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Obituaries

Bill McCutcheon, 77; Comedic Actor

January 12, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill McCutcheon, a Tony Award-winning comedic character actor who played the grandfatherly Uncle Wally for eight years on "Sesame Street," has died. He was 77.

McCutcheon, who lived in Mahwah, N.J., died Wednesday of natural causes at a hospital in Ridgewood, N.J.

In his nearly 40-year acting career, McCutcheon appeared in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway shows, regional theater productions, television programs, commercials and movies, including "Steel Magnolias," in which he played Shirley MacLaine's husband. He even played Leo the Leprechaun on "Howdy Doody.'

His forte was comedy.

He won an Obie Award in 1985 for his comedic portrayal of a stroke victim in Christopher Durang's "Marriage of Bette and Boo" at the Public Theater in New York. He also won the Tony for his role as a comic gangster on the lam in a 1988 revival of "Anything Goes" at Lincoln Center.

He also earned three daytime Emmys for contributing to the Emmy Award-winning "Sesame Street" program on PBS, on which he played the bow tie- and cardigan-wearing Uncle Wally from 1984 to 1992, the year he retired.

"Uncle Wally was a fun-loving, down-to-earth, endearing older gentleman," said Danette DeSena, "Sesame Street" talent producer. "That's really how Bill was in real life.'

"He was the sweetest man in the world and the funniest man I ever worked with in a sketch," said Dom DeLuise, a longtime friend, who cast McCutcheon as a regular on his 1968 comedy-variety show. "He was the best of the best.'

McCutcheon's impish face-and what he did with it-played a significant role in his success as a comedic actor.

In the revival of Cole Porter's Depression-era "Anything Goes," he played Moonface Martin, Public Enemy No. 13, a gangster disguised as a parson on a trans-Atlantic luxury liner.

"To say he has a moon face," New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote, "is to do the performer's priceless mug a disservice. His is a moon face that might have been carved out of pink, quivering Jell-O, with a bite taken out where the chin should be. Throw in a slow-burn comic delivery that harks back to the vanished traditions of burlesque-not even a dog's invasion of his trousers can excite Mr. McCutcheon-and you have to wonder if even the fabled Victor Moore got more laughs in the role.'

Born in Russell, Ky., McCutcheon formed a comedic Spike Jones-inspired jazz band in high school. After serving in World War II, during which he was wounded in Italy, he studied acting at Ohio University and started a dance band.

Moving to New York after graduating in 1948, he formed a jazz comedy trio that played Catskill resorts and Manhattan jazz clubs. But his interest was in acting, and he worked a variety of jobs to help make ends meet between roles.

While working as an usher at CBS in 1954, McCutcheon was asked to appear on Edward R. Murrow's live "Person to Person" program, in which the renowned journalist interviewed celebrities in their homes while he sat in a comfortable chair in the CBS studios.

In a unique program twist, Murrow interviewed McCutcheon and his wife, Anne, in their humble Greenwich Village apartment-to contrast the life of a struggling unknown with the enormously successful Arthur Godfrey.

"Anne and I lived in one room. Godfrey had a palatial mansion in Virginia," McCutcheon recalled in a 1988 interview. "When Murrow visited us, I said, 'This is our library,' while pointing to the bookcase, and 'This is our guest room,' while pointing to our cot.'

McCutcheon's unlikely appearance on the popular show was a turning point in his career, generating interest from agents and landing him roles in live productions on "Studio One" and "Armstrong Circle Theatre.'

In addition to his wife, McCutcheon is survived by a son, Jay, of Baltimore; two daughters; Carol Crevani of Mahwah and Kenna Colley of Blacksburg, Va.; and five grandchildren.

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