Ford Rainey, 96; Performed Shakespeare, Shepard and Variety of Film, TV Roles

Times Staff Writer

Ford Rainey, a horseman, logger and fisherman who grew up to portray King Lear, Macbeth and Abraham Lincoln, died Monday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. He was 96.

Rainey died of complications from a series of strokes, said his son, James Rainey.

A highly experienced stage actor, Ford Rainey was also a familiar face in motion pictures, including “The Sand Pebbles” with Steve McQueen and “Two Rode Together” with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.

He was even better recognized by television viewers as a guest star on such popular series as “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Route 66,” “Perry Mason” and “The Untouchables.” The craggy-faced actor played guardian to “The Bionic Woman,” a general in “MASH” and a judge in “The Waltons” and “Matlock,” and worked well into his 90s, appearing in such recent series as “ER” and “The King of Queens.”


In 1961 and 1962, Rainey co-starred with Robert Young in the series, “Window on Main Street,” with Young as a famous writer returning to his hometown and Rainey as the folksy editor of the local newspaper.

Television perhaps best showcased the depth of Rainey’s talent in theatrical anthology series of the 1950s and early ‘60s, including “U.S. Steel Hour,” “Kraft Television Theater,” “Goodyear Playhouse” and “Robert Montgomery Presents.”

Rainey first portrayed Lincoln, a character he would often reprise, in a 1953 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of “Miss Curtis Goes to Washington.”

The actor was one of 10 who joined host Richard Boone in the critically praised television repertory theater series “The Richard Boone Show” in 1963 and 1964, along with Robert Blake, Harry Morgan and Guy Stockwell.


Born Aug. 8, 1908, in Mountain Home, Idaho, to a schoolteacher mother and a jack-of-all-trades father, Rainey grew up in the Northwest and graduated from Centralia Junior College in Washington state and the Cornish Drama School in Seattle.

He worked at odd jobs including logger, fisherman, fruit picker, carpenter, clam digger and oil tanker roustabout before he was able to make a living as an actor. The wide experience, added to growing up in the rugged outdoors, where he learned to ride horses and to fence, served him well in western and action roles. It also enriched his personal life as he raised a family at his Malibu ranch house, tending beehives, building his own solar heater and earning the nickname “The Wizard” from neighborhood children.

Shy as a youngster, Rainey was first coaxed onto the stage by a high school drama teacher. He gained dramatic experience at the Cornish school, on Seattle radio stations and in repertory theater, performing in every state in the country.

He joined the Michael Chekhov Theatre Studio in Connecticut and in 1939 made his Broadway debut with the repertory troupe in Dostoevski’s “Possessed.” Two years later, he appeared as Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and took the title role in a touring production of “King Lear.”


After serving as Coast Guard boatswain’s mate on a patrol boat off the coast of Oregon during World War II, Rainey joined other Chekhov associates to create a farm and theater, “The Ojai Valley Players.” The troupe tended horses and vegetables by day and presented “Macbeth” by night, often with such figures as director John Huston in the audience.

In 1949, Rainey made his motion picture debut in an uncredited role in “White Heat,” starring James Cagney as a mother-obsessed hoodlum.

Back to Broadway in the 1950s, Rainey understudied Fredric March in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a role he assumed in subsequent productions, and succeeded Pat Hingle in the title role of “J.B.” He also appeared in “Between Two Thieves” and “The Crucible,” renewing his Broadway success in “Crucible” at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater in 1972.

Rainey relished Shakespeare, and in one three-day sprint in 1985 dashed about Los Angeles with his own wigs and makeup, performing the ghost in “Hamlet,” Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” and Lear in “Robert Wilson’s ‘Exploring King Lear’ ” -- stopping off for a reading of Ezra Pound along the way. The actor also enjoyed modern plays, including his role of Old Dodge in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” which he performed at Trinity Square Repertory in Providence, R.I., in 1979 and later in India.


Rainey kept young through a restless curiosity that led him to take up the guitar, piano and other diversions late in his life. A gift of a single pet bird from his daughter got him interested in budgerigars. At about 90, he began breeding dozens of the birds, brightly colored relatives of the parakeet, and won a shelf-full of trophies and ribbons in competitions around Southern California.

In addition to his son James, a writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times, Rainey is survived by his wife of 51 years, artist and former actress Sheila Hayden Rainey; son, Robert, a chiropractor; daughter, Kathleen, a schoolteacher; and five grandchildren.

Services will be private, but a public memorial program is being planned.

Instead of flowers, the family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Wilderness Society.