Robert Emhardt, a deft character actor who for several decades arranged his jowlish features to convincingly portray a series of bad guys and buffoons in dozens of films and hundreds of TV shows, is dead.
Emhardt died Monday of heart failure at his Ojai home, said actor and longtime friend Henry Gibson. Reports of Emhardt’s age ranged from the mid-80s to early 90s.
Emhardt was born in Indianapolis but studied at England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He was a Sidney Greenstreet look-alike who became identified with the sinister roles that defined Greenstreet’s career and once was his understudy.
“I wasn’t going to be an actor,” he said in a 1967 interview, “but I admired Charles Laughton--an absolutely brilliant actor--and I thought I could act too.”
Emhardt credited his ability to portray a range of what he called “loudmouths, guilt-ridden embezzlers and school principals” to his training at the academy.
He made an auspicious Broadway debut with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “The Pirate” in 1942 and later starred with Helen Hayes in “Harriet” and Lillian Gish in “The Curious Savage” on Broadway.
Emhardt won the Critics Circle Award as best supporting actor of the 1948-49 season in “Life With Mother,” which starred the Howard Lindsays.
His other New York performances included “The Seven Year Itch,” “Janus” and “The Girls.”
Emhardt moved into films and television in the early 1950s. In 1952 he was in “The Iron Mistress” and through the rest of the decade was on screen in “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Badlanders,” “The Intruder” and others.
In 1967 he played Shirley Knight’s manic father in “The Group,” the Sidney Lumet-directed picture based on Mary McCarthy’s novel about a group of troubled Vassar graduates. His performance was singled out by critics despite an all-star cast that included Candice Bergen and Hal Holbrook.
By then the portly actor was also hitting his stride on television. In a single season (1967) he had featured roles on “Occasional Wife,” “Iron Horse,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Invaders.”
He likened TV to his repertory days in the theater, “when we (the actors) sat around talking about Stella Adler. . . . It was ensemble acting; very creative.”
Survivors include his wife, Silvia; a son; three daughters, and two grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ojai.