Edward Herrmann dies at 71; actor often played Franklin D. Roosevelt

Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop played Richard and Emily Gilmore on the popular television series "Gilmore Girls."
(Andrew Eccles / The WB)

Edward Herrmann, an Emmy- and Tony-winning actor who portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt, narrated History Channel documentaries and became a prime-time television star in the long-running series “Gilmore Girls,” died Wednesday at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was 71.

He had brain cancer, said his agent, Robyn Stecher.


FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article said that Edward Herrmann graduated from Bucknell in 1955. It was 1965.



The 6-foot-5 actor schooled in London was a natural to play aristocrats and authority figures. He portrayed Nelson Rockefeller in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic “Nixon” and William Randolph Hearst in Peter Bogdanovich’s 2001 film “The Cat’s Meow.”

But for many TV viewers Herrmann was indelibly linked to FDR, playing him in the 1976 ABC miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin” and a 1977 sequel, “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years,” both of which brought the actor Emmy nominations.

He also portrayed the 32nd president in the 1982 movie musical “Annie” and was FDR’s voice in the recent Ken Burns documentary series for PBS, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

Herrmann “brings the man to life again here — and does so with such authority and accuracy, that his vocal impersonation stands proudly alongside recordings of the real Franklin,” David Bianculli said in his review of the 14-hour nonfiction epic that aired in September.

The seasoned actor brought the same gravity to hosting and narrating dozens of other documentaries on PBS and the History Channel, including a 1998 Burns biography of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

His roles over a four-decade career also included a number of decidedly less weighty characters. He was the Frankensteinian Herman Munster in a 1995 Fox TV movie revival of the popular 1960s sitcom about a family of Transylvanians in suburban America. He played the head of a vampire gang in the satirical 1987 film “The Lost Boys” and a wacky inventor in 1975’s “The Great Waldo Pepper.”

He once said that playing Munster was harder than playing Roosevelt.


“You have to play Herman absolutely sincerely, absolutely straight,” Herrmann told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “Once you get the audience to believe in you, don’t betray the situation by winking and nudging. When you’re driving that hearse, you’ve got a job at last, and you’ve got to think it’s the greatest thing in the world.”

Herrmann won an Emmy in 1999 for his guest role in the ABC legal drama “The Practice” and in recent years appeared in several episodes of “The Good Wife.”

He won a Tony in 1976 for his portrait of a charming ne’er-do-well in George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” starring with Ruth Gordon and Lynn Redgrave, who also won a Tony. He earned raves for his star turn in David Hare’s “Plenty” on Broadway in 1983.

Edward Kirk Herrmann was born July 21, 1943, in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., an affluent Detroit suburb. His father was an auto executive, his mother a schoolteacher.


He graduated from Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University in 1965 with a degree in English. He later went to England on a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

“At that time in the ‘60s in the United States, you were a movie actor or a TV actor or a stage actor — you just didn’t cross-pollinate,” he recalled in Back Stage West in 2003.

He came to envy English actors because they “could do a West End farce, and then Hamlet, and then a radio play at the BBC — you could have a multifaceted life.… As luck would have it, I’ve been able to have the career I wanted in London over here.”

He began his acting career on the stage, apprenticing in Dallas regional theater before making his New York debut in a 1971 Joseph Papp production of David Rabe’s Vietnam War drama “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.”


Movie roles soon followed. His more than 45 credits include “The Paper Chase” (1973), “Reds” (1981), “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “The Aviator” (2004) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013).

He found his largest, and most youthful, audience when he became Richard Gilmore, the head of a WASPy, fictional Connecticut family whose trials and tribulations were the subject of the highly rated comedy-drama “Gilmore Girls,” which debuted on the WB network in 2000 and ran for seven years.

“I wanted to do WB because your audience gets old. You’ve got to reinvent yourself,” he told Associated Press in 2004.

Herrmann also was the TV spokesman for Dodge for eight years, although his own taste in cars ran to classics like the LeBaron-bodied Packard 120 B he once entered in the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Although the car failed to win its class, its owner was invited to serve as the competition’s master of ceremonies, a role he filled for more than a decade.


His first marriage, to actress Leigh Curran, ended in divorce. Herrmann is survived by his wife, Star; a brother, John; a son, Rory; daughters Ryen and Emma; and a granddaughter.

Twitter: @ewooLATimes

Times staff writer Lauren Raab contributed to this report.