Tony Mockus, Chicago actor for seven decades, directed Goodman Theatre’s first ‘A Christmas Carol,’ dead at 91
Even if you never saw him on stage, you might know his face from movies. He played a fire chief in “Backdraft,” a judge in “The Untouchables” and a minister in “She’s Having a Baby.”
Tony Mockus, a Chicago actor for seven decades, helped start a holiday tradition that has entertained an estimated 2 million theater-goers, and this year will mark its 45th anniversary.
In 1978, he directed the first production of Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol.”
He also starred in countless plays, made TV appearances on shows including “21 Jump Street,” “Chicago Fire” and “Boss” and had movie roles as a fire chief in “Backdraft,” a gavel-pounding judge in “The Untouchables” and a marrying minister in “She’s Having a Baby.”
Mr. Mockus, 92, of Evanston, died April 1 of heart failure.
On stage, he conjured warmth and authority.
“His voice was both stentorian and protean,” said his friend Joseph A. Morris. “Stentorian in that he could command a room, and his voice would fill it. But it was also a protean voice — it could be soft, it could be hard. He was able to do all kinds of accents.”
He spoke only Lithuanian when he entered St. Anthony grade school in Cicero because his Lithuanian grandmother raised him while his mother worked, according to his wife Mary Lou Mockus. \
“He didn’t speak English,” his daughter Judy Hooper said, “yet he became a Shakespearean actor.”
While at St. Ignatius High School, he won a speech competition with a prize of a four-year scholarship to Fordham University in New York. But his mother needed him at home, so he was able to transfer the scholarship to Loyola University.
“It turned out to be a blessing,” his wife said.
In 1949, he landed a role in a Midwest theatrical touring company of “Mister Roberts,” working with Henry Fonda, John Forsythe and Jackie Cooper.
“He said, ‘I could never have had better training, watching those consummate actors,’” his wife said.
In 1952, he was gravely injured while clearing minefields in the Army during the Korean War.
“Tony noticed one mine was implanted in a dangerous place,” his wife said he told her. “He was in charge, and he could have sent another man. Instead, he went down the hill. He saw a pebble be dislodged and watched as it hit the trip wire, and the mine exploded.”
She said as a result of that, for the next two years, rather than acting in New York as he’d planned, “He was in Walter Reed hospital.”
His weight dropped from 225 pounds to just 128. Doctors thought they might need to amputate a leg. He refused general anesthesia, opting for a local painkiller so he could stay awake during surgery and make sure they saved the leg, according to his family.
After recovering, Mr. Mockus became a leading man in Chicago. He appeared in plays including “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Inherit the Wind” and “The Gigli Concert.”
He was a favorite of Cyd Charisse, Paulette Goddard, Cloris Leachman, Barbara Rush and Elke Sommer when they came to Chicago on the dinner theater circuit.
In 1969, he played the sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison alongside Tony Randall as neatnik Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple” at the Drury Lane Theatre.
“I’ve never heard laughter like that” his wife said of the response. “It was just glorious.”
When the Goodman decided to launch “A Christmas Carol,” Mr. Mockus “brought a strong and passionate vision to Charles Dickens’ beautiful work that, along with casting Bill Norris as Scrooge, established the production as an annual Chicago holiday tradition,” said Roche Schulfer, the theater’s chief executive officer.
He was “a staggeringly powerful presence on stage and in person yet warm and caring to all he directed and acted with,” said BJ Jones, Northlight Theatre’s artistic director.
His goal was “to reach out and touch another human being, soul to soul,” said his son, also named Tony. He said his father taught others “to do your best, to do it for the greater glory of God, to do it in the service of others, and do it beautifully.”
The son, who sometimes acted with his father, said watching movies with him was “a master class,” that he’d make comments like, “Look what Alec Guinness did.”
Tony and Mary Lou Mockus were married since 1958.
“The first thing Tony did in the morning was cut out the ‘Love Is’ [comic] and have it at my place for breakfast,” she said.
“It was a family filled with laughter,” their daughter said.
Mr. Mockus also is survived by five grandchildren.
Visitation is planned at noon Saturday with a 1 p.m. Saturday funeral Mass, both at St. John Cantius Church, 825 N. Carpenter St.
His wife said she treasures a 1991 note to Mr. Mockus from Hal Holbrook, who starred with him in “The Awakening Land.”
After re-watching the 1978 miniseries, Holbrook wrote: “I was moved to tears by your great speeches about the destruction of the wilderness by the white settlers. ... You’re a fine man. I’m proud to have known you.”