Gene Barry dies at 90; star of 'Bat Masterson' and co-star of 'La Cage aux Folles'
By By Dennis McLellan
Dec 11, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Gene Barry, the ruggedly handsome actor who made a career of playing dapper and debonair lead characters on television beginning with the western series "Bat Masterson" in the late 1950s and later on "Burke's Law" and "The Name of the Game," has died. He was 90.
Barry, a versatile performer who delivered a Tony-nominated performance in the hit 1980s Broadway musical "La Cage aux Folles," died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Sunrise Assisted Living in Woodland Hills, said his son Michael.
The actor, who had had Alzheimer's disease for about five years, entered Sunrise in early summer. The increased socialization had helped improve his father's mental capacity, his son said.
"He was a very loving and generous father," he said, "and he was handsome, charming and funny until the end."
A New York veteran of plays and musicals who became a Paramount contract player in 1951, Barry had more than a dozen movies and numerous TV appearances behind him, including starring in the science-fiction classic "The War of the Worlds," when he was offered the title role in "Bat Masterson."
Barry, however, wasn't interested in joining the era's crowded ranks of TV cowboys. Then someone told him that Masterson wore a derby and carried a gold-headed cane.
"That appealed to the actor in me," Barry recalled in a 1989 Associated Press interview. "If it hadn't been for that, I would have turned it down. I didn't want to be tied down doing a western. I went to wardrobe and found that hat and cane and an elegant swallowtail coat and shiny black boots.
"I looked at myself in the mirror, and I knew exactly how to play this man," he said. "The costume dictated my performance. It changed my life. Every role I've done since has been a guy who looked good in clothes."
After playing the charming Old West dandy in "Bat Masterson" on NBC from 1958 to 1961, Barry returned to series television in 1963 as Capt. Amos Burke, the millionaire Los Angeles chief of detectives on ABC's "Burke's Law."
A suave and sophisticated magnet for beautiful women, the impeccably dressed Burke lived in a palatial mansion and rode around town in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.
Barry was perfectly suited for the role. As producer Aaron Spelling told TV Guide at the time: "He has the remarkable knack of wearing a tuxedo well. He is at home in it, secure in it."
Tapping into the James Bond craze in 1965, Burke was turned into an international agent for a U.S. intelligence agency, and the re-formatted series changed its name to "Amos Burke: Secret Agent." It was canceled in 1966.
Then came "The Name of the Game," the 1968-71 NBC adventure series in which Barry played publishing tycoon Glenn Howard.
He next starred as a wealthy government agent in "The Adventurer," a British-produced, syndicated 1972-73 series.
Over the next several years, Barry appeared in the TV miniseries "Aspen," did a few films and TV movies and occasionally appeared on series such as "Fantasy Island" and "The Love Boat." He also starred in regional stage productions.
But by the early '80s, Barry was primarily doing commercial voice-over work for Miller beer, Ford, Haggar and other companies, and his acting career was in decline.
Then in 1983, producer Allan Carr asked Barry to audition for the role in "La Cage aux Folles" of Georges, the gay impresario of a drag nightclub and father of a son who is about to marry the daughter of a bigoted politician.
Barry later said it was the first time in 30 years that he had to audition for a part.
"When I sang two songs for 'La Cage,' " he told United Press International in 1984, producer "Allan Carr and the others gave me a standing ovation. That felt good."
The role of Georges, which Barry considered the best of his career, earned him a 1984 Tony Award nomination for best actor in a musical.
"I didn't camp him up, and that's what the gay community loved," Barry told the Desert Sun in 1999. "I played him sensitively, caringly . . . loving my son like any father loves his son."
The son of a jeweler, he was born Eugene Klass -- "a tough name for show business" -- in New York City on June 14, 1919.
Barry, who studied violin, earned a singing scholarship to the Chatham Square School of Music after graduating from high school in Brooklyn. By 1942, he was on Broadway as one of the leads in the hit operetta "Rosalinda."
While appearing in "Catherine Was Great," a 1944 Broadway play starring Mae West, Barry met his wife, Betty.
On TV in 1955, he became a regular in the final season of "Our Miss Brooks," Eve Arden's popular sitcom in which she played high school English teacher Connie Brooks. Barry was Gene Talbot, the young P.E. teacher who becomes Miss Brooks' new love interest.
In the 1990s, Barry briefly returned as Amos Burke in a new "Burke's Law" series that ran on CBS from 1994 to '95.
His final screen role was in Steven Spielberg's 2005 "War of the Worlds," in which Barry and Ann Robinson, his co-star in the 1953 movie, played the grandparents.
Barry's wife died in 2003.
Besides his son Michael, he is survived by his other children, Fred and Elizabeth; his sisters, Jocelyn Manis and Reva Meredith; his brother, Julian Klass; three grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.