James Gregory, 90; Veteran Player of Cops and Generals in Movies and Television
James Gregory, the solid character actor known for tough-guy cop roles, including Inspector Frank Luger, Hal Linden’s superior on television’s “Barney Miller,” has died. He was 90.
Gregory died Monday of natural causes in Sedona, Ariz., where he had lived since retiring from acting in 1983, said his niece, Laraine Gregory-LaMonte of Malibu.
Slender with a craggy face, dark, wavy hair and a commanding sneer, Gregory had a half-century career with about two dozen Broadway plays, 50 motion pictures and countless television programs.
At his retirement in his early 70s, he was still playing characters in their 50s.
In 1979, during the heyday of the seven-year run of “Barney Miller,” Gregory shrugged off any suggestion that he specialized in portraying law enforcement and military officers. “Most every actor has played a lot of policemen,” he said. “It’s whatever’s in vogue.”
But it was a vogue that seemed to surround Gregory. He made his Broadway debut as a deputy sheriff in “Key Largo” in 1939, and played an Air Force general in the pilot episode of television’s “The Twilight Zone” in 1959.
Having served in the Navy and Marines during World War II, he played Cmdr. C.R. Ritchie, John F. Kennedy’s commanding officer in the 1963 movie “PT-109"; Dean Martin’s superior officer in his Matt Helm detective movies; and Ursus, an ape general in the 1970 movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.”
Gregory landed his long-running “Barney Miller” role because of his work as Det. Barney Ruditsky in the 1959-61 television series “The Lawless Years.”
A precursor to TV series “The Untouchables,” the series depicted Ruditsky’s dealings with New York gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s, with the actual Ruditsky as technical advisor. The series prompted Gregory, who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to relocate to Los Angeles.
When “The Lawless Years” caught hold as a summer sleeper in 1959, a Times reviewer praised Gregory as “one of the finest series actors to come along.”
A decade and a half later, Danny Arnold, producer and co-creator of “Barney Miller,” chose Gregory for Inspector Luger.
“He thought I had some of the characteristics of Barney Ruditsky, a famous New York rackets cop during Prohibition,” the actor said in 1979.
“Danny was a friend of the real Ruditsky. He borrowed Barney’s first name for ‘Barney Miller.’ ”
During that series, which ran from 1975 to 1982, Gregory also headed a short-lived related series called “Detective School.” Starring as Nick Hannigan, he ran a night school for sleuths, trying to teach housewives, door-to-door salesmen and shoe store clerks how to become private eyes.
After establishing himself on Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s, Gregory made his motion picture debut in the crime drama “Naked City” in 1948.
He was on television by 1950, working in that medium from New York, when shows were telecast live.
Although his stage work later lessened, Gregory always moved easily among the venues.
“The fact that I’m able to work in all mediums is a good thing,” he told The Times in 1959. “I consider it fortunate to be able to bounce back and forth.”
Adept at westerns when they were in vogue, he was a regular on three series in the late 1960s, playing President Ulysses S. Grant in “The Wild, Wild West,” Major Duncan in the comedy “F Troop” and in a recurring role on Barbara Stanwyck’s “The Big Valley.”
Among his films, Gregory earned particular notice for his performance as Sen. John Iselin in the 1962 political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.
Gregory is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Ann Miltner.