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Willard Waterman; Actor on Radio, Screen and Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Willard Waterman, the blustering, bigger-than-life actor who kept “The Great Gildersleeve” alive on radio and television for several years after its creator had moved on to other pastures, died Thursday

A spokesman for the family said Waterman, who played character parts on and off Broadway and in films and TV, was 80 when he died at his home in Burlingame, Calif., of bone marrow disease.

Waterman, whose voice had an uncanny similarity to that of Harold Peary, who created the Gildersleeve role, was a radio veteran of more than 20 years when he took over the part of the bombastic politician in 1950. He stayed with the show until 1955, when it went off the air, and then continued in the part in TV syndication.

The Gildersleeve character had first been heard on the old “Fibber McGee and Molly” radio program in the 1930s before becoming a separate series.

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After the demise of Gildersleeve, Waterman was cast as Mr. Upson in “Auntie Mame,” the film version of the book that was later turned into the hit musical “Mame.” He also appeared in the national company of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a Broadway revival of “Pajama Game” and several Los Angeles stage shows.

Waterman was an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin when he opted for the entertainment world, moving to Chicago, which in the early 1930s was the radio hub of the country.

Over the years he was heard regularly on “Chicago Theatre of the Air” and “The First Nighter Program,” as the prison parolee on the soap opera “Guiding Light,” as the pompous father in “Those Websters” and as Sheriff Mike Shaw in “The Tom Mix Ralston Straightshooters,” based on Mix’s adventures as a soldier of fortune before he became a cowboy film star.

He also was a founding member of the American Federation of Radio Artists, now the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, in 1937.

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He was believed to be the only person to have served as a member of the union’s board of directors in four different locals: Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Last week the national board, expressing the gratitude of its 75,000 members, honored him for his “dedication to the welfare of performers everywhere.”


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