G.D. Spradlin dies at 90; veteran character actor
Gervase Duan “G.D.” Spradlin, a character actor best known for playing authority figures in television and films, including “The Godfather: Part II” and “Apocalypse Now,” has died. He was 90.
Spradlin died of natural causes at his cattle ranch in San Luis Obispo on Sunday, said his grandson, Justin Demko.
A former oil company lawyer and millionaire independent oil producer who didn’t begin acting until he was in his 40s, the tall and lean Oklahoma native played his share of doctors, ministers, judges, military officers and historical figures during his more than 30-year acting career.
He portrayed President Johnson in the 1985 TV mini-series “Robert Kennedy & His Times” and President Jackson in the 1986 TV movie “Houston: The Legend of Texas.”
He also played an admiral in the 1988 TV mini-series “War and Remembrance” and was a pro football coach in the 1979 film “North Dallas Forty” and a college basketball coach in the 1977 film “One on One.”
His breakthrough movie role as a character actor was as corrupt Nevada Sen. Pat Geary in director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II” in 1974.
Five years later, Spradlin was the Army general who sent Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard up river to find and kill Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in Coppola’s Vietnam war movie “Apocalypse Now.”
Spradlin, whose other film credits include “The War of the Roses” and “Ed Wood,” retired from acting after playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the 1999 comedy “Dick.”
“He brought a lot of what he had done in his life to what he did on the screen,” said Demko, adding that his grandfather had a lifelong love of language and could recite passages from Shakespeare and poetry until the end.
The son of two schoolteachers, Spradlin was born Aug. 31, 1920, in Pauls Valley, Okla. He received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma before serving in the Army Air Forces in China during World War II.
After earning a law degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1948, he became an attorney for Phillips Petroleum Co. and then became head of Phillips’ legal department in Caracas, Venezuela.
After returning to Oklahoma in 1951, Spradlin became an independent oil producer. He was so successful that he retired in 1960 and spent time cruising the Bahamas on a yacht with his family.
“Being rich changes surprisingly little,” Spradlin told The Times in 1967. “You’ll still have to have an absorbing interest in life, something to do to make you feel alive.”
For Spradlin, that was acting.
In late 1963 his daughter Wendy, a member of the children’s classes at the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, wanted to audition for a role in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
To give her moral support, Spradlin accompanied her to the theater and wound up auditioning for — and landing — a role in the play, the first of three local productions he appeared in.
Spradlin, who earned a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of Miami in 1965 and was a doctoral candidate in the same field, had directed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign in Oklahoma and had an unsuccessful run for mayor of Oklahoma City in 1965.
A year later, he moved his family to Los Angeles.
He was so new to show business, he told The Times in 1980, that when a secretary at the William Morris Agency asked him if he had any film, “I told her no, but that there was a drugstore around the corner and I could run over and buy some. I thought you must have to bring your own film to have a screen test.”
Spradlin’s first wife, Nell, with whom he had two daughters, Tamara Kelly and Wendy Spradlin, died in 2000.
In 2002, he married Frances Hendrickson, who survives him, as do his two daughters and five grandchildren.
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