LOS ANGELES — Bill Macy, the character actor whose hangdog expression was a perfect match for his role as the long-suffering foil to Bea Arthur’s unyielding feminist on the daring 1970s sitcom “Maude,” has died. He was 97.
Macy died Thursday night in Los Angeles, his friend Matt Beckoff said Friday. Further details weren’t immediately available from Beckoff or Macy’s wife, Samantha Harper Macy.
The stint as Walter Findlay on the CBS sitcom that aired from 1972-78 was Macy’s highest-profile in a long stage, film and TV career. He made dozens of guest appearances in series including “Seinfeld,” ‘’How I Met Your Mother” and “ER.”
“Maude” was a spinoff to the landmark sitcom “All in the Family” from producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. Staunch liberal Maude’s sharp exchanges with conservative Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) were so entertaining that Lear fashioned a series around her.
“He was a rare and great comic actor,” Lear said in a statement Friday to The Associated Press. “There was only one Bill Macy.”
In a 1998 interview for the TV academy foundation’s archive, Lear recalled casting Macy as Maude Findlay’s husband based on his work in an off-Broadway play. In it, his character had a prolonged scene of choking to death on a chicken bone.
It was an unforgettable “tour de force” performance, Lear said.
Macy was born Wolf Garber on May 18, 1922, to Michael and Mollie Garber in Revere, Massachusetts. He had a long career in the theater and film before “Maude,” including as an original cast member of the 1969-72 New York stage sensation “Oh! Calcutta!” that featured fully nude actors. He was in the 1972 movie version of the musical about sexual mores.
Among Macy’s other movie credits are 2006’s “The Holiday”; 1999’s “Analyze This”; the 1979 Steve Martin comedy “The Jerk,” and 1982’s “My Favorite Year” starring Peter O’Toole, an affectionate behind-the-scenes look at a 1950s TV variety series.
Macy, as head comedy writer for temperamental star King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna), used his gifts to great effect.
Among them: his distinctively puffy-eyed, beset-upon expression of suffering, and an ability to slide deftly into explosive frustration.
“Maude” also gave Macy the chance to turn serious. In one story line he descended into alcoholism and struck Maude; in another he offered tender support in a provocative episode when she decided to end an unexpected, late-in-life pregnancy.
In real life, strangers would call him “Mr. Maude” and, presuming that he and Walter really were the same people, console him for having such a difficult wife.
“I used to tell them that people like that really existed,” Macy once explained.