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Barnard Hughes, 90; Versatile Actor Won Tony, Emmy Awards

July 13, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Barnard Hughes, who won a Tony Award for his starring role on Broadway as the cantankerous Irish father in "Da" and starred in the television series "Doc," "Mr. Merlin" and "The Cavanaughs," has died. He was 90.

Hughes died Tuesday in a hospital in New York City after a brief illness, his family said.

In an acting career that began on stage in New York in 1934, Hughes amassed a long list of Broadway credits, including "A Majority of One," "Advise and Consent," "Nobody Loves an Albatross," the Richard Burton revival of "Hamlet," "How Now, Dow Jones," "Abelard and Heloise," "The Good Doctor," "Angels Fall" and "Prelude to a Kiss."

He received a Tony nomination for featured actor in 1973 for his performance as Dogberry in the New York Shakespeare Festival's revival of "Much Ado About Nothing."

On television, he starred in the short-lived situation comedies "Doc" (1975-76), "Mr. Merlin" (1981-82) and "The Cavanaughs" (1986-89), and he was a regular on the sitcom "Blossom" in the 1990s.

Hughes, who received an Emmy Award in 1978 for a guest appearance on "Lou Grant," began appearing on television in the 1950s in shows such as "Kraft Television Theatre" and "The U.S. Steel Hour."

He later had stints on the soap operas "The Guiding Light," "The Secret Storm" and "As the World Turns."

Among his film credits are "Midnight Cowboy," "The Hospital," "Where's Poppa?," "Oh, God!," "First Monday in October," "Tron," "Doc Hollywood," "Sister Act 2" and "Cradle Will Rock."

"He was a great actor and a lovely human being," Norman Lear, who cast Hughes as the town surgeon with a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit in his 1971 comedy "Cold Turkey" and as a Catholic priest in three episodes of "All in the Family," told The Times on Wednesday. "There are comics and then there are actors who can do comedy. That's a rare and glorious breed, and he epitomized that."

Hughes may have achieved his greatest fame playing the title role in "Da," Hugh Leonard's bittersweet play about a poor gardener who dies in his 80s but continues to haunt his foster son. Hughes reprised his role in the 1988 film version with Martin Sheen playing the son.

"It's one of these once-in-a-lifetime roles, so laced with whimsy that it has brought this veteran of 45 years in show business not only predictable accolades, but also something rare: star billing. It's a distinction seldom reserved for so-called character actors," The Times' Sylvie Drake wrote in 1980 before the arrival of a touring production of "Da" in Los Angeles.

"I love it," Hughes said with great relish of his star status in the play. "I like coming out last on the curtain call. I love standing alone and taking a bow. I'm sure there are times when I appear to be enjoying myself inordinately on that stage. If that's so, it's because it is so."

Hughes, an Irish American, was born July 16, 1915, in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Although he was interested in the theater while a student at Manhattan College, it took a friend's dare before he went on his first audition -- for the Shakespeare Fellowship Repertory Company.

"They gave me a job in 'Taming of the Shrew,' and I found myself an actor at 19," Hughes once said.

Of his early years in the theater, he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1987: "I didn't make a lot of money, but I worked all the time. I worked for writers who didn't make money, I worked for directors who didn't make money. There wasn't a basement in New York I didn't work in.

"It's wonderful to have success, it's wonderful to have billing, it's wonderful to have money, but it all comes down to work."

After serving in the Army during World War II, he met actress Helen Stenborg, whom he married in 1950.

They worked together on stage innumerable times, including acting in a stock company that split its time between Highland Park, Ill., and Palm Springs in the early 1950s.

"We did everything during those years -- Shaw, Shakespeare, Chekhov, O'Neill, Wilde," he said in the 1980 interview. "That's where I developed as an actor."

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, Doug and Laura; and a grandson.

The funeral service will be private; a memorial service is pending.

Instead of flowers, contributions may be made to the Actors' Fund.

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