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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

An actor’s character actor (1911-2003)

That old superstition about famous people’s deaths occurring in threes just won’t die. In the space of one week, we had veteran newsman David Brinkley, followed by the actors Gregory Peck and Hume Cronyn.

Canadian-born Cronyn was not exactly the screen legend that Peck was, but in many ways he had the more impressive career. He was an actor in the most serious sense of the word and had a long and distinguished career on the stage. His work on Broadway and other theaters would be enough to make him notable, but his film career was also prolific and accomplished. He was never the leading man, as Peck was. Still, he and his wife Jessica Tandy had jointly flourishing movie careers in the 1980s. The peak of their commercial success was probably Ron Howard’s Cocoon, in which Cronyn and Tandy were part of an ensemble cast of distinguished oldsters (the others were Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Jack Gilford, Maureen Stapleton, Gwen Verdon and Herta Ware) who discover eternal youth in a Spielberg-like sci-fi fantasy. They did similar turns in Cocoon’s sequel and in *batteries not included.

But if audiences mainly remember them for those roles, they should know that they were only the tip of the iceberg for Cronyn, whose film career spanned from 1943 (working with Alfred Hitchcock) to 2000. Classics in which he performed included Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Ziegfeld Follies, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sunrise at Campobello, Cleopatra (with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), and The Parallax view. To this day, one of the few scenes I recall from Alan Pakula’s 1981 high-finance thriller Rollover is the scene where Cronyn, as a cunning banker, blows his brains out.

In his later years, Cronyn made appearances in everything from Honky Tonk Freeway to The World According to Garp to Brewster’s Millions to The Pelican Brief—making him, if nothing else, a major aid to people playing “six degress of Kevin Bacon.”

Cronyn and Tandy were also fixtures on the small screen. They starred in a series on NBC in the 1950s called The Marriage. But more memorable were their numerous stage successes that they brought to television. These included The Moon and Sixpence, A Doll’s House, Juno and the Paycock, and The Gin Game. Of these, the one I will remember most sentimentally is the Hallmark presentation of Foxfire, which was screened around Christmastime in 1987. Hallmark TV movies tend to be like Hallmark cards: shamelessly sentimental but you can’t help but get a lump in your throat anyway. Foxfire, adapted by Susan Cooper from the play she created with Cronyn and directed by Jud Taylor, fit this mode perfectly. But the lumps in the throat were totally earned by this simple story of an old woman in the Appalachians confronting widowhood and old age. The potentially maudlin material soared thanks to an amazing performance by Tandy, who never seemed to be bound by age or gravity. Cronyn played the ghost of her husband, and even John Denver was just right as their son. For those of us who never got to see Cronyn and Tandy on the stage, this gave us a record of the magic they could work together. Cronyn, Tandy and Cooper performed a similar trick in 1993’s To Dance with the White Dog, this time with Cronyn as the widowed spouse, but it wasn’t quite as effective as Foxfire’s simplicity and beauty.

Perhaps Cronyn’s greatest feat as an actor was being married to another actor for 52 years. This feat is even more impressive when you consider that Tandy was not his first wife. Nor was she his last.

When one thinks of all the roles created by Hume Cronyn that dealt with old age, death and dying, it seems that few individuals would have been better equipped to enter immortality than he. Certainly, his body of work will have no trouble surviving his physical demise. Good night, sir.

-S.L., 19 June 2003

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