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John Fiedler, 80; Character Actor Best Known for Distinctive Voice

June 28, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

John Fiedler, a veteran character actor best known for playing Mr. Peterson, the henpecked therapy patient on "The Bob Newhart Show," and the longtime voice of Piglet in Walt Disney's animated "Winnie the Pooh" stories, has died. He was 80.

Fiedler, a Brooklyn resident, died of cancer Saturday at the Lillian Booth Actor's Fund Home in Englewood, N.J., where he had been a patient since November, said his brother, James.

As an actor whose 50-year-plus career spanned the stage, screen and television, Fiedler had a face made familiar by his many roles. He played meek, mild-mannered characters -- mousy men who occasionally harbored a mean streak.

But it was his breathy soprano that was the most memorable aspect of the short, balding, often-bespectacled actor.

Fiedler's distinctive voice was once described as "the sound of an old child, tentative yet seasoned, breathless yet weary."

"People will come up and say, 'Gosh, I thought it was you,' " Fiedler once told The Times. " 'Then I heard your voice, and I knew.' Nine times out of 10, they don't know the name."

As an actor who played Medvedenko in a 1954 off-Broadway production of "The Sea-gull," starring Montgomery Clift and Judith Evelyn, Fiedler knew early on that he would be a character actor.

"With my voice and my looks, I got the milquetoast, nerd parts," he told the Hartford Courant in 1996.

He played Juror No. 2, the unassuming bank clerk, in director Sidney Lumet's classic 1957 film of the Reginald Rose courtroom drama "12 Angry Men," starring Henry Fonda.

He played Vinnie, one of the poker-playing buddies in the original Broadway production and the movie version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple."

On Broadway, he also played the only non-African American character in Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun," starring Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil.

Fiedler virtually owned the role of the gentleman from the neighborhood "improvement association" who offers to give the black family a large sum of money if they don't move into his middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood: He also played the part in the 1961 film version, the 1986 off-Broadway revival, the 1986 Kennedy Center production in Washington, D.C., the 1987 touring company production and the 1989 "American Playhouse" production on PBS.

Over the years, Fiedler appeared in numerous films, including "Kiss Me, Stupid," "That Touch of Mink," "The World of Henry Orient" and "True Grit," and had roles in scores of television shows such as "Gunsmoke," "Bewitched," "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek."

He made 17 appearances as the likably ineffectual Mr. Peterson on "The Bob Newhart Show" in the 1970s. And in the '80s, he played Woody, the mousy stage manager in "Buffalo Bill," the short-lived sitcom about an arrogant talk show host starring Dabney Coleman.

The son of an Irish-German beer salesman, Fiedler was born in Platteville, Wis., in 1925. His family moved to Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee, when he was 5, and he nurtured his dream of becoming an actor by staging productions in the family garage with other children in the neighborhood.

After graduating from high school in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. He served stateside during World War II, then moved to New York City, where he studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. In the early 1950s, Fiedler had a stint playing Homer on NBC Radio's "The Aldrich Family."

His distinctive voice was a natural for animated films.

On Monday, James Fiedler recalled his brother telling him that in the 1960s, when Walt Disney was casting voices for the 1968 theatrical short "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," Disney heard Fiedler's voice and said, "That's Piglet."

Over the next four decades, Fiedler supplied the voice of Piglet repeatedly in features, shorts, TV series, specials and videos. His most recent credit as the character is "Pooh's Heffalump Movie," a feature film released this year.

"He was a very, very sweet man, and when you're that nice of a guy, it's easy to play Piglet," Jim Cummings, a longtime voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, told The Times on Monday.

Cummings said Fiedler's kindness extended to his vocal delivery for the character: "It was kind of like the wind blowing through tall grass. It sounded homey, and it sounded comforting."

Over the years, Fiedler also provided voices for characters in "The Rescuers," "Robin Hood" and "The Fox and the Hound."

Of all the characters he played on stage, screen or television, Fiedler told the Hartford Courant, "there are elements of Piglet that are me: the shyness and the anxieties and fears. Even after all these years. The more you know, the higher your standards are and the more you have to lose."

In addition to his brother, of Madison, Wis., Fiedler is survived by his sister, Mary Dean, of Milwaukee.

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