Chicago actor Jim Sherman was on stage playing the role of Gustav Stossel in the Mercury Theater production of “The Christmas Schooner” until just less than a month ago — the 10th time he had appeared in that holiday musical over the years (with five seasons at the Mercury and, before that, for five years at Bailiwick, with a Jeff nomination for his performance along the way). And last Wednesday he was in the audience at the Mercury when the theater opened its world premiere production of “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes.”
But the veteran performer, who was beloved by his colleagues in the theater — and was considered “the spirit of Christmas” after spending two seasons giving a captivating portrayal of Kris Kringle (the Macy’s Santa Claus) in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “Miracle on 34th Street” — died Saturday. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and children and grandchildren. (More details, including his age, will be forthcoming.)
“He was so much more than the sum of his resume,” said L. Walter Stearns, executive director of the Mercury. “For generations of Chicagoans he was Christmas. I will miss him greatly.”
Among other Chicago credits for James Wilson Sherman were “Phantom,” “The Secret Garden” and “Ragtime,” all with Porchlight Music Theater. He also appeared as Cardinal Law in “Bailiwick’s Sin: A Cardinal Deposed,” which won Boston’s IRNE Award for Best Visiting Production, and for which he received a Non-Equity Jeff Award.
Sherman performed in “Crazy for You” at Theater at the Center and in numerous productions with the Stages Festival at Theatre Building Chicago, as well as in “The One Eyed Man is King” at Pegasus.
As a regular company member he appeared in more than 25 productions with Theatre II and Prairie Dog Theater Company. In the 1960s he was founder and executive director of the Chicago Actors’ Repertory Company, a federally funded training program for young actors. Sherman also did radio and industrial film work.
“Jim was a fine actor in both plays and musical theater, and at various times he also was a teacher, and was active in Chicago politics,” said Stearns.
In a Facebook posting on Sunday, director-choreographer Brenda Didier wrote: “Jim Sherman was an angel to me on many occasions since meeting him on ‘The Christmas Schooner’ in 2001. We worked on over 15 shows together, and as an actor there was no other like Jim. Off the stage you were in the presence of an angel. He knew what life was about — love, family, treasured moments. Jim: How lucky we are to have loved and been loved by you. When I saw you this past Wednesday your eyes twinkled as you smiled at me and waved goodbye. That is how I will always remember you now. Gute nacht Opa.”
Actress Cory Goodrich, who appeared alongside Sherman in “Christmas Schooner,” also paid homage to him: “He truly was the spirit of Christmas. He was genuine and kind, and took incredible delight in being an actor. There’s this thing that happens when you share time with people on stage, and most particularly, when you share a scene where you are both at your most broken, most vulnerable. ‘Christmas Schooner’ has always been special to me, in good part because of sharing the stage with dear Opa, Jim Sherman. A kinder, gentler giant I have never known. He let me cry on his shoulder, never minded when my nose was running, and we always marveled at how special that scene was every night. I feel so fortunate to have spent three Christmases arguing with him. As the script says: ‘If we grieve, it is because we have loved and been loved.’ Well, I’m grieving, Opa, and so is Chicago.”