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TV, Film Star James Franciscus Dies at 57

July 10, 1991|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Franciscus, the virile actor whose talents enabled him to portray characters ranging from flinty cops to affable teachers, died late Monday night.

Franciscus died of emphysema at Medical Center of North Hollywood, said his friend and publicist Phil Paladino.

Franciscus was 57 and had been a longtime smoker, Paladino added.

In addition to being one of television's best-known faces during the 1950s and '60s, Franciscus was a TV producer. His adaptations of such classic tales as "Jane Eyre," "Heidi," "David Copperfield" and "The Red Pony" featured some of the world's leading actors and were critical highlights of the 1970s. Filmed for television, many were also shown in theaters.

Franciscus' best-known television series were "Naked City" and "Mr. Novak." His chiseled features also landed him the part of John F. Kennedy in the 1981 TV movie "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy." Earlier he had portrayed a Kennedy type in "The Greek Tycoon," a film based on the life of Aristotle Onassis, who married Jacqueline Kennedy.

Franciscus attended prep schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut before going to Yale. After graduating from Yale, he wrote four plays, appeared in summer stock and--on the strength of that--was cast as a killer in the 1957 film "Four Boys and a Gun."

From that came his single-season role as Detective Jim Halloran in "Naked City," the 1958-63 series based on the seamy side of New York City. Accompanied by Billy May's powerful theme "Somewhere in the Night" and a narrator intoning "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. . . . This has been one of them," the series became a weekly favorite.

"Mr. Novak" (1963-65) was a dramatic turnabout for Franciscus, who left "Naked City" because he wanted to live in California.

After having played a street-smart cop, he appeared as English teacher John Novak, a sensitive academic, an idealistic role model and a teen-age heartthrob.

In the interim he had appeared in "The Investigators," a 1961 series about fraudulent insurance claims cases. He was to reprise his role as an investigator 10 years later in the series "Longstreet," in which he played Mike Longstreet, another insurance investigator who was blinded in an explosion that killed his wife.

Franciscus found that role trying physically because he had to keep his eyes unfocused for hours at a time, but satisfying because "this show is about a blind investigator but actually it's about a blind person who's trying to cope."

Franciscus also starred in the TV dramas "Doc Elliott" (1973-74) and "Hunter" (1977).

Franciscus also appeared in movies, including "The Outsiders," "Youngblood Hawke" and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes."

He was considered a cerebral actor who was protective of his craft and fought constantly with fan magazines over what he considered inconsequential interviews. He once earned a Sour Apple Award from the Hollywood Women's Press Club.

The Omnibus Production Co. he began with producer Fred Brogger was conceived as a way to bring the classics to television rather as a way to further Franciscus' own career. "We didn't want to saddle the company with me," Franciscus told The Times many years ago. "I mean, why get yourself stuck with Jim Franciscus when you could get Bob Redford?"

In 1960, Franciscus married Kitty Wellman, daughter of film director William Wellman. They and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Charlton Heston and Chad Everett promoted their favorite sport with celebrity tennis exhibitions throughout the country in the 1960s. Franciscus and Wellman later divorced.

He is survived by his second wife, Carla, four daughters from his first marriage, two granddaughters and a brother, Paladino said.

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