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Robert Prosky dies at 77; stage, TV and film actor appeared in 'Hill Street Blues'

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Robert Prosky, a character actor with hundreds of film, TV and stage credits, and whose roles included an avuncular sergeant on the NBC police drama "Hill Street Blues" and a desperate real estate salesman in David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross," has died. He was 77.

Prosky died Monday at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., of complications from a heart procedure.

Starting in 1958, Prosky began an affiliation at Washington's Arena Stage that transformed him over 23 seasons and 130 roles from a struggling actor to one of the most versatile and prolific performers in a top regional theater.

He jokingly attributed his success to his paunch and prematurely gray hair, telling the Washington Post, "This hair and this gut are the two reasons I got started as an actor. I could play men 50 when I was 30, maybe 25. I could always play the funny fat man."

He also excelled in drama, and at one point called on memories of his father, a Philadelphia butcher with a seventh-grade education, for his interpretation of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

In Prosky's movie debut, Michael Mann's "Thief" (1981), he played the vicious patriarch of a ring of Chicago diamond thieves. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby found Prosky "exceptionally effective" as "a Middle Western version of the sort of affable international villains that Sydney Greenstreet once played."

The part launched Prosky's career as a film heavy, including the evil garage owner in "Christine" (1983), the villainous co-owner of the New York Knights baseball team in "The Natural" (1984) and a mafia don in Mamet's "Things Change" (1988).

It was a nice change of pace, Prosky said, to be offered the role of a self-deprecating priest in "Rudy" (1993). Portraying TV newsmen also became a specialty for Prosky. In "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), he was a station owner who exchanged quips with Robin Williams. He was a defender of community standards who clashed with journalist Dustin Hoffman in director Costa-Gavras' "Mad City" (1997). And he was a longtime executive who gets fired in director James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News" (1987).

Prosky's other film roles included the pro bono lawyer for death row inmate Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking" (1995) and a judge in a 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street."

In addition, he played many recurring roles on TV, as the big-hearted desk sergeant Stanislaus "Stan" Jablonski on "Hill Street Blues" from 1984 to 1987 and later as a priest accused of murder on the ABC legal drama "The Practice." He played Kirstie Alley's father on the sitcoms "Cheers" and "Veronica's Closet."

Robert Joseph Porzuczek was born Dec. 13, 1930, in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood. He was initially drawn to theater in high school, but he briefly studied economics at Temple University before returning to the family grocery shop after his father's death in 1952.

He continued performing in plays, supporting himself in New York as a Federal Reserve Bank bookkeeper. What he considered just another one-shot deal, playing the sheriff in a 1958 Arena Stage revival of the newspaper comedy "The Front Page," was instead a breakthrough. He credited theater co-founder Zelda Fichandler with being a crucial influence. "When I first came to Arena I wasn't an actor who thought much," Prosky told the Washington Post in 1984, "and here I was at what is certainly a theater of intellect -- God, Zelda would hate that label. "But Zelda saw something in me, God knows what, and kept nurturing it," he said. "Each author came to me fresh, brand new, and I found out about him in the doing, sort of leap-frogging from one to the next. That's what formed me -- that continuum."

He earned Tony Award nominations in two Broadway shows, "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984) and Lee Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods" (1988). In the first, he played an aging and increasingly despairing salesman, Shelley "The Machine" Levene, a role that was later played by Jack Lemmon in the movie. But critics lauded Prosky for credibly depicting the pompous heights of the character after he scores a "great sale" and the terror on his face as he is reduced to offering bribes to his employer to stay on the job.

In the two-character Blessing play, Prosky portrayed a Russian diplomat opposite Sam Waterston as an American arms negotiator. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich singled out Prosky for "a masterful portrait of political cunning, always entertaining to behold."

In 1960, Prosky married Ida Hove. She survives, along with three sons, Stefan Prosky of Washington, John Prosky of Toluca Lake, Calif., and Andrew Prosky of New York; and three grandchildren.

Bernstein writes for the Washington Post, where this obituary first appeared.

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