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Hume Cronyn, 91; Durable Actor in One of the Famed Partnerships of Stage, Film

June 17, 2003|From a Times Staff Writer

Hume Cronyn, the short, wiry actor with a drive for perfectionism who over a seven-decade career turned out memorable stage and screen portrayals of ordinary, often cantankerous characters, died of prostate cancer Sunday at his home in Fairfield, Conn. He was 91.

Also a noted writer and director, he was perhaps most beloved as half of what had been an extraordinary acting team: His frequent collaborator in the theater and movies was Jessica Tandy, his wife of 52 years, who died in 1994.

Among their most celebrated joint appearances were their roles in plays such as "The Fourposter" (1951) and "The Gin Game" (1977) and in the movies "Foxfire" (1987) and "Cocoon" (1985).

Cronyn and Tandy were named to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1979. Their other awards include a National Medal of the Arts in 1990, and in 1994, the first Special Lifetime Achievement Award presented at the Tony Awards.

Neither, however, ever seemed ready to retire and rest on their glories. "Perhaps the Cronyns are the last true theater professionals," Mike Nichols, who directed them on Broadway in "The Gin Game," told Time magazine in 1990.

Remarkably, Cronyn and Tandy's careers seemed to grow rather than diminish as they approached their 80s. Cronyn was still being hired for leading roles in 1989, when he starred in the television drama "Age Old Friends." Tandy won an Academy Award for "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1990. Cronyn's autobiography, "A Terrible Liar," appeared in 1991.

But Cronyn also had a distinguished career on his own. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 1944 film "The Seventh Cross" and received a Tony for his role as Polonius in the 1964 production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," directed by John Gielgud. He also won three Emmys.

He became an actor in spite of the expectations of his privileged, moneyed family.

He was born in London, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a financier and member of the Canadian House of Commons and his mother belonged to the Labatt brewing family. "Junior," as they called him, was groomed to follow in his father's steps.

As the youngest by 13 years of five children, he remembered a lonely childhood made lonelier by his scrawniness. When he was 10, he put on his own production of "The Green Goddess," playing the George Arliss part, and knew that he wanted to act. His parents, both avid theatergoers, took him to see plays in London, England, when he was 15, an experience that further fed the fire in him.

In 1930, he enrolled in McGill University to study law. But he left school before his freshman finals to work in a stock company in Washington. He ran out of money and had to return to school the next year. His mother promised him that if he still wanted to be an actor at the end of the year, she would help him enroll in the best acting school possible.

In the midst of the Depression, in 1932, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He made his Broadway debut two years later, playing a janitor in the comedy "Hipper's Holiday," which ran for all of four performances in 1934.

More than two dozen stage roles followed in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and summer stock or repertory theaters, before he acted in his first film. In 1942, Alfred Hitchcock happened to see a screen test Cronyn had done for Paramount and cast him in "Shadow of a Doubt." His success portraying Herbie Hawkins, an avid reader of detective stories, put him in demand as a character actor.

He had ended a brief, disastrous first marriage when he met Tandy in 1940. She was appearing on Broadway in the A.J. Cronin play "Jupiter Laughs" when a fellow cast member and mutual friend introduced her to Cronyn. After the show, the British actress went to dinner with Cronyn and the friend, during which Cronyn entertained her with what he thought were "some mildly amusing observations on the nature of English manners, and their quite contradictory idiosyncrasies." He learned what she thought of his views when she suddenly said, "You are a fool," in a tone that suggested she had thought so for some time.

Despite their infelicitous first meeting, she agreed to see him again. She soon ended her 10-year marriage to actor Jack Hawkins, with whom she had a child, Susan, and in 1942 married Cronyn.

He and Tandy moved to Hollywood and had a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Tandy. He is also survived by Jessica Tandy's daughter, and by his third wife, Susan Cooper, a frequent collaborator, whom he married in 1996. Survivors also include eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Cronyn went on to major and minor roles in films over the next 10 years, including "Phantom of the Opera" (1943), "The Seventh Cross" (1944), "Lifeboat" (1944) and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946). In "The Green Years" (1946), he played his wife's father.

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