Chicago actor Howard Witt, who was nominated for a Tony award for best actor in a featured role in the 1999 Broadway remount of the Goodman Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” has died. He was 85.
A real life character as well as “a character actor,” Witt (who had suffered a heart attack in 2002) died Wednesday of “natural causes.” The death was confirmed by his daughter, Robin Witt (a frequent theater director in Chicago who also is assistant professor of directing at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte).
In a statement Thursday, Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls said: “The generosity, warmth, and humor which fueled his onstage work was equally evident offstage, where he was equal parts sage and raconteur, offering a sympathetic ear and counsel to generations of fellow actors. In an age in which success for an actor is often defined by high-profile roles in cinema spectacles, Howard was a proud man of the theater, beloved and respected by everyone who knew him. And for me, Howard was more than an artistic collaborator; he was a loyal friend (a real mensch, in his words) whose love and spirit I will always cherish.”
There was a bit of the Borscht Belt schmoozer about Howard Witt. At the same time there was the very essence of the classically trained actor whose “character actor” demeanor made him a natural to play men of wit and deep life experience. Along with his portrayal of Charley, Willy Loman’s sharp but upstanding neighbor (a role for which he also received Drama Desk and Ovation Award nominations, and which he reprised in London and throughout the U.S.), Witt could play everything from The Fool in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” to Adam Kirchbaum, an enigmatic kibbitzer among chess players in a Manhattan park in Candido Tirado’s “Fish Men” (both at the the Goodman), and Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of the McCarthy era, a role he assumed in a 2008 TimeLine Theatre production.
“Dad was resolute in his belief that acting was a noble profession,” said Robin Witt. “He was never more alive than when he was in a production.”
“My parents met at the the Goodman School of Drama in the mid 1950s, and lived briefly in New York City in the late 1950s, where dad appeared in a handful of plays including ‘As You Like It’ at the New York Shakespeare Festival with George C. Scott. When the family moved back to Chicago in 1959 and settled in Albany Park, he was not quite able to make a living as an actor yet, and worked odd-jobs, including as a night watchman.”
“My sister and brother and I were lucky to spend our youth attending the theater,” said Witt. “One of my earliest memories is sitting quietly with them on a large indoor swing backstage at Theatre on the Lake in Chicago where our mom was appearing in a production of ‘Bus Stop’ my dad had directed. We moved to Pittsburgh (1967-68) while dad worked for a season at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. At the end of the season there, Zelda Fichandler, who had seen dad audition, invited him to join her company at Arena Stage in D.C.”
“He stayed at Arena for almost 10 years, acting in some absolutely stunning productions with some of the finest theater artists in the U.S. and beyond.”
Witt and his wife divorced in the mid-1970s and he moved to Hollywood where, for the next decade, he guest starred in more than 75 TV shows including “Kojak,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Rhoda,” “The Rockford Files,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Archie Bunker’s Place” (in the role of Sol Rabinowitz), “Hill Street Blues” (as Schwartz), and “Law & Order.” But he remained a creature of the theater, and according to his daughter, “he was most proud of his later work in Chicago theater, with his Tony nomination for ‘Death of a Salesman’ the highlight of his career.”
“My dad also attended every show I directed, and would always offer some annoyingly correct piece of criticism,” said Witt. “He was a terrific cook and baker — and a fierce and loyal supporter of his beloved Cubs.”
Witt, who also appeared on Broadway in the role of Shelley in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and Off Broadway in Rebecca Gilman’s “Boy Gets Girl,” for which he received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination, toured with Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of”The Time of Your Life,” playing the role of Kit Carson.
“The thing Howard was most proud of being was a Chicago actor – of being part of the community and having the cache that goes along with that,” said actor-writer Steve Pickering, who called Witt “Pops,” and recalled the countless breakfasts they would have, almost weekly, in diners around Chicago (or on the road when in “Salesmen” and other shows together), with “special guests,” including actors Brian Dennehy, Stacy Keach, Kate Buddeke and Chuck Stransky at times.
As for what made Witt such a fine actor, Pickering said: “He was honest. Some actors, as they get older, fall back on the tricks of the trade. But I still remember the look on his face when he played The Fool at the Goodman, and his ability to take you into his mind and make a connection with you. He loved the process of it, the job of it. You always knew Howard was in the place he was intended to be, and where he wanted to be more than anywhere else.”
But Pickering may have captured the actor best with one of their favorite lines from Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”: “Ay God, Woodrow — it’s been quite a party.”
Survivors include another daughter, Deborah (a Chicago police officer), a son, Joshua, and a grandson.