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Vincent Gardenia; Actor Won Tony, Emmy Awards

December 10, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vincent Gardenia, the burly yet sentimental Tony and Emmy award-winning actor who portrayed a series of poignant father figures, particularly Cher's paunchy papa in "Moonstruck," was found dead in his Philadelphia hotel room Wednesday.

"His body was found in the kitchen (at the Benjamin Franklin House). There was nothing suspicious. It was suspected as a heart attack," police spokeswoman Dotty Kearsey told Reuters news service.

Police said he was 71 but theatrical anthologies indicate he was born Vincent Scognamiglio in Naples, Italy, on Jan. 7, 1922, which would make him 70. An autopsy has been scheduled.

The longtime Broadway and film character actor was touring in the play "Breaking Legs." It had opened in Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

Gardenia had earned Oscar nominations for two disparate roles: First as minor league baseball manager Dutch Schnell, forced by circumstances to deal with the impending death from Hodgkin's disease of Robert De Niro's character in "Bang the Drum Slowly" in 1973; then he was the unfaithful patriarch Cosmo Castorini in the 1987 film "Moonstruck."

He won a Tony for his performance in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" in 1972 and an Emmy in HBO's "Age Old Friends" in 1989.

In the TV film, he and Hume Cronyn portray two affluent retirees who fight boredom, mental decay and a creeping fear of death in one of the most praised joint performances of the season. It is not the death of their bodies that fills them with terror, they conclude after many lengthy conversations, but the demise of their minds.

CBS rebroadcast it in June, marking it one of the first if not the first time that a major network had run a picture produced by a television rival.

Gardenia, who estimated that he played 500 roles in a career that began when he was 5, most recently had appeared as Roxanne's father on "L.A. Law" and as Joe Pesci's father in "The Super."

"If it were up to me, I'd work 52 weeks a year," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week.

His acting career began with the "Gennaro Gardenia Company"--with plays written by his father and a friend.

"I was a child actor. My father was an actor. We made our living with theater all our lives," he told Associated Press last month. "We were always living on the brink of disaster. We never knew what our next job would be." In the Italian-language productions, Gardenia often played a child who had gone astray.

He served in the Army during World War II and when the family theater closed afterward landed his first English-speaking role in a summer stock production of "Burlesque."

He was 34 years old when he made his off-Broadway debut in "The Man With the Golden Arm" and two years later appeared on Broadway with the Lunts as the blind man in "The Visit."

"I thought, if I'm not successful with this--and by that I mean if I can't make a living in a couple of years--I'll have to quit and do something else," he said, looking back on the struggles of his early stage years.

Instead, he went on to star in countless plays, movies and TV shows, including "A Streetcar Named Desire," Neil Simon's "God's Favorite," "California Suite" and "Ballroom," for which he received a Tony nomination; the movies "The Hustler," "The Front Page," "Heaven Can Wait" and the musical version of "Little Shop of Horrors."

He won Obie Awards for his roles in the experimental plays "Machinal" and "Passing Through From Exotic Places."

He also appeared in 10 episodes of the television series "All in the Family" as Archie Bunker's neighbor Frank Lorenzo.

There was no immediate word on his survivors.

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