Ian Abercrombie: Character actor best known in 'Seinfeld'

 

From Essex to Hollywood – such was the trajectory of Ian Abercrombie. In spite of an acting career that included CGI animation, video games and online gaming services, he often seemed like a throwback. Had he been born some decades earlier he would have fitted comfortably into the Hollywood Raj of exiled British actors.

Never commanding leading parts, he was repeatedly cast in what Americans seem to think their audiences see as typically British – butlers (constantly), snobbish head waiters and characters called Nigel. Stocky in build and bald, speaking in what Americans term a "clipped" accent, he owned an impressively jowled face that seemed composed of subtle signs of disapproval. A visual trademark was the widening of his blue eyes, in alarm or bewilderment. The critically lauded sitcom Seinfeld (1990-98) gave him his most recognised role.

One of four brothers, he was born in Grays, Essex, leaving for America aged 17, and making his stage debut in a 1951 production of Stalag 17 at New York's 48th Street Theatre in which Jason Robards was an understudy.

In 2010 he insisted that he had never been an extra, "in over 46 years of being in film and TV", but some non-speaking assignments, like Wild Wild West (1999), came close. He had Cockney-accented bit parts in Von Ryan's Express (1965), startled by recognising his padre in German uniform, and Star! (1968), heckling Bruce Forsyth.

Abercrombie was required casting for series episodes set in Britain, featuring stock footage of London landmarks, suspiciously sunny countrysides and extras in flat caps, such as Columbo (1972), the pilot for Fantasy Island (1977), and Murder, She Wrote (1987). He complained that his part was cut from Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974), though he can be spotted.

At the California Centre for Performing Arts in 1981, he supported Anthony Hopkins in The Arcata Promise, a play by David Mercer that Hopkins had previously done on ITV. He played a Hindu, and Inspector Lestrade, in The Crucifer Of Blood (1980-81) at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, with Charlton Heston as Sherlock Holmes and a future Holmes, Jeremy Brett, as Watson. At the city's Doolittle Theatre in 1991, he did Noel Coward's The Vortex, with Rupert Everett.

Sweet Prince, at New York's Theatre Off Park (1982), was a two-hander between a film star tackling Hamlet and his understudy. The much-feared critic Frank Rich, in the New York Times, considered that Abercrombie "contributes sensitive work; if one couldn't quite picture him understudying any Hamlet, one could at least imagine him standing by for Tom Courtenay in The Dresser."

Abercrombie was also active in the field of Additional Dialogue Replacement (ADR), dubbing lines for other actors that had been unsatisfactorily recorded, and sometimes generic crowd noises. Examples included John Huston's The Dead (1987) and Gladiator (2000); of the task of synchronising, he recalled: "The toughest one was Titanic, as the people fell overboard screaming before hitting the icy waters."

Sam Raimi cast him in Army Of Darkness (1992), as a sage in a long beard, spouting a spell borrowed from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Having been in David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks (1990), he worked again for Lynch, on the big screen and as a butler, in Inland Empire (2006). His butling continued in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), where he was charmed by Steven Spielberg's enthusiasm for Fellini, and Desperate Housewives (2006)

He made seven episodes of Seinfeld as Mr Pitt, the neurotic, exacting, braces-wearing employer of Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), engaging in verbal duels. The series was never as successful in Britain as in the US due to being scheduled late at night on BBC2, resulting in Abercrombie remaining largely unknown in his own country.

Birds of Prey (2002-03), a Batman spin-off which cast him unimaginatively as Alfred the butler, and Wizards of Waverly Place (2007-12), as Professor Crumbs, were live-action TV series. His voice work on animated features included Shrek (2001), Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) as the evil future Emperor, and Rango (2011). He was a long-time board member of the Los Angeles division of Bafta. In 2007, he reflected, "I thankfully fall into the category of working actor, a rare event these days."

Ian Abercrombie, actor: born Grays, Essex 11 September 1934; married Gladys; died Hollywood 26 January 2012.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine