James Gammon dies at 70; craggy character actor excelled on stage and screen
James Gammon, a character actor whose gravelly voice and craggy face made indelible memories in Sam Shepard plays, a spate of western TV shows and films, plus a comic turn in the baseball movie “Major League,” has died. He was 70.
Gammon died Friday surrounded by his family at his daughter’s home in Costa Mesa, where he and his wife, Nancy, had been living. He had cancer of the adrenal glands and the liver.
Gammon may be best known for his role as Lou Brown, manager of the hapless Cleveland Indians in the 1989 comedy “Major League” and its 1994 sequel. He stood out with key roles in many films including “Urban Cowboy,” “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “Leaving Normal,” “Ironweed,” “Silverado” and “Cold Mountain.”
On television he played the father on “Nash Bridges” from 1996 to 2001, though he was only nine years older than star Don Johnson. He also had recurring roles in the TV series “The Waltons,” “Bagdad Cafe,” “Homefront” and “Middle Ages,” a central role in the 1995 miniseries “Streets of Laredo” and a host of guest appearances ranging from “Gunsmoke” and other westerns in the 1960s to “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007.
Despite leaving a lasting impression on the big and small screens, Gammon gripped audiences most tightly when he was on stage. A co-founder of the MET Theatre, he received several Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for acting and directing. Gammon helped establish the old MET, a 50-seat theater on Poinsettia Place near Melrose Avenue in the Fairfax district, in the 1970s with a trilogy of William Inge plays, “Bus Stop,” “Picnic” and “Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”
“He did a lot of movies and TV, but I think his great presence and power was on the stage,” Paul Koslo, an actor and director who worked with Gammon at the MET, said Saturday. “He always had something unexpected, riveting and real. “
In 1978 Gammon appeared in his first Shepard drama, “Curse of the Starving Class,” at the Public Theater in New York. The playwright called Gammon “astounding” after seeing him reprise the role of Weston in the West Coast premiere at the MET a year later.
Said theater critic Sylvie Drake in a review in The Times of the MET production: “His is a performance cut from flesh — a riveting, drunken, brawling, blind portrayal of a man at sea in a life he had abandoned years before, too long ago to ever hope to find it again.”
Gammon starred in a succession of Shepard-penned roles, including “A Lie of the Mind,” “Simpatico,” “The Late Henry Moss” and a 1996 Broadway production of “Buried Child,” for which he received a Tony nomination.
Shepard’s stories of desertion and disconnected family ties struck a chord with Gammon.
“I’m just swept by him,” Gammon told the New York Times in 1996. “I allow myself to be taken.”
Gammon was born April 20, 1940, in the farm town of Newman, Ill. After his parents split, he moved with his mother and siblings to central Florida, where he finished high school. He briefly attended college, then got a job as a cameraman at the CBS-TV affiliate in Orlando.
Soon he headed to Los Angeles, where he met his future wife and became involved in local theater.
Gammon returned to Florida in 1989 after buying a nine-acre horse farm in Ocala called Milagro, where he and his wife bred Thoroughbred racehorses. (Penny Blues, a horse the Gammons bred and co-owned with Johnson, won the Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita in 2000.)
Besides his wife of 38 years, Gammon is survived by their daughters, Allison Mann of Costa Mesa and Amy Gammon of West Hollywood; two grandchildren; a brother, Phillip of Northridge; and a sister, Sandra Glaudell of Ocala.
Although Gammon disengaged from the MET in the 1980s, he still returned occasionally, notably for a 2003 production of “King Lear.”
“Theater’s been the foundation of everything,” Gammon told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “I would prefer to do theater all the time if I could. It’s just so unfortunate that there’s no way to really make a living at it hardly.”
A memorial service is planned for August at the new MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles.
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