures and Palaces,” which died in out-of-town tryouts. When he asked him to play Oscar in “Sweet Charity,” Mr. McMartin recalled in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1996, he told Fosse: “Well, that’s a relief. I thought you might consider me bad luck.” Fosse, he said, replied, “That’s funny; I suspected you thought the same thing about me.”

Mr. McMartin, who started out on the soap opera “As the World Turns” soon after arriving in New York, appeared constantly on television, usually in guest roles. He had recurring roles on “Falcon Crest” as Julian J. Roberts, the father of Jordan (Morgan Fairchild), and on “Beauty and the Beast” as Charles Chandler, the father of Catherine (Linda Hamilton). He appeared last year in a guest role on the Netflix comedy series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

He did not particularly like to act in films, but did so occasionally. He played the foreign editor of The Washington Post in “All the President’s Men” (1976) and the businessman and philanthropist Huntington Hartford in “Kinsey” (2004).

He remained busy on the stage into his 70s and 80s, appearing in “Grey Gardens” in 2006 as the father of the eccentric recluse Edith Bouvier and in John Guare’s “A Free Man of Color” in 2011 as Thomas Jefferson.