Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  Sept. 24, 2002 at 5:32 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- There is a breed of actor who stirs vague memories, almost ex-officio members of our families, shirt-tail cousins ... perhaps.

They are most often called character actors, but isn't that what all actors truly are?

They play fictional people. The best among them frequently invest their roles with their own familiar quirks, facial expressions and body language.

We encounter them on television, in movies and sometimes in the theater.

Each time we see one of these familiar non-stars the performer leaves a little bit of himself or herself with us -- like an old friend we see only occasionally, but never forget altogether.

We seldom learn much about them personally. They rarely come to mind when we leave the theater or the TV set. Unlike stars, they aren't seen on talk shows.

Nor do they pop up in tabloids, crime stories or political debates.

Often we know nothing about them until their deaths. Then newspapers and periodicals -- sometimes TV -- announce their passing and provide a few facts about their lives and families.

One of the best of this anomalous band died this week at age 90, a veteran of some 80 movies, more than 100 TV appearances, several TV series and 50 New York plays.

He was James Gregory, who played tough, aggressive power figures: cops, detectives, military officers and hot-shot politicians.

There was a jaunty, almost abrasive edge to some of Gregory's characterizations, including seven years as Inspector Frank Luger on the "Barney Miller" sitcom.

He, along with Hal Linden, Ron Carey, Jack Soo, Max Gail, Steve Landesberg and Ron Glass, made it one of TV's finest and funniest series.

It was Gregory, a native of the Bronx, who played opposite Frank Sinatra in "The Manchurian Candidate" in 1962.

Gregory had a throaty, imperious voice accompanying his brazen presence on screen, contrasting with his quiet-spoken, self-effacing off-screen demeanor.

However, Gregory was too versatile to be typed a cop. He played President Ulysses S. Grant in an episode of TV's "Wild, Wild West" and John F. Kennedy's commanding officer in "PT-109" with Cliff Robertson in 1963.

He knew about playing military figures, having served in the Navy and the Marine Corps during World War II.

In his lifetime Gregory was respected as a polished actor who always knew his lines, a performer who could play any role given him.

A graceful man socially, Gregory -- like many of his line -- never made the Hollywood party circuit, much less headlines.

Acting was his profession, his job. He was a perfectionist who infused his roles with vitality to a degree that hyped his fellow actors.

Curiously, few moviegoers and TV fans knew Gregory by name during his five decades on the silver screen and on the living room box.

Even fewer troubled to search for his name in the credits. They thought they knew it. And, aside from his family, the number of people who went out of their way to see a film just to catch his performance was infinitesimal.

Yet James Gregory greatly enriched every scene in which he appeared. His presence lent realism, authority and actuality to the play or movie.

Gregory did not look or behave like a movie star.

At heart he was a working stiff who did his job superbly well. We all believed him and admired his remarkable variety of rough-hewn characters.

When he retired from acting in 1983, Gregory moved to Sedona, Ariz., with his wife of 58 years, Ann.

The tumult of TV and the ponderous march of movies continued unabated, and for the past 20 years it could not be said that the public truly missed Gregory.

But when his photographs were shown on television news shows or in local newspapers we were struck with a sense of remembrance and a touch of guilt.

How could we have forgotten this man and how much he contributed to our enjoyment of movie and television drama, comedy and everything in-between?

Yes, of course, the name James Gregory swam up from the mists of the past, allowing us to synthesize the totality of his work.

He was good. Damned good. And his passing posed the question, "Where are the fine character actors among the current crop of performers?"

You may be sure they are here, among us, seen regularly on tube and screen, doing their work as craftsmen and craftswomen we have come to take for granted ... just as we did Gregory.

Most of them, too, will live and work in relative anonymity, fulfilling their dreams and ours, unknown by name to almost everybody who sees their work.

But one day their obituaries will be read, their photographs jarring memories, and have us saying, "Yes, of course. He (or she) was terrific."

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