Friday, October 1, 2010
Happy birthday, Lonny Chapman!
Stage, film and television character great Lonny Chapman was born ninety years ago in Tulsa, OK on this date—and if there was a contest for those thespians who are the epitome of “Hey! It’s that guy!” exclamations he’d surely be in the top five. In fact, I was inspired to give him a birthday shout-out today because I caught him a couple of days ago in an episode of The Virginian (“Last Grave at Socorro Creek”); he worked on most of the TV oaters back in the 1960s, including The Rifleman, Laredo, The Big Valley, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Bonanza and so many more. He’s the bad guy in one of my favorite Gunsmoke outings, “Parson Comes to Town” (04/30/66), which stars acting great Sam Wanamaker as the brother of a minister croaked by Lonny and his partner who comes to Dodge seeking justice. It’s pretty much Sam’s show all the way, but even though he’s upstaged Chapman manages to make his presence felt. (Chapman was good friends with Dennis Weaver, so it’s not too surprising he scored a few acting gigs on the program…he would also make many appearances on Weaver’s hit TV series McCloud come the 1970s.)
Lonny appeared in scads of TV shows and films but his first and real love was the stage—for many years until his death in 2007 he was the artistic director for the Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood, a non-profit acting organization that allowed him to wear several hats as actor, producer, director and writer. After his passing, the “GRT” was renamed The Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre as a fitting tribute. He had paid his dues in the late 40s/early 50s as a member of both the Group Theatre and Actors Studio, studying under the legendary Lee Strasberg—among his contemporaries were Martin Landau, R.G. Armstrong, Pat Hindle, Logan Ramsey and director Mark Rydell.
Chapman scored a triumph in 1950 when he co-starred in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, the play that copped Tony Awards for its stars Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer. Booth, of course, would go on to star in the 1952 film version (alongside Burt Lancaster) and win an Oscar for her performance—but the unknown Chapman, who played Turk in the stage version, lost out to Richard Jaeckel when the movie was filmed. Other theatrical productions that featured Lonny include The Chase, Whistler’s Grandmother, The Ladies of the Corridor, The Traveling Lady, The Time of Your Life and The Glass Menagerie. Beginning in 1959, he branched out into stage direction and writing—two of his works were eventually produced off-Broadway, The Buffalo Skinner and Cry of the Raindrop.
In films, Chapman played the owner of the diner who tends to Tippi Hedren’s head wound after the first gull attack in The Birds (1963) and was the sympathetic father who’s hesitant to punish his errant son Mitch Vogel physically in The Reivers (1969), a film directed by his old friend Rydell. Lonny had an incredible range, displaying his talents in comedic parts like Take the Money and Run (1969) and balls-out drama in Norma Rae (1979). During that time, he continued to work in television, guesting on the likes of Mission: Impossible, Ironside, Medical Center, Quincy, M.E. and Murder, She Wrote. He had a semi-regular role on the short-lived TV western The Yellow Rose as Del Horton; one of the few times he worked on a weekly series was the William Shatner show For the People in 1965.
Chapman passed on three years ago, and I regret not acknowledging this on the blog but I think it happened at the time I was trying to transition TDOY from its former Salon Blog environs to here. So I hope you’ll join me in a slice of birthday cake as we acknowledge the natal anniversary of a truly excellent—if unsung—actor.