Richard Eastham, 89; Starred on Broadway, Acted in TV, Movies from 1950s to 1983

Times Staff Writer

Richard Eastham, a singer-actor who went from starring on Broadway opposite Mary Martin in "South Pacific" to co-starring in the 1950s TV western "Tombstone Territory," has died. He was 89.

Eastham died July 10 of Alzheimer's disease at an assisted-living facility in Pacific Palisades, said his friend Marilyn Rudley.

The character actor also appeared in about 10 films, including Disney's "That Darn Cat!" (1965) and "Toby Tyler" (1960), and was regularly featured on television through 1983.

He was proudest of taking over the male lead in "South Pacific" from the highly regarded Italian opera singer Ezio Pinza, who originated the role on Broadway.

"He was a magnificent singer, and he covered for Pinza in 'South Pacific' when he was 29 years old," said actress Marjorie Lord, a longtime friend who met the actor when the pair performed in "Anniversary Waltz" in San Francisco in 1955.

From 1957 to 1959, Eastham introduced and narrated "Tombstone Territory" on ABC and portrayed Harris Claibourne, editor of the Epitaph in Tombstone, Ariz., "the town too tough to die."

He considered the adventure series a "sagebrush opera" and said he was always called on for singing roles in the East, but "here, it's always the dramatic."

Dickinson Swift Eastham was born June 22, 1916, in Opelousas, La. While a student at Washington University, he sang with the St. Louis Grand Opera. During World War II, he spent four years in the Army and for part of that time was stationed in Paris. After his return, he studied acting at the American Theatre Wing in New York City.

Ethel Merman became a close friend after Eastham appeared on Broadway with her in "Call Me Madam" in the early 1950s and in his first film, "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954), Lord said.

He made his television debut on CBS in "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1949 and was featured as Gen. Phil Blankenship in "Wonder Woman", which aired on ABC and CBS from 1976 to 1979. In his last TV role, he appeared as Dr. Howell in 1982 and 1983 on CBS' "Falcon Crest."

After moving to Los Angeles in 1958, he and his wife, Betty Jean, bought a home off Doheny Drive, which they lived in until her death in 2002. They had been married 60 years.

At his wife's urging, he gave up singing to concentrate on acting.

"His voice could break your heart," Lord said. "If I had been married to him, he would have never dropped it."

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