Tom Aldredge (1928-2011); Consummate Supporting Actor

I did not realize the extent to which Tom Aldredge was a hero of mine till the news of his death on Friday, July 22, of lymphoma, at age 83, made me look back on his half century of performances, Off-Broadway and on, which brought me several important realizations: I realize that, despite the wide range of roles he played, I never saw Tom Aldredge give a bad performance, or one in which he seemed miscast.

And though he was always instantly recognizable onstage, he never seemed to be playing himself, or just supplying business as usual. Each role was carefully crafted and fully inhabited for its own sake.

His whimpery-cranky Giles Corey, in the last Broadway revival of The Crucible (2002), seemed nothing like his rachitic, melancholy Horace Giddens in The Little Foxes (1981), and I can hardly believe that either came from the same actor who played the perkily self-deluding "Jimmy Tomorrow" in the James Earl Jones revival of The Iceman Cometh (1973).

None of these could have been called business as usual: Business as usual does not earn an actor an Obie, a Drama Desk Award, an Emmy, and five Tony nominations. Even more remarkable than Aldredge's ability was the versatility with which he employed it. His long stage career seems to have come in intertwined strings of roles, as it were, each cherished by a different subset of New York theatergoers. Loyal followers of Shakespeare in the Park might remember him as Angelo or Aguecheek — how many Angelos have also played Aguecheek? — as well as Lear's Fool, Cymbeline, Tybalt, or John of Gaunt. Broadway musical fans would recognize Aldredge as the Doctor in Sondheim's Passion, or the mysterious Narrator who turns out to have such an important bearing on Into the Woods, or as Amy Spettigue's crusty uncle in the Raul Julia revival of Where's Charley? (1974).

And though Aldredge could and did play gay roles with unfussy ease — he created the role of the lecherous, dying painter in Tennessee Williams's Vieux Carré (1977) — one whole separate strand of his career found him as the variously assiduous or recalcitrant consort to a sparkling parade of dramatic divas: He played spouse to Elizabeth Wilson in Sticks and Bones (1971); Frances Sternhagen in On Golden Pond (1979); Elizabeth Taylor, no less, in that Little Foxes; Polly Holliday in the Lincoln Center revival of Laurents's Time of the Cuckoo (2000). And yes, that was him, seeming breathlessly older than his actual years, as Glenda Jackson's fast-fading father in Strange Interlude (1985). He was 57 at the time; Jackson was nearly 50. He actually seemed younger, in 2006, while escorting Eartha Kitt through an Off-Broadway mishap called Mimi le Duck.

In none of these, I stress, did he merely function as filler; as in his other roles, in each of these he was specific, precise, unique. You came away from each knowing that you had seen two distinct individuals onstage, not a star and her willing assistant. If Aldredge was, primarily, a supporting actor, he was one who knew that the job required him to act, and not simply to support. Offstage, of course, he played his longest-running role, as half of one of our theater's greatest mutual-support teams, with his wife, the superb costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge, matching him in ability, range, and supportiveness. She died on January 21, almost exactly six months before him.

For half a century, they enhanced our stage as a team. Their departure leaves, not an absence but a powerful, invisible wall of memories, waiting for young artists of equal integrity to emulate and, if they can, to outdo it.

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