Maury Chaykin: Character actor whose film credits include 'Dances with Wolves' and 'My Cousin Vinny'

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The Independent Online

The burly Canada-based actor Maury Chaykin was once described as "a master of the show-stopping cameo".

With his hangdog appearance and shock of unruly hair with greying temples, he excelled at playing careworn, shady, duplicitous or slightly dim characters, and made a memorable impression in such roles as the unhinged major who commits suicide in Dances with Wolves (1990), the slow-witted Southern witness in My Cousin Vinny (1992), and the diner owner who befriends an English writer seeking to fulfil his fantasy of befriending a teen heart-throb in Love and Death on Long Island (1996). He was also the sophisticated private detective Nero Wolfe in the television series that ran for two years on the BBC. More recently, Chaykin was seen in the television series Entourage, in which he played a go-getting agent palpably based on Harvey Weinstein.

The younger of two sons of a professor of accountancy at City College of New York, he was born in Brooklyn in 1949 and studied theatre arts at the State University of New York in Buffalo, later training at Buffalo's American Contemporary Theatre. After several years as a struggling actor in New York City, appearing mainly in fringe theatre productions, he accepted an offer to work in Toronto's underground theatre in 1974, and made the city his home.

He first attracted major attention when he appeared as computer hacker Jim Sting in WarGames (1983), one of over 150 film and television roles he played. His movies included Mrs Soffel (1984), in which he was a guard at the prison housing a convicted murderer (Mel Gibson) with whom the warden's wife (Diane Keaton) falls in love. Keaton later cast him in the role of eccentric Uncle Arthur in a film she directed, Unstrung Heroes (1995). His bizarre cavalry officer in Dances with Wolves, who shoots himself after scribbling orders that send a young lieutenant (Kevin Costner) off to a remote fort, made a chilling impression, as did his child-molesting politician in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), while in contrast he won laughs in My Cousin Vinny as the yokel and murder-trial witness insisting that "no self-respectin' Southerner uses instant grits".

In Love and Death on Long Island, Richard Kwietniowski's droll transcription of Gilbert Adair's novel about obsession, he was Irv, the endearing owner of a small-town diner he calls "Chez d'Irv" which is frequented by a British writer (John Hurt) who plots to befriend a young actor. Hurt later described working with Chaykin as a joy, and both director and star worked with him again on Owning Mahowny (2002), the story of a compulsive gambler (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with Chaykin as a seedy bookie hounding Hoffman for payment and Hurt as a casino manager determined to reap the benefits of Hoffman's weakness. A rare leading role in the film Whale Music (1994), playing a faded rock star, won Chaykin the Genie Award, Canada's equivalent of the Oscar.

Chaykin's television work included roles in episodes of Night Heat and Crime Story, and he won the Gemini Award (Canada's Emmy) for his performance in an episode of La Femme Nikita (1998) playing a mentally challenged pizza-delivery man who unwittingly discovers a plot to smuggle nuclear weapons into the country.

His role as Rex Stout's literary detective Nero Wolfe was one of the few heroic roles played by Chaykin, but he convincingly embodied the fastidious sleuth who lives in a New York townhouse, cultivates orchids, has a passion for beer and gourmet food, and leaves the more strenuous parts of detecting to his partner, Archie (Jim Hutton, who was also one of the show's producers). The series started as a single TV movie, The Golden Spiders (2000), which was an immediate hit, though the series it spawned, titled A Nero Wolfe Mystery, lasted only two seasons.

Chaykin later played a character named Nerus in the science-fiction series Stargate SG-1; the name was no accident. "The writer was a great fan of Nero Wolfe," Chaykin explained. In the show-business series Entourage (2005-2007) he gave a blatantly satirical depiction of a volatile producer named Harvey Weingard, and Chaykin stated in 2007: "I have never worked for Harvey Weinstein and now I think maybe I never will."

In an interview earlier this year he described being a character actor as "a blessing", praising the producers and directors who have "seen different aspects of me". He stated: "There have been attempts to typecast me, but I've been in control of that by protecting myself financially, so that I'm not in a position where I have to take the same kind of gigs all the time... I've been so happy in the way things have panned out."

Maury Alan Chaykin, actor: born Brooklyn, New York 27 July 1949; twice married (one daughter); died Toronto, Ontario 27 July 2010.