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Kevin Conway, ‘Red Ryder’ and ‘Elephant Man’ actor, dies at 77

Mr. Conway often played explosive characters.
Mr. Conway often played explosive characters.Jim Spellman/WireImage

NEW YORK — Kevin Conway, who brought intensity to roles large and small on the screen and the stage, including memorable turns in the 1970s in the plays “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” and “The Elephant Man,” died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 77.

Geraldine Newman, his longtime partner, said the cause was a heart attack.

Mr. Conway got a late start on his acting career, but by 1969 he was making his Broadway debut in Arthur Kopit’s “Indians.” His first significant film role was in 1972 in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel.

Early on, he often played explosive characters and tough guys. In 1978 he worked opposite Sylvester Stallone in both “F.I.S.T.,” a tale of organized labor and organized crime, and “Paradise Alley,” in which he played a hoodlum in the mean streets of 1940s New York. Stallone, he said, had suggested that he get a tattoo of an eagle on his forehead to make the character more memorable.

“I told him I wasn’t crazy about the idea,” Mr. Conway told People magazine. “A thing like that could cut down your employment opportunities.”

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Mr. Conway was also seen on TV in numerous series and miniseries. In 2007 alone he appeared in the short-lived NBC series “The Black Donnellys,” about Irish brothers caught up in organized crime in New York, and the miniseries “The Bronx Is Burning,” about the 1970s New York Yankees, in which he portrayed team executive Gabe Paul.

He made good use of his compelling, slightly raspy voice as well, providing narration for television shows and commercials. He warned New York subway riders to say something if they saw something. He was the voice of Mark Twain in a 2001 Ken Burns documentary. At about the same time, he was the creepy Control Voice for a remake of the science-fiction anthology series “The Outer Limits.”

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“There is nothing wrong with your television,” he advised viewers as eerie static materialized. “Do not attempt to adjust the picture.”

Kevin John Conway was born on May 29, 1942, in Harlem to James and Margaret (Sanders) Conway. His father was a mechanic, and his mother worked for the telephone company.

After graduating from Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn in 1959, he spent time in the Navy and then took a job at IBM, starting in the mailroom and working his way up to sales.

On a whim he enrolled in nighttime acting classes. Eventually, he said, he asked IBM to fire him so that he could collect unemployment while pursuing an acting career.

He began getting stage roles and delivering charged, attention-getting performances.

In the early 1970s he was in a long-running off-Broadway revival of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about an asylum, playing the wildly disruptive McMurphy, the role played by Kirk Douglas in 1963 on Broadway and by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film.

In 1973, he had another off-Broadway success in Mark Medoff’s “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” playing an amped-up man with a gun who disrupts a diner.

“Mr. Conway lights up the stage with his half-amused, half-vicious personification,” Clive Barnes wrote in his review in The New York Times. “Rarely can alienation have been exposed so mercilessly and, this is revealing, so understandingly.”

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An entirely different sort of role came his way in 1979, when he played Frederick Treves, the doctor who befriends the title character in “The Elephant Man,” Bernard Pomerance’s play about a Victorian-era Englishman with deformities. Treves was nothing like the brash extroverts Mr. Conway usually played, and nothing like Mr. Conway himself.

“Treves is much more uptight than a modern character,” Mr. Conway told The Times. “He’s a guy who tends to sit on his emotions, whereas my instinct is to let them go.”

He reprised the role in a 1982 television version of the play.

Relatively early in his career, though, Mr. Conway realized that he wasn’t destined to be a marquee star. “I don’t envision posters of me hung on the walls of bedrooms of young girls,” he told The Boston Globe in 1978. “Yet,” he added, “someone like Laurence Olivier gets better as he gets older.”

As Mr. Conway got older, the fiery young characters gave way to more mature ones, requiring a restrained bluster or even pathos.

In a 1995 attempt to adapt the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” into a stage play, he was racketeering boss Johnny Friendly, the role played by Lee J. Cobb in the movie. The Broadway production closed quickly, but Mr. Conway drew praise. “Easily the most riveting contribution is Conway’s as the murderous union boss,” Vincent Canby wrote in an otherwise unenthusiastic review in the Times.

In the film “13 Days” (2000), about the Cuban missile crisis, Mr. Conway was hawkish General Curtis LeMay, who locks horns with the Kennedy brothers. In “Invincible,” a 2006 movie about Vince Papale, who made the roster of the Philadelphia Eagles as a 30-year-old rookie, he played Papale’s father, a man who is not used to showing emotion but who chokes up with pride at his son’s accomplishment. (Mark Wahlberg played Vince.)

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Mr. Conway also directed plays, including several productions of Jerry Sterner’s “Other People’s Money,” in which he starred when it played off-Broadway in 1989.

Mr. Conway’s marriage to Mila Burnette ended in divorce. Newman said that in addition to her, Mr. Conway, an animal advocate, would have listed his survivors as his three beloved pets: a cat, Chico, and two dogs, Cotton and Dorothy.