Monday, 20 September 2010


My obituary of the character actor James Gammon, brilliant as manager Lou Brown in Major League, is in today's Guardian with a fine photo of him and Tom Berenger in that move; you can link to it here. There were only a few small changes from my original copy, which follows:


With a voice that sounded like it was strained through gravel chipped off his craggy face, James Gammon, who has died aged 70, was a memorable presence as a character actor in crime stories, rural dramas, and especially westerns and neo-westerns, from A Man Named Horse (1970), to Urban Cowboy, Silverado, Wyatt Earp, Streets Of Laredo, Wild Bill, and Appaloosa (2008). Ed Harris, who directed and starred in Appaloosa, said 'if he'd been born twenty years earlier he'd have been in every other western ever made.'

He was a natural father figure. Speaking through a perpetual squint that could be interpreted as crazy or wise or both, his best-known role was as the unflappable baseball manager Lou Brown, chosen to fail and ultimately winning in the comedy Major League (1989). In the Nineties he played Don Johnson's father in the long-running TV series Nash Bridges. And his ability to reveal an essential weakness, and the potential for violence beneath a macho exterior, made Gammon an actor of choice for playwright Sam Shepherd, playing the malevolent father-figures around whom much of his work centers.
Like Shepherd, Gammon came from a broken home. Belying his western voice, he was born in Illinois, but after his parents divorced, brought up with relatives in Orlando, Florida. After high school he worked at a local television station, as a cameraman and then director. He also began acting in community theatre, and decided to pursue that career in Los Angeles. He made his television debut in 1966, in The Wild Wild West, and his film debut, uncredited, the following year as one of the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke. Television westerns,cop shows, and small roles in films followed, before he achieved a breakthrough of sorts with a recurring role as Zach Roswell in the popular TV drama The Waltons.
Meanwhile, he co-founded the 50-seat Met Theatre in Los Angeles, where his work got him cast in the New York Public Theatre's 1973 production of Shepherd's Curse of the Starving Class, beginning an almost symbiotic relationship with the playwright. 'He definitely rang a bell with me,' Shepherd said. 'He was more than an actor. He was part of a whole world I was familiar with.' Gammon starred with Harris in Simpatico, was nominated for a Tony award for his performance in Steppenwolf's Broadway revival of Buried Child in 1996, and in 2000 played the lead in the San Francisco debut of Shepherd's The Late Henry Moss, where his co-stars, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin, came up to the playwright one-by-one asking 'who is this guy? Where did he come from?' Gammon returned to the Met to play a memorable King Lear in 2003.
He had actually played Don Johnson's father once before, in a TV movie version of The Long Hot Summer, and after Major League he was cast in Crime Story, had a lead role in the short-lived series Baghdad Cafe, and in eight episodes of the highly-regarded Homefront. After his role in Robert Redford's Milagro Beanfield War, he bought a ranch in Florida he named Milagro and on which he raised horses. Gammon played opposite Christine Lahti in Ed Zwick's overlooked Leaving Normal (1992), and as an off-beat mafia boss in Masado Harata's Painted Desert (1993), which mixed Baghdad Cafe with Bad Day At Black Rock and added yakuza. He reprised Lou Brown in Major League II (1994) and did a number of voices for the animated version of Ted Hughes' The Iron Giant (1999).
Despite his suffering from liver and adrenal cancer, Bertrand Tavernier made a point of casting him in In The Electric Mist (2008) where he was recognisable mostly by his voice. His final roles were as a sheriff in Otis E, and in the the New Daughter, based on a John Connolly ghost story. He died 16 July 2010 at home, and is survived by his second wife, Nancy Kapusa, whom he married in 1972, and two daughters. According to Shepherd, 'this was a guy who could act circles around most other actors, and he never pretended to be other than a working kind of actor.'

James Edward Gammon

born 20 April 1940 Newman, Illinois, died 16 July 2010 Costa Mesa, California

1 comment :

Judy McCrea said...

Dear Michael,

I am so glad you wrote this wonderful story on James Gammon's life and career. The photos are great!

James Gammon became an actor of interest to me after watching Major League many times as a fan of Tom Berenger.

Gammon's voice and facial expressions are poignant always and indescribably funny in that movie.

He was an American Original.