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Bradford Dillman, 87, multifaceted and prolific actor of stage and screen

By Adam Bernstein Washington Post 

Bradford Dillman, a dashingly handsome star of stage and screen who burst to acclaim as the pensive Edmund Tyrone in the original Broadway run of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ and played an arrogant psychopath in the gripping 1959 film ‘‘Compulsion,” died Jan. 16 in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 87.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, said family spokesman Ted Gekis. Mr. Dillman was long married to fashion model and actress Suzy Parker.

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Born into a socially prominent family — his father was a stockbroker and partner in the firm E.F. Hutton & Co. — Mr. Dillman attended an elite boarding school and graduated from Yale University before pursuing a career in the arts. He wryly noted that, unlike actors who inherited less-than-marquee names, he did not need to change his.

‘‘Bradford Dillman sounded like a distinguished phony theatrical name,’’ he once quipped, ‘‘so I liked it and kept it.’’

His parents ‘‘hit the roof,’’ he told the American Legends website, when he told them of his acting ambitions. He agreed to acquiesce to their plans for him — a career on Wall Street — if he ‘‘did not see any symptoms of success’’ within five years.

After an off-Broadway apprenticeship, Mr. Dillman had a career breakthrough in 1956 when director José Quintero selected him over 500 other actors to play Edmund in ‘‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’’ (Mr. Dillman also passed muster with O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta.)

‘‘Long Day’s Journey,’’ with the tubercular Edmund essentially a stand-in for the tortured young playwright, was an autobiographical play about ruin and regret, filled with family secrets of alcohol and morphine addiction.

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The play also starred Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, and Jason Robards and was showered with honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play. The premiere helped revive widespread interest in O’Neill, who had died three years earlier and was by the 1950s seen as a theatrical anachronism.

For Mr. Dillman, the show not only enabled him to squeak out of the five-year bargain he had made with his parents but also introduced him as one of the promising young actors of the era. A critic for the trade paper Variety praised him for his ‘‘artful blend of strength and gentleness.’’

Twentieth Century Fox signed Mr. Dillman to a contract, but his slightly aloof Ivy League air was not a natural fit for conventional fare. He said he was often embarrassed by some of his jobs.

His fortunes changed with ‘‘Compulsion,’’ in which two wealthy Chicago law students set out to prove their Nietzschean superiority by kidnapping and killing a neighbor’s young son and getting away with the crime. The film, loosely based on the 1924 Loeb-Leopold ‘‘thrill killing,’’ featured Mr. Dillman and Dean Stockwell as the murderers. Mr. Dillman’s character — callow and braggadocious — even tries to help the police with clues.

New York Times film critic A.H. Weiler singled out Mr. Dillman ‘‘as an actor of imposing stature as the bossy, over-ebullient, and immature mama’s boy.’’ He, Stockwell, and Orson Welles, who played their Clarence Darrow-esque defense lawyer, shared the best-actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Mr. Dillman, who cannonballed to stardom, later reflected that he took himself very seriously and piqued studio executives by turning down scripts that called for him to play the brother of pop star Fabian. But after marrying Parker in 1963 and needing to raise six children, he adjusted his expectations.

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To Variety, he described himself as a ‘‘Safeway actor’’ — the kind who ‘‘put food on the table.’’

In Hollywood, his work ranged from supporting roles as a scientist in ‘‘Escape From the Planet of the Apes,” Robert Redford’s best friend in ‘‘The Way We Were,” a villain mowed down by a Rolls-Royce in ‘‘Gold,” and a police captain in the ‘‘Dirty Harry’’ sequel ‘‘Sudden Impact.” He occasionally won meatier parts, such as the Harvard-educated barfly Willie Oban in a 1973 screen version of O’Neill’s ‘‘The Iceman Cometh.’’

Mr. Dillman’s goal, he said, was longevity and variety. There seemed to be very little he turned down. He appeared in barrel-scraping horror films such as ‘‘Bug,” a mutant-cockroach film produced by schlockmeister William Castle.

The film ‘‘is considered laughable by some because Bill Castle produced it for $4.50,’’ Mr. Dillman told the website Cinema Retro, ‘‘but it was made at a time when special effects were primitive, and I believe it’s genuinely scary. Those were real cockroaches crawling over my bare chest!’’

Bradford Dillman was born in San Francisco on April 14, 1930. He graduated in 1947 from the private Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., where he played the title role in Shakespeare’s ‘‘Hamlet.’’ He participated in theatrical productions at Yale before graduating in 1951 with an English literature degree.

After Marine Corps service teaching Korean War veterans how to communicate their battlefield knowledge to new recruits, he decided that life was ‘‘very, very short’’ and set out for Manhattan. He joined a Greenwich Village theater troupe, the Theatre de Lys, that also included James Dean. Mr. Dillman, who was admitted to the Actors Studio workshop , eked by in a $36-a-month walk-up apartment he shared with Yale classmate and future novelist John Knowles where they exercised their rat-trapping skills.

Later, in the movies, he portrayed the title role in ‘‘Francis of Assisi’’ and John Wilkes Booth in the revisionist film drama ‘‘The Lincoln Conspiracy,” calling the later an especially fun job (“carte blanche for ham acting”). He came under attack by bees in ‘‘The Swarm’’ and by fish in producer Roger Corman’s ‘‘Piranha.”

On television, Mr. Dillman’s performance as a family patriarch in the demonic-possession drama ‘‘The Last Bride of Salem’’ earned him an Emmy for outstanding actor in a daytime drama special. In later years, he was a frequent guest star on the series ‘‘Murder, She Wrote.’’

His first marriage, to Frieda Harding, ended in divorce. Parker, his co-star in the 1960 spy film ‘‘Circle of Deception,’’ died in 2003. He leaves two children from his first marriage; three children from his second marriage; a stepdaughter; a sister; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

‘‘It’s essential for an actor to have a hobby for the time when the telephone doesn’t ring,’’ Mr. Dillman told Variety. For him, that pastime was writing books. A football fan, he penned ‘‘Inside the New York Giants,” which rated the team’s draft picks. He also wrote novels and a memoir.