December 10, 2008

Robert Prosky has died: RIP

Robert Prosky, 77, a character actor with hundreds of film, TV and stage credits whose roles included an avuncular sergeant on the NBC police drama "Hill Street Blues" and a desperate real estate salesman in David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross," has died.

Mr. Prosky, a District resident for nearly 50 years, died Dec. 8 at Washington Hospital Center. He had complications from a heart procedure.

Starting in 1958, Mr. Prosky began an affiliation with Washington's Arena Stage that transformed him over 23 seasons and 130 roles from a struggling actor to one of the most versatile and prolific performers in a top regional theater.

He jokingly attributed his success to his paunch and prematurely gray hair, telling The Washington Post, "This hair and this gut are the two reasons I got started as an actor. I could play men 50 when I was 30, maybe 25. I could always play the funny fat man."

He also excelled in drama and at one point called on memories of his father, a Philadelphia butcher with a seventh-grade education, for his interpretation of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

In his movie debut, Michael Mann's "Thief" (1981), Mr. Prosky played the vicious patriarch of a ring of Chicago diamond thieves. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby found him "exceptionally effective" as "a Middle Western version of the sort of affable international villains that Sydney Greenstreet once played."

The part launched Mr. Prosky's career as a film heavy, including roles as the evil garage owner in "Christine" (1983), a corrupt judge and baseball team co-owner in "The Natural" (1984) and a mafia don in Mamet's "Things Change" (1988).

It was a nice change of pace, Mr. Prosky said, to be offered the role of a self-deprecating priest in "Rudy" (1993).

Portraying TV newsmen also became a specialty for him. In "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), he was a station owner who exchanged quips with Robin Williams. He was a defender of community standards who clashed with journalist Dustin Hoffman in director Costa-Gavras's "Mad City" (1997). And he was a longtime executive who gets fired in director James L. Brooks's "Broadcast News" (1987).

Mr. Prosky's other film roles included the pro bono lawyer for death-row inmate Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking" (1995) and a judge in the 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street."

In addition, he played many recurring roles on TV, as the big-hearted desk sergeant Stanislaus "Stan" Jablonski on "Hill Street Blues" from 1984 to 1987 and later as a priest accused of murder on the ABC legal drama "The Practice."

He also played Kirstie Alley's father on the sitcoms "Cheers" and "Veronica's Closet."

He once told The Post he turned down the role of a bartender on "Cheers" and was grateful not to have been a part of the hit comedy because "doing the same role for 6 1/2 years" sent a chill down his spine.

Robert Joseph Porzuczek was born Dec. 13, 1930, in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood.

Initially drawn to theater in high school, he briefly studied economics at Temple University before returning to the family grocery shop after his father's death in 1952.

He continued performing in plays, supporting himself in New York as a Federal Reserve Bank bookkeeper while working as a journeyman actor. What he considered just another one-shot deal -- playing the sheriff in a 1958 Arena Stage revival of "The Front Page" -- was instead a breakthrough. He credited theater co-founder Zelda Fichandler with being a crucial influence, and he decided to settle in Washington for the rest of his life.

"When I first came to Arena I wasn't an actor who thought much," Mr. Prosky told The Post in 1984, "and here I was at what is certainly a theater of intellect -- God, Zelda would hate that label. But I wasn't this great genius who'd studied all the philosophies of the world. I was the son of a Polish butcher from Philadelphia. To read Pirandello -- 'Six Characters in Search of an Author' -- was a whole new experience for me. Same with Brecht.

"But Zelda saw something in me, God knows what, and kept nurturing it," he said. "Each author came to me fresh, brand new, and I found out about him in the doing, sort of leap-frogging from one to the next. That's what formed me -- that continuum."

He toured as the populist orator Matthew Harrison Brady in "Inherit the Wind" and as the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and periodically returned to the New York stage. He earned Tony Award nominations in two Broadway shows, "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984) and Lee Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods" (1988).

In the first, he played an aging and increasingly despairing salesman, Shelly "The Machine" Levene -- a role the show's director originally envisioned for legendary TV comedian Sid Caesar and was later played by Jack Lemmon in the movie.

Critics lauded Mr. Prosky for depicting the pompous outbursts of the character after he scores a "great sale" and the terror on his face as he is reduced to offering bribes to his employer to stay on the job.

In the two-character Blessing play, Mr. Prosky portrayed a Russian diplomat opposite Sam Waterston as an American arms negotiator. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich singled out Mr. Prosky for "a masterful portrait of political cunning, always entertaining to behold."

In 1960, Mr. Prosky married Ida Hove. She survives, along with three sons, Stefan Prosky of Washington, John Prosky of Toluca Lake, Calif., and Andrew Prosky of New York; and three grandchildren.

In recent years, Mr. Prosky toured with his actor sons John and Andrew in Arthur Miller's "The Price," including a performance this year at Washington's Theater J. The elder Prosky played a junk dealer who appraises the belongings left to two estranged brothers by their parents.

Looking back on his career, Mr. Prosky told The Post: "Survival is of utmost importance for an actor in this society. I remember doing a commercial with Arena actors Terrence Currier and Mark Hammer. We played bugs in tights and leotards, with wings pinned on our backs and a sequined number on our fronts. We were the price of the television set and we did a tap dance. When my eldest son saw it, he said, 'Dad, do we need the money that badly?'

"At the time, I recall, I was performing Willy Loman in the evenings."


Source: Washintong Post

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