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William J. Norris, first to play Scrooge in Goodman Theatre’s ‘Christmas Carol,’ dead at 75

Among the tributes that followed his death, B.J. Jones called him ‘one of the founding fathers of the Chicago Theater movement.’ A ‘brilliant actor,’ Robert Falls said.

William J. Norris playing Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theater.
William J. Norris playing Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre.
Sun-Times file

William J. Norris, the first actor to play Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre’s annual “Christmas Carol,” has died.

“He’s one of the founding fathers of the Chicago Theater movement,” said B.J. Jones, the artistic director of Northlight Theatre, who said Mr. Norris died Nov. 30 at his home in Iowa after suffering lingering heart problems. He was 75.

“We’ve lost one of the greats,” said Dennis Zacek, artistic director emeritus of Victory Gardens Theater.

Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman, called him a “brilliant actor.”

“Terribly sad,” Falls wrote on Facebook. “What a brilliant actor! So many of his performances are the stuff of legends — those early Stuart Gordon Organic shows, and, of course, his profound Scrooge that anchored the Goodman production for so many years.”

William J. Norris appears in “Warp!” at the Organic Theater in 1972.
Sun-Times file

Mr. Norris portrayed Scrooge for 12 seasons, from 1978 to 1990. He then played other roles in “A Christmas Carol” for another 11 years — most recently in 2008.

“He was born to play that role,” said TV and stage star Joe Mantegna. “He was a classic character actor.”

Mr. Norris once told the Chicago Sun-Times how he interpreted the classic Charles Dickens character: “He never cheated anybody. He just didn’t give anyone a break. He paid Bob Cratchit 15 shillings a week, par for the course then. There’s still a lot of work that can be done on a character that’s so richly written.”

“A Christmas Carol” became a hardy holiday perennial at the Goodman, thanks in large part to his work, according to Goodman executive director Roche Edward Schulfer.

In those initial productions, “Bill was fantastic,” Schulfer said in the Mark Larson book “Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater.”

“I credit him for why our ‘A Christmas Carol’ is still being done today, because in those early years, the adaptation that we used and the production that we did had a lot of problems. Bill’s performance transcended all of that,” Schulfer said.

Mr. Norris also worked as a playwright, screenwriter and director. He helped write the screenplay for “Re-Animator,” a zestfully gory cult film directed by Gordon, according to his widow Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, a fellow member of the Organic Theater Company.

William J. Norris was a co-writer on the screenplay for the cult classic film “Re-Animator.”
William J. Norris was a co-writer on the screenplay for the cult classic film “Re-Animator.”
IMDB

In the 1970s, Mantegna appeared with him in “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” and two other Organic productions that toured Europe, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Bloody Bess,” a pirate play written by Mr. Norris.

He was in the Organic’s original staging of “Warp!” as well as its Broadway run, and Jones said “he did a legendary production of ‘The Caretaker’ directed by Dennis Zacek at Victory Gardens.”

Zacek called him “an extremely disciplined, hardworking individual who did extraordinary work as an actor. I remember when we did ‘The Caretaker,’ and he played Davies. The great Frank Galati was playing Aston, and he frequently stopped rehearsing because he was so intrigued with what William was doing with his character.”

He won a Joseph Jefferson award for the Davies role.

William J. Norris (right) appears with Cordis Fejer in “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” at Organic Theater Company in 1974.
Sun-Times file

He also inspired and influenced other actors, including Bill Petersen, Zacek said. Petersen starred in Mr. Norris’ 1978 play “Dillinger” at Victory Gardens.

Over a career of nearly 40 years, Mr. Norris performed on stages in Europe and around Chicago, including Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and Steppenwolf Theatre, according to his Goodman biography.

He appeared on TV and in movies and won an Emmy, the biography said.

“I was very aware of him as somebody who was just in everything,” said Larson. “People thought very, very highly of him as a teacher, too.”

Mr. Norris taught drama at his alma mater, Loyola University. He used to tell students, “Never expect from your profession what you need in your personal life, and vice versa.”

Young Bill grew up in Morgan Park and attended St. Cajetan grade school. His mother worked as a secretary and his police officer father used to tell his kids: “I don’t care what you do, as long as you are happy with what you do.”

During his high school years, he studied at a Franciscan seminary, he told the Sun-Times.

He listed some of his favorite actors as Richard Dreyfuss, Katharine Hepburn, Edgar Meyer, Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield.

His last performance in Chicago was a 2015 production of “Outside Mullingar” directed by Jones.

“He was hilarious, but he could also do heavy tension and drama, as evidenced by ‘The Caretaker,’ ” Jones said. “And he was so warm and touching in ‘Outside Mullingar.’ ”

Mr. Norris had a gift for playing mature parts even when he was young. And he had a “comedically cranky” exterior, Jones said.

“He delighted, in acting as Scrooge, as if he hated the kids in the cast — which could not have been further from the truth,” Jones said.

William J. Norris (right) with actor Mark Montgomery in a 2015 Northlight Theatre production of “Outside Mullingar.”
William J. Norris (right) with actor Mark Montgomery in a 2015 Northlight Theatre production of “Outside Mullingar.”
B.J. Jones

When David Mink was cast as young Scrooge at the Goodman in 1979, he presented Mr. Norris with a Christmas wreath.

“He said, ‘Oh, great,’ ’’ Mink recalled. Next, “he pulled out a lighter, lit it on fire and stomped it out after it burned for a few minutes. Then he picked it up and hung it up on his dressing room door and said, ‘That makes it.’ And I said, ‘Nothing could be more Scrooge.’ ”