Thursday, December 10, 2009

RIP Gene Barry

'Bat Masterson' star played the dapper hero

By Becky Krystal
Friday, December 11, 2009

Gene Barry, 90, a debonair leading man who was best known as the sharply dressed lawmen of the TV series "Bat Masterson" and "Burke's Law" and then earned a Tony Award nomination as a gay nightclub owner raising a son in "La Cage aux Folles," died Dec. 9 at an assisted living home in Woodland Hills, Calif. His family said they did not yet know the cause of death.

After an early stage career that included acting opposite Mae West in a Broadway comedy, Mr. Barry went to Hollywood and starred in a series of films that included the 1953 alien-invasion movie "The War of the Worlds." But it was on television that he thrived over the next 20 years, usually specializing in affable and urbane characters.

He had a recurring role as a physical education teacher who romances Eve Arden on CBS's "Our Miss Brooks" before earning top billing on "Bat Masterson" for NBC in 1958

At first weary of what he thought was the tiresome Western genre, Mr. Barry embraced the role of Masterson, based on a real-life figure from the Old West, because of its biggest twist: The character dressed as a dandy, sporting a brocade vest and carrying a gold-tipped cane. The show ran until 1961.

Mr. Barry's affinity for playing the dapper hero extended to two other TV shows: "Burke's Law," in which he played a millionaire police official in Los Angeles who would be chauffeured to homicide scenes in a Rolls Royce, and "The Name of the Game," in which he portrayed a millionaire magazine publisher.

"Burke's Law" was producer Aaron Spelling's first hit, with the title character's opulent lifestyle a hint at what would come in Spelling's later series. "Burke's Law," later renamed "Amos Burke, Secret Agent," aired on ABC from 1963 to 1966 and resurfaced as a short-lived revival on CBS in 1994 with Mr. Barry.

"The Name of the Game" aired on NBC from 1968 to 1971, with the story line of Mr. Barry's character, a publishing mogul, rotating with those of journalists played by Robert Stack and Anthony Franciosa.

Mr. Barry said he became wary of being typecast. "Each time, they'd want to see me dressed up -- with the girls, the style, the power," he told The Washington Post in 1982. "Each time I'd say to my agent, 'Can't you get me a part of a vulnerable human being?' I was operating on 20 percent of the spectrum."

A longtime cabaret and touring stage performer, Mr. Barry played President Richard M. Nixon in a 1982 Atlanta production of "Watergate: A Musical." The next year he originated the Broadway role of Georges in "La Cage aux Folles," a Jerry Herman musical based on a French stage play.

"I'm not playing a homosexual," Mr. Barry told the New York Times. "I'm playing a person who cares deeply about another person. The role is loving another person onstage. It doesn't matter whether it's a man, a woman or a giraffe. It has nothing to do with sexuality, as far as I'm concerned. I play the dignity of the man, his concern for his lover, and his concern and love for his son."

In a review in the Times, critic Frank Rich called Mr. Barry's contributions to the musical "invaluable," praising him for singing two ballads "with such modest simplicity and warmth that we never question their sincerity." The show won the Tony for best musical.

Born Eugene Klass on June 14, 1919, in New York, he changed his surname as a nod to eminent stage actor John Barrymore. He made his Broadway debut in 1942 and appeared in musicals and operettas before being cast as a leading man opposite West in "Catherine Was Great" (1944).

During this period Mr. Barry met his wife of 58 years, Betty Kalb. She died in 2003. Survivors include three children, Michael Barry and F. James Barry, both of Topanga, Calif., and Elizabeth "Liza" Barry of Los Anegles; two sisters; a brother; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Although "The War of the Worlds," based on the H.G. Wells novel, remained Mr. Barry's best-known screen role, he said it was not his favorite. "How could it be?" he told an interviewer. "It was just acting to special effects all over the place. We never knew where we were in that. The director would say, at this point this monster or whatever special effect . . . react to it. You didn't know if the special effect was going to be good. It so happened that they were, and it won the Academy Award for special effects that year."

Mr. Barry twice worked under director Sam Fuller, in "Forty Guns" and "China Gate" (both 1957), the latter an early look at the growing conflict in Vietnam. He said that Fuller "showed me how to bring vitality and a physical presence to my performances" and that led directly to his starring roles on television.

Mr. Barry played a murderous psychiatrist in "Prescription: Murder," the 1968 TV movie that kicked off Peter Falk's career as Lt. Columbo. In addition, Mr. Barry was the voice behind commercials for such products as Miller beer and Haggar menswear.

His career veered into the political sphere as well. He campaigned on behalf of Democrats and was with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy the night the presidential candidate was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968.

BARRY, Gene (Eugene Klass)
Born: 6/14/1919, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Died: 12/9/2009, Woodland Hills, California, U.S.A.

Gene Barry's westerns – actor:
Those Redheads from Seattle – 1953 (Johnny Kisco)
Red Garters – 1954 (Rafael Roreno)
Forty Guns – 1957 (Wes Bonnell)
Bat Masterson (TV) – 1958-1961 (Bat Masterson)
The Devil and Miss Sarah (TV) – 1971 (Gil Turner)
Ransom for Alice! (TV) – 1977 (Harry Darew)
Paradise (TV) – 1989 (Bat Masterson)
The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (TV) – 1991 (Bat Masterson)

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