Lonny Chapman, 87; theater company’s artistic director

Times Staff Writer

Lonny Chapman, a stage and screen actor who was the founding artistic director of a theater company that is one of the oldest in North Hollywood and now bears his name, has died. He was 87.

Chapman, whose television and movie career spanned more than 50 years, died Oct. 12 of heart disease at Sherman Village Healthcare Center in North Hollywood, said Janet Wood, a founding member of the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre.

As a new graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Chapman hitchhiked to New York City in 1947 with his best friend from college, actor Dennis Weaver. By 1950, Chapman had originated the role of Turk in the Broadway production of William Inge’s first play, “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Weaver was his understudy.


Chapman performed on the New York stage for more than a decade and had two plays produced off-Broadway, “The Buffalo Skinner” and “Cry of the Raindrop.”

After moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s to pursue movie and television roles, he helped found a local branch of the Actors Studio.

In 1972, 13 actors gathered to practice scenes in a laundermat they had converted into a tiny Hollywood theater, and Chapman sought them out after hearing about them from a friend.

Impressed by the company then known as Group, Chapman told them: “This isn’t a theater yet because you’re not doing plays. . . . I’ll work with you if you start doing a play,” he said in a 1998 Times story.

They quickly named him artistic director, a title Chapman held until his death.

Under his direction, the nonprofit 99-seat theater staged more than 350 productions and at least 45 premieres of original works, Wood said.

“We are one of the longest surviving small theaters in Los Angeles . . . . and Lonny was totally the glue that kept us together,” said Wood, the group’s last original active member.


Group made its public debut with Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” which Chapman adapted into an Americanized version called “Round Dance.” He chose the play because it had parts for five men and five women -- the number of members available to perform.

The Hollywood Reporter praised the “top-notch cast,” and Variety said the troupe looked like it would become “a major group.”

The performers soon outgrew their first space and moved twice, opening their present location in 1983 with a series of original one-acts called “Motel 66.”

Early on, the company expanded its name to Group Repertory Theatre. When Chapman’s name was added in 1999, among the speakers at the ceremony were actor Martin Landau -- one of Chapman’s friends from the Actors Studio in New York -- and actor-director Sean Penn.

“Lonny was not only the artistic director, but teacher, director, producer and actor,” Wood said. “He was like a gentle giant and so talented in everything he tried.”

More than 60 actors are affiliated with the theater, which has grown to include a playwrights’ organization, a program for young actors and classes in acting, singing and directing.


Because the theater was as likely to present an original work as it was a musical or a comedy, Chapman considered the troupe’s approach eclectic.

“You can be bad,” Chapman told The Times in 1998, “but you don’t have to be dull.”

He was born Oct. 1, 1920, in Tulsa, Okla., and grew up in Joplin, Mo.

Chapman joined the Marines during World War II and served for several years in the South Pacific

In college, he became interested in theater after joining the drama club and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama.

On Broadway, Chapman debuted in 1949 as a guard in “The Closing Door,” which was directed by Lee Strasberg. He appeared in at least eight Broadway shows, including Horton Foote’s “The Chase”; “The Ladies of the Corridor” by Dorothy Parker and Arnaud D’Usseau; Foote’s “The Traveling Lady”; and “Marathon ‘33” by June Havoc.

While casting the role of the college athlete Turk, Inge held a marathon audition and “it got narrowed down to Rod Steiger and me,” Chapman told The Times in 1996.

Chapman got the part in “Come Back, Little Sheba” and developed a lasting friendship with the playwright.


From 1959 to 1967, Chapman directed more than 80 summer productions and performed in 30 more at a theater in Fishkill, N.Y.

He appeared in more than 25 films, including “Baby Doll” (1956), “The Birds” (1963), “The Reivers” (1969) and “Reindeer Games” (2000).

On television, Chapman often guest starred on detective and police shows, including several episodes of the 1970s series “McCloud” that starred Weaver.

Chapman is survived by his wife of 65 years, Erma Dean, and son Wyley Dean Chapman.

A memorial service will be held at noon Dec. 2 at the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.