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OBITUARIES : Gar Campbell, 1943 - 2007

Director-actor was key figure in two troupes

December 22, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Gar Campbell, an actor and director who over the last 40 years was a linchpin of two of L.A.'s most respected small stage companies, Company Theater and the Pacific Resident Theatre, has died. He was 64.

Campbell died early Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a three-year battle with cancer, said Marilyn Fox, the Pacific Resident Theatre's artistic director and Campbell's companion of 27 years.

A lifelong Los Angeles resident who was born in 1943 and graduated from Dorsey High School, Campbell entered USC as a science and math student, planning to be an engineer. His plans changed, recalled Steve Kent, Company's first artistic director, after drama students dragged him into a show and he turned out to have a gift for acting.

Operating in what the Los Angeles Times characterized as a "dilapidated but charismatic" space on South Robertson Boulevard, Company Theater was founded in 1967 by a group of USC drama students and alumni including Campbell. It soon made a mark as a seminal venue for avant-garde plays, presenting such productions as Kurt Weill's antiwar musical, "Johnny Johnson," in which Campbell, who had never sung onstage before, played the lead.

"He was always an extraordinary actor," recalled Kent, now head of the theater program at the University of La Verne. "Onstage he had a big sense of life and was very funny. He was gifted, tall and handsome and had that matinee idol kind of thing. Everyone compared him to Tony Perkins."

Among the original works Company generated -- and Campbell performed -- was "The James Joyce Memorial Liquid Theater," an experimental "theater of touch" play that included gentle massages administered by the cast, meant to draw the audience in tenderly as participants. The ensemble took "Liquid Theater" to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, then trained a separate troupe of New York actors who performed the show in London and Paris.

Campbell also earned plaudits for such roles as a drug-addled rock star nearing the end of his commercial and creative rope in "Children of the Kingdom" (1970), a company-written original. The show was "as kinky and wild as we have come to expect" from Company, wrote Times critic Dan Sullivan. "One number turns into Campbell's stoned dream of being cut up -- literally -- by his public. It approaches first-level Fellini."

Company closed at the end of 1981. "They had their time, and it was halcyon," wrote The Times' Sylvie Drake. "For too long now, this patient has been moribund."

As an actor, Campbell played to bigger houses at the Mark Taper Forum in "Ice," by Michael Cristofer, and "Comedians," by Trevor Griffiths. He won a National Endowment for the Arts grant in the early 1980s to help him finish his musical, "Creatures," a fairy tale for adults stocked with cartoonish animal characters. But The Times said the show's 1984 premiere lacked the old Company magic: "The freshness of vision is replaced with a labored-after cuteness."

Campbell found a second home at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, where Fox had become a member within months of its founding in 1985, joining a nucleus of actors who had migrated from San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre.

In 1993, a Times reviewer praised Campbell as "the shadowy picture of sorrowful wisdom" playing the Old One in Jean Giraudoux's "Ondine," a show that earned his director, Fox, a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award. In 1998, Campbell and Fox, who had become artistic director in 1995, won Drama Critics Circle awards for their leading roles in Nagle Jackson's "The Quick-Change Room" as a Russian theater director and diva trying to cope with changes in the last days of the Soviet Union.

Though shaped by the anything-goes stage ethos of the '60s, Campbell regularly won plaudits for a subtle, understated touch as a director of dramas by 19th and early 20th century masters, including Chekhov, Ibsen and O'Neill.

His 1998 production of Chekhov's "Ivanov," with Fox as the title character's consumptive wife, was "a near-perfect staging" that paid "scrupulous homage to Chekhov's signature strengths," a Times reviewer said. "Amid the deepest tragedy, the staging shimmers with vitality and laughter."

A Monday night acting class that Campbell and Fox taught became a Pacific Resident Theatre staple for 20 years. Over the last four years he was also a visiting assistant professor in UCLA's theater department.

A memorial celebration is scheduled for Jan. 12 at noon at the Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 1/2 Venice Blvd. in Venice.

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