Hume Cronyn dies at 91

Stage and screen actor

Stage and screen actor Hume Cronyn, who with his wife of 52 years, Jessica Tandy, was half of one of the theater world’s most formidable pairings, died Sunday in Fairfield, Conn., of prostate cancer. He was a month shy of his 92nd birthday.

Best known as an actor, the versatile Cronyn was also a writer and director of several plays and films. He was the winner of two Tonys, three Emmys, a Writers Guild award, an Oscar nomination and a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award.

Born on July 18, 1911, in London, Ontario, Cronyn was from British stock. His father, a financier and political figure, was descended from one of London’s oldest families. Cronyn studied law at McGill U. With his short stature and wiry build, he was an amateur boxer, nominated for the Canadian Olympic boxing team in 1932.

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Acting bug bites

But the allure of theater drew him away from law, and he studied in Europe under Max Reinhardt before moving on to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In 1934 he made his Broadway debut in “Hipper’s Holiday,” a flop, but then went on to appear in such hits as “Three Men on a Horse,” “Room Service,” “High Tor” and a 1939 production of “Three Sisters,” which prompted critic Brooks Atkinson to write, “Hume Cronyn gives further proof of his very considerable and generally unrecognized talents.”

(He went on to win a featured actor Tony for his performance as Polonius in a 1964 production of “Hamlet.”)

In the 1940s he moved into movies, with Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Lifeboat,” and contributed to the scripts for the director’s films “Under Capricorn” and “Rope.”

Other film credits over the years included the ’43 “Phantom of the Opera,” “Lifeboat,” the ’46 “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Sunrise at Campobello,” the Elizabeth Taylor “Cleopatra,” “The Parallax View” and “The Pelican Brief.” He made his last appearance on the bigscreen in 1996’s “Marvin’s Room.”

In tandem with Tandy

Many of Cronyn’s most notable roles, however, came along with his equally famous wife. In “A Terrible Liar,” the actor’s 1991 autobiography, he tells of the 1940 play “Juniper Laughs” in which he spotted the young Tandy, a recent British arrival, and pursued her until she agreed to marry him. They wed in 1942, and she moved with him to Los Angeles, where he was an MGM contract player.

Under Cronyn’s direction, Tandy, whom Cronyn often called “Jessie,” appeared at L.A.’s Las Palmas Theater in several one-act dramas by a young playwright named Tennessee Williams.

“Portrait of a Madonna” won critical approval, and Tandy’s performance sufficiently impressed Williams that he cast her in his new play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

As their stage careers blossomed, Cronyn and Tandy were widely considered the successors to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as America’s preeminent acting couple.

Starring together

After Cronyn directed her in a production of Samson Raphaelson’s “Hilda Crane,” the pair appeared together in such productions as Jan de Hartog’s marital comedy “The Fourposter,” “The Honeys,” “A Day by the Sea,” “Triple Play,” “The Physicists” and Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.”

In the mid-’70s, Tandy and Cronyn starred in “Noel Coward in Two Keys.” Mike Nichols directed the pair in “The Gin Game.” The couple traveled with the play (which won a Pulitzer Prize) around the country and to Moscow, Leningrad and London.

In 1983, she played a widow dealing with the ghost of her husband (Cronyn) in “Foxfire,” which Cronyn adapted from a series of books along with Susan Cooper. Tandy won an Emmy for the 1987 TV presentation of “Foxfire.”

Directed B’way plays

Cronyn also directed several plays over the years, making his Broadway helming debut with 1990’s “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

In June 1994, a frail Tandy and Cronyn were presented with the first Tony Lifetime Achievement Award.

The two also had dozens of prominent pairings on film and TV, including Tandy’s propitious film debut in 1944’s “The Seventh Cross,” for which Cronyn received a supporting actor Oscar nom.

In the first decade of television, Tandy and Cronyn made numerous appearances on TV series like U.S. Steel Hour, Philco Playhouse and Studio 57.

Director Ron Howard cast the two, along with other acting veterans such as Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Gwen Verdon, in the 1985 sci-fi drama “Cocoon,” which was a huge success and spawned the 1988 sequel “Cocoon: The Return.”

‘Garp’ in ’82

Other onscreen appearances together included 1982’s “The World According to Garp” and 1987’s “Batteries Not Included.”

Tandy died Sept. 11, 1994, the day Cronyn won an Emmy award for “To Dance With the White Dog,” a CBS/Hallmark Hall of Fame telepic. He and Tandy had been nominated as lead actor and actress in a miniseries or special for the work, which ironically is about a man coping with the death of his wife.

Matthew Robbins, who directed the pair in “Batteries Not Included,” remembered them as an excellent complement: “Hume was very analytical and she worked instinctually.”

In 1996, Cronyn married Cooper, who had co-written “Foxfire” and the telepic “The Dollmaker” with him and penned “To Dance with the White Dog.”

Tough and energetic

Cronyn may never have experienced the highs of Tandy’s creation of the Blanche DuBois role in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and her Oscar win more than 40 years later for “Driving Miss Daisy,” but he managed to live up to his own exacting standards.

“To go on being an actor, you need sheer animal energy,” he once said. “If you can’t restock that energy, you have to hide your lack of it.” And despite losing an eye to cancer in 1969, in the 60-plus years since his stage debut, he made nearly 100 TV and movie appearances and often performed in as many as three plays a year.

Glenn Jordan, who helmed “To Dance with the White Dog,” recalled that quality in working with the then-81 year-old actor.

“I was prepared to accommodate the schedule to him, but he had more energy than anyone,” he said.

Cronyn is survived by his wife Susan, two children, three stepchildren,eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Services will be private.

(Ben Fritz contributed to this report.)