Martin Gabel, sometimes a sinister figure in films, often a guest panelist with his wife, Arlene Francis, on television's old "What's My Line" and an original member of the legendary Mercury Theater stage and radio company, died Thursday.
The Tony-award winning character actor and director was stricken with an apparent heart attack in his Park Avenue apartment and pronounced dead late Thursday at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. He was 73, and his wife was with him when he died.
John Houseman, the actor and director who with Orson Welles formed the Mercury Theater group in the early 1930s, said Gabel had been suffering from cancer for some time and had been paralyzed.
"In the sense that he could no longer be the wonderful actor and vibrant man he once was, his death is a blessing," Houseman said.
Gabel, the son of a jeweler, first went on stage in Chicago in 1933 and made his Broadway debut two years later in "Dead End." The New York Herald Tribune said he gave one of Broadway's top 10 performances of the year as Hunk in the classic tale of a sister trying to keep her kid brother inside the law.
He also had starred in the Mercury production of "Danton's Death" in 1934 where he first met Francis. They married 12 years later and had a son, Peter.
With Welles as director and often lead actor and Houseman as financier and production specialist, Gabel and such other fabled performers as Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead and George Coulouris became the nucleus of the Mercury players. They staged both traditional and modern-dress productions of "Julius Caesar" and "Les Miserables," as well as George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House" and other contemporary dramas.
And when Broadway audiences cheered their avant-garde approach to the theater, CBS radio beckoned with an even larger prospective audience.
Gabel was busy elsewhere when Mercury's "War of the Worlds" frightened the nation in 1938, but he was on hand for most of the other Welles-Houseman offerings: "Treasure Island," "Abraham Lincoln," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Jane Eyre," "Sherlock Holmes" and "Around the World in 80 Days."
Gabel was also heard on such other radio network classics as "Big Sister," "The Casebook of Gregory Hood," the wartime specials of "Norman Corwin" and "The March of Time" documentary series.
In 1951 he returned to the Broadway stage as Earl of Kent with Louis Calhern as "King Lear" and in 1961 won a Tony for best-supporting actor in "Big Fish, Little Fish."
He also was in "The Hidden River" and "Once More With Feeling," both of which he produced, and "Baker Street" on Broadway.
His films as actor, producer or director included "The Lost Moment," "M," "Tip on a Dead Jockey," "Divorce American Style," "The First Deadly Sin" and "The Front Page."
Despite all those successes, he felt he always lived in the shadow of his better-known wife, a stalwart on the "What's My Line" TV game show that ran from 1950 to 1967.
"In Who's Who, you'll find me in the Fs--married to Arlene Francis," he once said.