Award-winning thesp leaves behind film, TV legacy

Tony- and Emmy-winning character actor Ray Walston, who achieved success on the Broadway stage in the mid-1950s as the devil in “Damn Yankees” and later found popularity on the small screen as the lovable extraterrestrial in the 1960s sitcom “My Favorite Martian,” died Monday of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 86.

Walston played opposite Bill Bixby as a Martian explorer stranded on Earth. His antennae-sprouting alien character masqueraded as Bixby’s “Uncle Martin” and spent most of the episodes trying to conceal his identity from curious Earthlings.

Despite its popularity, the role of Uncle Martin actually slowed Walston’s Hollywood career. When the series went off the air in 1966 after a three-year run, the typecast actor returned to the stage for several years before re-emerging with a succession of solid supporting roles in movies and television.

But it took Walston decades to receive award recognition from the Hollywood community: “I have 30 seconds to tell you I have been waiting 60 years to get on this stage,” he said in his 1995 Emmy acceptance speech.

A New Orleans native, Walston began his acting career in 1939 with the Margo Jones Community Players in Houston, Texas. He then spent two seasons with the Cleveland Playhouse before relocating to New York with a job in a production of “Hamlet” starring Maurice Evans.

He worked regularly over the next few years and received important nods from the theater community: the Clarence Dervent Award as best supporting actor of the season and selection as most promising young actor in the Variety Drama Critics’ Poll.

In 1949, Walston began a 20-year association with legendary legit director George Abbott, performing in five of Abbott’s productions. He also stepped into more formidable roles with the Chicago production of “South Pacific.” He later reprised the role of the hustling Seabee Luther Bills in the London production starring Mary Martin, playing it again in the film version.

Walston hit paydirt in 1955 when he created his second great role and perhaps most memorable one beside “Uncle Martin” as the devil in Broadway’s “Damn Yankees.” His role as Mr. Applegate garnered him the Tony Award as best male musical comedy star. The show also won a Tony for best musical and introduced Gwen Verdon to Broadway fans as the devil’s sexy assistant.

With his Broadway career in full swing, Walston went to Hollywood and re-created his stage roles in “South Pacific” and “Damn Yankees” with equal success. He also co-starred with Bing Crosby in “Say One for Me” and appeared in several films, including the 1957 movie “Kiss Them for Me,” with Cary Grant, and “The Apartment.” He also had a supporting role in the Billy Wilder-helmed Dean Martin starrer “Kiss Me, Stupid.”

Later, he appeared in the film version of “Paint Your Wagon,” starring Lee Marvin along with such pics as “The Sting,” “Silver Streak” and “Stephen King’s The Stand.”

Walston was also known to audiences as the irascible Poopdeck Pappy in Robert Altman’s live-action film “Popeye” in 1980, and as the crusty, slacker-hating teacher Mr. Hand in the 1982 teen comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

In 1999, Walston made a cameo appearance in the feature film version of “My Favorite Martian,” which starred Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Martin and Jeff Daniels in Bixby’s role as the alien’s beleaguered partner.

Walston returned to television in 1992 for the CBS series “Picket Fences,” playing Judge Bone. He earned three Emmy nominations for the role and won twice, in 1995 and 1996.

In a 1996 interview, Walston said he had recently turned down a request to appear on a television news report on the possibility of life on Mars.

“Would you believe they were planning a sequence featuring two of the world’s most distinguished scientists evaluating this monumental discovery, and they wanted to sandwich me in as sort of comedy relief?” Walston said. “Of course, I said no.”

He is survived by his wife Ruth, a daughter and two children.

A private service will be held at noon on Saturday at Westwood (Calif.) Village Mortuary.

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