Adolph Caesar : Fatal Heart Attack Fells Actor on Set

Times Staff Writer

Actor Adolph Caesar, whose gruff portrayal of a hate-filled Army sergeant in “A Soldier’s Story” earned him an Oscar nomination, died Thursday after suffering an apparent heart attack on a film set in downtown Los Angeles. He was 52.

A spokesman at County-USC Medical Center said Caesar was in “full cardiac arrest,” when he was brought to the hospital’s emergency room by paramedics shortly after 1:30 p.m. He was pronounced dead a few minutes later, said Adelaida de la Cerda, the hospital’s public information officer.

The New York actor was stricken on the set of “Tough Guys,” a Walt Disney comedy-adventure, on which he had been working for two days.

The film’s stars, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, released this statement Thursday evening:


“Of course, you’re never prepared for such an unexpected event. We both admired Adolph as an actor, and in the short time we worked together, we both liked him as a man--filled with humor as well as talent.”

Caesar most recently appeared in Steven Spielberg’s film of the Alice Walker novel, “The Color Purple.” He played the father of the bullying husband of Celie, the main character, whose life in the rural South is traced from the early 1900s until the 1940s.

Another film in which Caesar has a leading role, a comedy titled “Club Paradise,” which also stars Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole, is scheduled to be released this summer by Warner Bros., according to Caesar’s friend and agent, Marvin Starkman.

A longtime member of the New York-based Negro Ensemble Company, Caesar had worked in theater for years without winning widespread public recognition, before the film adaptation of Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” in Starkman’s words, “gave the world a chance to know about him.”

Well Prepared

“It wasn’t a lucky shot at all,” Starkman said. “It was a very well-prepared career. The film performance was the culmination of about 300 stage performances.”

“A Soldier’s Story,” released in 1984, is set in Louisiana during the waning days of World War II, when the U.S. Army was still segregated. Caesar, whose voice and manner have been described as both resonant and rough, portrays Sgt. Vernon C. Waters, a black whose pathological desire to become a supersoldier makes him hate the frailties of the black men under his command. In a series of flashbacks, the film recounts the events that led to Waters’ murder.

Caesar won a Los Angeles Film Critics Award for his work in the film, as well as the Oscar nomination. For his earlier performance in the play, he was rewarded with the Drama Desk Award, handed out by New York theater critics, and the Obie Award, given for excellence in the off-Broadway theater.


“A painful experience of my own led me to Waters,” Caesar said in an interview published in The Times last year. “I’d studied Shakespeare to death. I knew more about Shakespeare than Shakespeare knew about himself.

“After I did one season at a Shakespearean repertory company, a director said to me, ‘You have a marvelous voice. You know the king’s English well. You speak iambic pentameter. My suggestion is that you go to New York and get a good colored role.’

‘Hate You’

“Waters has tried his best, but no matter what you do, they still hate you.”


Caesar was graduated from George Washington High School in New York City in 1952. He served as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy for five years, before breaking into the theater. In addition to his theatrical and film roles, he provided the voice-overs in a number of television commercials and has produced shows for himself, including a poetry program titled “The Square Root of Soul.”

Caesar leaves his wife, Diane; two daughters, Tiffani, 15, and Alexandria, 5, and a 17-month-old son. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.