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Stephen Elliott, 86; Veteran Stage, Film and TV Actor Known for Role in 'Arthur'

May 24, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Elliott, a veteran character actor best known as the bullying millionaire father in the film "Arthur," died of congestive heart failure Saturday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, his family said. He was 86.

Most of Elliott's success in films came after he reached the half-century mark, often playing authority figures in such movies as "The Hospital" (1971), "Death Wish" (1974) and "The Hindenburg (1975). His portrayal of Burt Johnson, Dudley Moore's nemesis in "Arthur," was praised by the New York Times as one of the 1981 film's many "standout" performances.

"Even to smaller parts, he could bring a dignity and truthfulness to a role that I thought was very, very special," said Walter Seltzer, a producer and longtime friend who lived near the actor in Sherman Oaks.

He was born Elliott Pershing Stitzel in 1918 in New York City. His mother, a victim of that year's great flu epidemic, died soon after he was born. He was raised in Manhattan by his father, who worked in the textile business, and a stepmother.

Elliott studied with noted acting instructor Sanford Meisner from 1940 to 1942 at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, before serving in the merchant marine during World War II. After returning, he made his Broadway debut in 1945 in "The Tempest."

"He often said to me that he viewed himself as a born actor," said his stepson David Hirson of Manhattan. "He was most comfortable when he was on stage."

He was always proudest of his stage work, including playing Dr. Thomas Stockmann in the 1971 Lincoln Center production of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," Hirson said. Elliott received a Drama Desk Award for his role in 1969's "A Whistle in the Dark," and he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Monsieur Coulmier in the 1967 Broadway revival of "Marat/Sade."

His small-screen career began in 1949 in "Hands of Murder," a series of live plays on the DuMont Television Network.

Over the years, he would appear in dozens of comedies and dramas, starring as patriarch Benjamin Lassiter on the short-lived 1975 CBS prime-time soap "Beacon Hill" and playing matriarch Jane Wyman's ex-husband on "Falcon Crest," also on CBS, from 1981 to 1982. His final TV role was in 1999 as Judge Harold Aldrich, a recurring character that appeared over a five-year span on CBS' "Chicago Hope."

In 1947, Elliott married Nancy Chase, a summer stock actress with whom he had two children. The couple divorced in 1960. He met his second wife, Alice Hirson, when they appeared in "Traveller Without Luggage" in 1964 on Broadway. They married in 1980 and lived in Sherman Oaks for 27 years. Hirson is best known for playing Ellen DeGeneres' mother on ABC's "Ellen," which ran from 1994 to 1998.

Although Elliott was "very serious" about his career, he displayed a whimsical side when it came to the holidays, Seltzer said. "He installed Christmas lights every year and turned his home into a fairyland."

In addition to his wife and stepson, Elliott is survived by a daughter, Jency, of Woodstock, N.Y.; a son, Jon, of Manhattan; another stepson, Christopher Hirson of Berlin; and three grandchildren.

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