Charles Kimbrough, ‘Murphy Brown’ actor with prim persona, dies at 86

Photo of author

By Amit

Charles Kimbrough, who received an Emmy nomination for playing uptight anchorman Jim Dial on the sitcom “Murphy Brown,” one of many priggish, comically stuffy characters that he humanized for the stage and screen, died Jan. 11 at a hospital in Culver City, Calif. He was 86.

His death, which was confirmed by the agency SMS Talent, was first reported Sunday by the New York Times. The agency did not share details about the cause.

Tall and handsome, with a patrician bearing and dark curly hair, Mr. Kimbrough was first known for appearing in the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical “Company,” delivering a Tony-nominated performance as Harry, the recovering alcoholic who is thoroughly ambivalent — or “sorry-grateful,” as he puts it — about his marriage.

Over the next half century, he brought to life a parade of buttoned-down aristocrats, pompous executives and genteel society men who wore their business suits like armor.

He was the French painter Jules, a rival of pointillist master Georges Seurat, in Sondheim’s 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park With George.” He was the sedate diplomat in a 1985 revival of Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever.” And he was the embodiment of a fading world of WASP privilege in “Later Life,” “Sylvia” and other off-Broadway plays by A.R. Gurney.

Yet for many years, he remained unhappy at being typecast.

“Unfortunately I’m really good at playing jackasses of one kind or another,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2012. “I’ve always been slightly self-conscious as an actor, and I guess that sometimes reads as pomposity. Starting when I was 30, I somehow gave off an impression at an audition that had them mentally put me in a three-piece suit or put an attache case in my hand.

“If there was a stiff-guy part,” he continued, “the director would brighten up when I came in. That wasn’t the response I wanted. I was in anguish.”

Mr. Kimbrough had what he described as “an epiphany of sorts” while playing the stoic newsman Dial, a fixture of all 10 original seasons of “Murphy Brown.” Premiering on CBS in 1988, the series starred Candice Bergen as Brown, a driven broadcast investigative journalist on the fictional newsmagazine show “FYI.” She was joined by a comic ensemble that included Joe Regalbuto as her friend Frank Fontana, Faith Ford as her perky colleague Corky Sherwood and Grant Shaud as the show’s neurotic producer.

Discovering that “stuffiness is not dullness,” Mr. Kimbrough played Dial as a pretentious newsman with heart and sensitivity as well as a charmingly incisive sense of right and wrong. “I always knew the man was a scoundrel,” he says after learning about a character’s misdeeds. “Anyone who makes cellular phone calls from a stall in the men’s room is capable of anything.”

He also drew on his Broadway musical experience, sitting down at a piano in one episode to perform a blustering rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” with boisterously off-key backing from Bergen.

The show won 18 Emmy Awards, and Mr. Kimbrough was nominated in 1990 for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series. When the series was rebooted in 2018, he reprised the role for a few episodes.

“He brought it all: that ramrod posture, the anchor voice, the slicked-back hair. He brought a credibility to the character,” said “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English, in a 2007 interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

“We didn’t want a Ted Baxter version of this guy,” she continued, referring to the buffoonish newscaster played by Ted Knight on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “We wanted the real deal, from the Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow era. Charlie brought all that weight, in addition to amazing comic timing.”

He also brought a rigid professionalism and self-seriousness that mystified his castmates. (In 1990, when a reporter asked Mr. Kimbrough for the three words that best described him, the actor replied with four: “Takes himself too seriously.”) His fellow actors told Entertainment Weekly that they spent more than two years gently ribbing him on set.

“We broke him,” Ford said in the roundtable interview. “Like a stallion,” Shaud added.

In part, Mr. Kimbrough explained to the magazine, he was so intense because it had been more than two years since he had a serious acting job, and he had never landed a major role on TV. “It’s a nice illusion now to think of all of us as terribly successful and talented people at the top of our profession,” he said, “but that’s hindsight. I had to pray for a job like this.”

Charles Mayberry Kimbrough was born in St. Paul, Minn., on May 23, 1936, and grew up in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill. His mother was a pianist, and his father was a salesman and brother of Emily Kimbrough, who co-wrote the best-selling memoir “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” and later worked in Hollywood.

“Theater was her life,” Mr. Kimbrough recalled. “She made me understand that I could be part of it rather than stand on the sidelines. Her gusto was my example.”

Mr. Kimbrough studied speech and theater at Indiana University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1958. Three years later, he completed a master’s degree in directing — at the time, he considered it “a more respectable profession than acting” — from the Yale School of Drama.

He performed for regional theater companies before making his Broadway debut in 1969 in “Home Fires,” a one-act play by John Guare. The production was short-lived, but it caught the attention of director and producer Harold Prince, who cast Mr. Kimbrough for his next project, “Company.”

A few years later, he and Prince worked together on a revival of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” for which he played the pedantic Dr. Pangloss.

Mr. Kimbrough acted in 15 Broadway productions in all, including as a replacement player in 1978 opposite Betsy Palmer in “Same Time, Next Year,” Bernard Slade’s hit romantic comedy. He rarely acted in movies, but lent his voice to the gargoyle Victor — the character was stuffy, naturally — in the animated Disney film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996).

His first marriage, to fellow Yale Drama School graduate Mary Jane Wilson, ended in divorce. Around that same time, in 1990, he starred in a San Diego production of Gurney’s play “Love Letters,” with Beth Howland. She had appeared with him in “Company,” playing the frantic bride Amy, and starred as a scatterbrained waitress on the sitcom “Alice.” They married in 2002. She died in 2015.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, John Kimbrough; a stepdaughter, Holly Howland; a sister; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Kimbrough said that the success of “Murphy Brown” helped underwrite his comparatively less lucrative stage career, including Broadway roles as a spry butler in the 2009 comedy “Accent on Youth”; a suitor to Lily Rabe in a 2010 staging of “The Merchant of Venice”; and, in his Broadway swan song, an overbearing psychiatrist in a 2012 revival of “Harvey,” starring Jim Parsons as a man who says he befriended an invisible giant rabbit.

Still, he was never entirely comfortable with his TV fame.

“Having a job where everyone smiled and waved at me when I came on the studio lot and valets parked my car, having that kind of success made me very superstitious,” he told the Journal. “It was like the circus act where the guy has his assistant hand up chairs to him and he goes higher and higher and the stack gets more and more teeter-y. That’s how I felt about my chain of good fortune. I haven’t gotten over it.”

Source link

Leave a Comment