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Robert Symonds, 80; actor helped bring quality theater to the West

August 25, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Robert Barry Symonds, an actor who was a pivotal member of San Francisco's Actor's Workshop, one of the country's first regional theaters that helped quality drama migrate west in the 1950s from New York, has died. He was 80.

Symonds, whose career encompassed Broadway as well as film and television, died Thursday of complications from prostate cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his family announced.

Locally, The Times reported in 1997, he had "wowed" audiences at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood as the cranky cancer patient in "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" in 1995 and also made an impression in "Fighting Over Beverley" with his longtime acting partner and wife, Priscilla Pointer.

The couple began acting together in their 20s at the Actor's Workshop, which was known for its interpretation of avant-garde works. Among its noted productions was "Waiting for Godot," in which Symonds portrayed Estragon.

"It was an exciting period because of the kind of theater that suddenly was able to be done," Pointer said in the 1997 Times article. "There was a wave of Pinter and Beckett and things that nobody had seen the likes of before."

The workshop had been co-founded by Jules Irving, Pointer's first husband. When Irving left to head the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater in 1965, Symonds joined him in New York and served as the company's associate director until 1972.

During that time, Symonds also appeared in more than 20 plays and was the title character in "The Miser." Symonds was "completely masterful," The Times said in 1969 of his Lincoln Center performance.

After Irving died in 1979, Symonds was separated from his first wife and uniting offstage with Pointer "just seemed like a natural thing to do," he said in 1997. They married in 1981.

Their six children -- they each had three -- already felt like they were family, said actress Amy Irving, his stepdaughter.

"We watched them be a couple on stage for so long," she told The Times on Friday. "I grew up watching my dad directing Mom and Bob in the leads of plays, and the three of them were best friends. That was where I began to develop my passion for acting and learn how to do it."

Symonds' film credits spanned 30 years and included "The Exorcist" (1973) and "And Justice for All" (1979). He and his wife appeared together in "Micki & Maude" (1984).

Among his favorite television roles were parts in two miniseries -- he played Benjamin Franklin in "The Adams Chronicles" (1976) and Gen. Robert E. Lee in "The Blue and the Gray" (1982). He also had a recurring role as Dr. Jonas Edwards on "Dynasty" from 1982 to 1987.

Symonds was born Dec. 1, 1926, in Bristow, Okla., to Walter Symonds, a Christian Science lecturer, and the former Nellie Barry.

During World War II, Symonds served in the Army in Seattle and appeared in local theater productions.

He studied acting at the University of Texas at Austin and often performed in resident theaters in Western cities, including San Diego. A Shakespeare performance in Ashland, Ore., led to an invitation to join the Actor's Workshop.

Since 1982, Symonds and his wife spent part of every year in Paris, where they regularly performed plays in English with the Dear Conjunction company.

In addition to his wife and stepdaughter, Symonds is survived by his children, Vicki Morrison, Barry Symonds and Rebecca Wooldridge; two other stepchildren, David and Katie Irving; six granddaughters; and five step-grandchildren.

A memorial service for Symonds is being planned.


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