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John Mohrlein, who played good and evil in long-running ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago,’ dead at 74

Renowned as a character actor and ensemble artist, he’d play both Clarence, the angel, and the villainous Mr. Potter — in the American Blues Theater production.

Actor John Mohrlein, ensemble member at American Blues Theater.
Actor John Mohrlein, who was long an ensemble member at Chicago’s American Blues Theater.
Provided

Friends of actor John Mohrlein are saying an angel got his wings.

Mr. Mohrlein, who died Dec. 8 at 74, starred as the angel Clarence in Chicago’s second-longest-running holiday play: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!”

He’d switch seamlessly between the roles of Clarence and the angel’s opposite — the villainous Mr. Potter — in the American Blues Theater production. One of the city’s most skilled and well-liked character actors, Mr. Mohrlein appeared in the show for 19 of its 20 years.

“It’s like putting one shoe on and then the other shoe,” he said in a 2009 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I often wonder, ‘Why didn’t Potter get redeemed?’ ”

John Mohrlein starred for years in the American Blues Theater’s annual production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!”
John Mohrlein starred for years in the American Blues Theater’s annual production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!”
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“He did a great job,” said Dennis Zacek, artistic director emeritus of Victory Gardens Theater.

“The essence of the Chicago Theater movement was ‘ensemble,’ and John was one of the most positive and cohesive members of that ensemble,” said B.J. Jones, artistic director of Northlight Theatre. “Everyone loved Johnny. He was positive and supportive and a joy to be around.”

“He saw beauty in everyone and everything,” said Gwendolyn Whiteside, artistic director of American Blues Theater.

Echoing the “Wonderful Life” line about angels receiving their wings, Whiteside said of Mr. Mohrlein: “Bells are ringing.”

He died of pancreatic cancer at home in Edgewater, where friends kept coming and going to care for him and to keep him company.

One of his visitors was Ian Paul Custer, who credits Mr. Mohrlein for his acting career. When Custer was starting out, his plans for a place to live in Chicago fell through, and he thought he’d have to return home to the suburbs and give up acting because he didn’t have a car.

But Mr. Mohrlein invited Custer to stay with him and his wife Jacqueline.

“All I had was my suitcase and my guitar,” Custer said. “You would go do a show, and you came home, and John and Jacque were making dinner for you. If it wasn’t giving you a place to stay, it was giving you a meal to eat. His generosity was never-ending.”

“He would take younger people under his wing,” said another friend, Daniel Wasmer, who said Mr. Mohrlein intervened when he was a victim of an assault on the lakefront. “I tell people he saved my life.”

Wasmer, a retired social worker, said there were suspicions his attackers were angry about Edgewater residents reporting them for hanging out at a vacant building.

“They came up to a friend and me and started swinging,” Wasmer said. “I was knocked to the ground. One of the assailants was kicking me about the head. In the middle of all this, he stuck his head out the window and yelled at the assailants and scared them off.”

Young John attended St. Hilary grade school in Chicago before his family moved to Skokie, where he graduated from the old St. Lambert’s School. He attended St. George High School in Evanston and Loyola University Chicago.

In 1998, Mr. Morhlein was nominated for the Joseph Jefferson Awards — a Jeff, given for outstanding work in the theater in Chicago — for his performance in American Blues Theater’s “A Stone Carver.”

“He just had a way of tapping in, bringing himself to every role,” said Dawn Bach of the Chicago ensemble.

John Mohrlein (foreground) in a 2003 production of “The Hairy Ape” at American Blues Theater.
John Mohrlein (foreground) in a 2003 production of “The Hairy Ape” at American Blues Theater.
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He appeared in plays at the Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre and on TV’s “Crime Story,” “Early Edition” and “Fargo.”

Mr. Mohrlein also helped make ornate architectural metalwork at Matrix, a metal fabricating business started by his father George, according to his niece Dana Anderberg. He crafted his and his wife’s wedding rings there. After her death — also from pancreatic cancer — in 2017, he wore both rings on a chain around his neck.

Mr. Mohrlein drove a Mini Cooper with more than 200,000 miles on it. A dapper dresser, he sported stylish glasses, scarves and jauntily tilted hats.

Joe Dempsey will fill Mr. Mohrlein’s roles in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” according to the theater company.

In addition to his niece Dana, Mr. Mohrlein is survived by his brother George, nieces Lisa Omori and Alison Dhanani and nephew Glen.

Visitation is at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Lambert’s Catholic Church in Skokie, followed by an 11 a.m. funeral Mass there. A celebration of his life is planned for January, Dana Anderberg said.

Eight days before Mr. Mohrlein’s death, Chicago lost another actor associated with a holiday role. William J. Norris, who played Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre’s long-running “A Christmas Carol,” died Nov. 30 at 75.

“The curtain is closing on an era,” Zacek said.