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OBITUARIES : Nathan Davis, 1917 - 2008

Stage and screen actor got his big break late in life

October 18, 2008|From the Chicago Tribune

Nathan Davis did not become a full-time actor until, nearing 60, he was fired from his job as a pharmaceutical sales representative in 1976.

Over the next 30 years, Davis racked up an impressive list of theater, TV and movie credits, winning plaudits for nailing roles that ranged from kindly grandfathers to wily gangsters.

Davis, 91, died Wednesday at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said his son Andrew, a film director whose credits include "The Fugitive." He suffered from ailments including emphysema and Parkinson's disease.

During his career, Davis worked with Studs Terkel in 1930s stage plays and Shia LaBeouf in the 2003 film "Holes," directed by his son. He played Grandpa in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago, London, La Jolla and Broadway productions of "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1990. And he played the supporting role of Gaston in Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" in 1994 at the Westwood Playhouse and at Steppenwolf in Chicago.

In addition to "Holes," Andrew Davis cast his father in movies including "Stony Island" (1978) and "Code of Silence" (1985). The elder Davis also was in director Michael Mann's "Thief" in 1981 and made frequent TV appearances on shows including "Cheers" and "Frasier."

Born May 22, 1917, the son of a Romanian immigrant tailor, Davis grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a year and a half. Back home, he acted with the Depression-era Federal Theater Project and the Chicago Repertory Theater. During World War II, he was a supply sergeant in Europe.

Radio soap operas were a viable source of work for Chicago actors in the years after the war. But as that dried up, Davis took a job in wholesale pharmaceuticals. He wasn't particularly fond of the work, often comparing himself to Arthur Miller's hapless Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," his son said.

He had occasionally acted in community theater, but when he was fired from the sales job in 1976 he turned his attention to his first love.

The timing was propitious, as Chicago's theater scene was taking off, and before long he was mixing it up with young actors including John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and William Peterson.

In addition to his son Andrew, Davis is survived by his wife of 67 years, Metta, whom he met at an acting class; son Richard; daughter Jo Ellen Davis Friedman; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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