Eugene Roche

Character actor best known for 'Slaughterhouse Five' and his prolific work in television
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The Independent Online

After the character actor Eugene Roche's memorable performance as a prisoner of war who meets a shocking and sudden end in the film Slaughterhouse Five (1972) he became a reliable presence in movies for several years, having already achieved an impressive list of theatre and television credits in both comedy and drama.

Eugene Harrison Roche, actor: born Boston, Massachusetts 22 September 1928; twice married (nine children); died Los Angeles 28 July 2004.

After the character actor Eugene Roche's memorable performance as a prisoner of war who meets a shocking and sudden end in the film Slaughterhouse Five (1972) he became a reliable presence in movies for several years, having already achieved an impressive list of theatre and television credits in both comedy and drama.

Paunchy, with jowled features, he could convincingly play a warm-hearted sidekick, a jaded official or a devious villain. Noted for his ability to breathe life, with subtle authority, into the most stilted of roles, he maintained that his credo was a piece of advice the late James Cagney once gave him about acting, "Don't ever let 'em catch you at it." Ultimately it was for his television roles that he became best known. He starred in many TV movies, had recurring roles in such hit series as All in the Family, Soap and Magnum, P.I., and he was also known to American viewers as the kitchen-cleaning man of commercials for Ajax.

The son of a quartermaster in the US Navy, Roche was born in Boston in 1928 and raised during the Depression. An early proclivity for mimicry and character voices enabled him to start working in radio at the age of 15. On leaving high school two years later, he enlisted in the US Army and while on a troop-ship heading for Japan as part of the Allied occupation he answered a bulletin requesting an MC for a show at sea. He won the audition, and was determined thereafter to pursue a show-business career.

On discharge, he entered Emerson College in Boston on the GI Bill, simultaneously gaining acting experience playing in summer shows and taking parts in touring productions, including the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey starring Bob Fosse, and the drama Point of No Return with Henry Fonda. After being called back into the army to serve in the Korean War, he finished his education then, having married, set off with his wife, their dog and another actor, to drive to San Francisco. It was a propitious move, for on his arrival he spotted a casting notice for the newly formed Actor's Workshop of San Francisco.

From 1953 to 1958 he appeared with the company in many classic plays, and had personal triumphs as Hickey in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and as Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The latter production became the first ever to be performed in San Quentin prison, and it was chosen by the US State Department to represent America at the 1959 Brussels World Fair.

This prestigious success prompted a move to New York, where Roche was constantly employed. He did live dramatic shows on television, appeared in such series as The Naked City and The Defenders, and was in numerous commercials. Off-Broadway he starred in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood and a musical version of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which he played Mitty's philandering ex-college chum Fred Gorman and can be heard singing two numbers on the cast album.

He made his Broadway début in the play Blood, Sweat and Daniel Poole (1961) by James and William Goldman, following it with Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage (1963) starring Anne Bancroft and directed by Jerome Robbins, and A.E. Hotchner's In the White House (1964) in which Helen Hayes played the wives of five former Presidents. Roche also toured with Carol Channing in Bernard Shaw's The Millionairess (1963), and appeared on Broadway in Arthur Miller's The Price (1968). He made his screen début in the small role of a motorcycle cop in The Happening (1967), Faye Dunaway's first film, and other early films included Ossie Davis's crime comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), filmed in the Harlem district of New York.

His first film role of note was in George Roy Hill's controversial film of Kurt Vonnegut's highly individual 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five. Michael Sacks starred as the time- tripping, optometrist hero who survives a series of both earthly and inter-planetary adventures displaying man's inhumanity to man. In the early Second World War sequences, Roche made a strong impression as Sacks's kindly friend, a veteran soldier and fellow prisoner of war who innocently picks up a figurine from the rubble of Dresden and is promptly executed by a German soldier for looting. It was a chilling moment, largely because Roche had created such a warm, rounded character.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1974, Roche made further films, including the police drama Newman's Law (1974) and the comedy thriller The Late Show (1977). One of his biggest hits was Colin Higgins's highly successful Hitchcockian comedy thriller Foul Play (1978), in which Goldie Hawn turns sleuth when a hitch-hiker whispers "Beware of the dwarf" to her before expiring. Hawn and Chevy Chase as a detective eventually unravel a plot to kill the Pope, hatched by a screwball group (including Roche as a daffy archbishop, Rachel Roberts, Marc Lawrence and Billy Barty) who plan the assassination to highlight their campaign to end the exclusion of religious properties from taxation. More recently, Roche was featured in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), Executive Decision (1996) and Woman Chaser (1999).

Roche had prolific success on television, the medium which best exploited his flair for comedy. He was the shifty lawyer E. Ronald Mallu in the risqué soap opera pastiche Soap (1978-81), which broke new ground for television permissiveness (the network received 32,000 letters of protest before the show even went on the air). He was a lovable landlord in Webster (1984-86), played the grumpy private detective Luther Gillis in Magnum, P.I. (1987-89), and in Perfect Strangers (1987-88) he was a Chicago newspaper editor. TV movies featuring Roche include Liz: the Elizabeth Taylor story (1995), in which he played the film director George Stevens.

In a 1979 television version of Kaufman and Hart's hit screwball comedy You Can't Take It With You he had fun playing a would-be inventor who plays with explosives and Roman candles in the cellar while trying to make a new type of rocket. It was a role close to his heart, for Roche himself enjoyed inventing and building things at the Los Angeles home he shared with his second wife, a former actress. He was the father of nine children and happy that three of his sons followed him into the entertainment industry - Eamonn and Brogan are actors, while Sean is an Emmy award- winning writer and producer.

When asked what advice he would give an aspiring actor, Roche replied,

Persevere, and never let anything or anyone deter you from your passion. The world will cheer you one day and dismiss you the next, so treat fanfare and failure as twins.

Tom Vallance