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Keene Curtis, 79; Stage Actor Famed for Role in 'Cheers'

October 17, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Keene Curtis, a veteran Broadway, television and film actor who won a Tony Award for his role in "The Rothschilds," played Daddy Warbucks in "Annie" on Broadway and was the snippy upstairs restaurant owner on "Cheers," has died. He was 79.

Curtis died Sunday from complications of Alzheimer's disease at a retirement center in Bountiful, Utah.

Curtis won his Tony Award in 1971 as best featured actor in a musical for playing four diverse characters, each with a different accent, in "The Rothschilds."

He won a Drama-Logue Award as Daddy Warbucks in "Annie," which he played on Broadway, in San Francisco and in Los Angeles. He also co-starred in the national company of "La Cage aux Folles" for two years.

On Broadway, Curtis also appeared in "A Patriot for Me," "Division Street," "Night Watch" and "Via Galactica."

A charter member of the Assn. of Producing Artists in 1960, he was associated with the APA-Phoenix Repertory Company for nine years. He appeared frequently on Los Angeles stages, including in "Saint Joan," "Ring Around the Moon" and "Black Comedy" at the Ahmanson Theater; "Comedians," "Twelfth Night, "Chekhov in Yalta" and "Division Street" at the Mark Taper Forum; and "The Cocktail Hour" at the Doolittle Theater in Hollywood.

In addition to playing the prickly restaurant owner John Allen Hill on "Cheers," his numerous television credits include appearances on "MASH," "Touched by an Angel, "Caroline in the City" and "E.R."

He appeared in a number of movies, including "Heaven Can Wait," "American Hot Wax" and "Richie Rich's Christmas Wish."

Born in Salt Lake City in 1923, Curtis grew up in Bountiful in a family that loved theater. His railroad-man father built his 2-year-old son a miniature stage out of an old chiffonier, using a towel for a curtain. Curtis later made his own little theater out of cardboard boxes and put on shows for the neighborhood kids.

He received bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Utah, where he was a student actor and cheerleader.

He had returned to college after spending three years in the Navy, and was discovered by Orson Welles in 1947, when Welles directed a production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at Kingsbury Hall on campus. Welles cast Curtis in the role of Lennox in his 1948 version of the play, which launched Curtis' career.

Curtis spent 12 years as a stage manager, beginning in 1949 as an assistant stage manager on a tour of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and later for Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintock.

In 1998, Curtis endowed a scholarship at the University of Utah to help graduates of the school's Actor Training Program launch their careers. He also donated to the university his Tony Award and 48 boxes of theater memorabilia and personal papers, including a 1961 letter from Noel Coward, who praised Curtis' "firmness, patience, efficiency and most of all your ability to handle people with tact and imagination."

Curtis is survived by his sister-in-law, nieces and nephews.

Donations may be made to the Keene H. Curtis Charitable Foundation, which supports scholarships at the University of Utah theater department and other charitable causes. The contact is Joal Curtis, 4720 N. Porsche Way, Boise, ID 83713.

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