Val Avery: Character actor best known for his work with John Cassavetes

Val Avery, a versatile character actor with a bulky persona and craggy, pock-marked features, played in over 100 films and 200 television shows in a career that spanned 50 years.

His consistently rumpled appearance brought him multiple roles as down-and-outs, barflys or devious criminals, but he specialised particularly in tough law breakers (or occasionally enforcers) and he also had a fine line in bartenders willing to lend an ear to his customers' musings.

Occasionally he displayed a flair for comedy – in an episode of the series The Odd Couple he played a dentist who invented a super-glue. He was a particular favourite of the actor-director John Cassavetes, who cast him in five episodes of his television series Johnny Staccato, then in five films he directed, Too Late Blues (1961), Faces (1968), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Gloria (1980). He also appeared in four episodes of Columbo, the television series that starred Cassavetes' close friend Peter Falk. In one episode, "A Friend in Deed" (1974), in which he played a cat burglar who aids Columbo in solving a crime, he was directed by another of the Cassavetes group, Ben Gazzara.

Other screen credits included three films with Paul Newman, The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Hud (1963) and Hombre (1967), plus the classic Western The Magnificent Seven (1960). His television work included episodes of Gunsmoke, Peter Gunn, Bonanza and The Untouchables, and a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone entitled "The Night of the Meek" (1960), in which he played a bartender comforting a sacked department-store Santa Claus (Art Carney), who is granted his wish to really become Santa. Writer Rod Serling confessed that he wrote the show because of his longing to see Carney playing Santa Claus, but it has become one of the most popular of the Twilight Zone stories with viewers, who find it sentimental, touching and timeless.

Born Sebouh Der Abrahamian in Philadelphia in 1924, he was the son of Mgerdich der Abrahamian, a revolutionary Armenian and a founder of the republic of Armenia. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, as a youth he acted in plays staged by the Armenian Youth Federation, and after serving in the Second World War he studied at the Bessie V. Hicks School of Drama in Philadelphia. Moving to Manhattan in the mid-Fifties, he began appearing in live television dramas. In 1953 he married the actress Margot Stevenson, who survives him, and they had one daughter.

His film debut was an uncredited role in the boxing drama The Harder They Fall (1956), Humphrey Bogart's last film. The next year Avery appeared with Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City, and in 1975 Poitier, as director and star, gave him one of his rare comic roles as a dim-witted police lieutenant in Let's Do It Again. In many of his early films, such as King Creole (1958), with Elvis Presley, and The Long, Hot Summer, he was uncredited. He was a bartender in Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) and a corset salesman in The Magnificent Seven.

His first notable screen role was in Too Late Blues, Cassevetes' most disciplined film and arguably his best. With a persuasive depiction of a small-time jazz group, a haunting score by David Raksin and fine performances, it echoed Conrad's Lord Jim in its account of the profound effects of an isolated act of cowardice.

As a cynical record producer ("I hate commercialism, too, kid, but what am I to do?"), Avery is impressed by the wordless vocal crooning of Stella Stevens as she sings along with the group. "I like that no-singing singing," he enthuses. Avery followed it with the role of a fight promoter in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and he was a ranch hand in Hud, a stationmaster in Hombre, a Mafia psychopath named "Socks Parelli" in Sidney Lumet's impressive tale of a bank robbery, The Anderson Tapes (1971), a police inspector in The Laughing Policeman (1973), with Walter Matthau, and a prisoner in Papillon (1973).

Avery played a bartender in films including The Hallelujah Trail (1965) Nevada Smith (1966) and No Way to Treat a Lady (1968). He was particularly menacing in The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), as the Mafia chieftain who cuts off Eric Roberts' thumb. On television he made a notable impact as a series of crime lords in Mission: Impossible (1968-72), and he was still playing gangsters in 1997, when he featured in Donnie Brasco.

In 1998 he made a rare appearance on stage, playing an Italian grandfather who cherishes family life in Joe DiPietro's hit off-Broadway comedy Over the River and through the Woods. His last film role was that of the judge in Jan Kounen's existentialist Western, Blueberry (2004), starring Vincent Cassel as the comic-book hero.

Avery was also known for his superb cooking, and specialised in Chinese and Armenian dishes. He and his wife lived in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where until Cassavetes' death in 1989 he would regularly meet him, along with Gazzara and Falk, in a local bar. Reflecting on his career in a 1999 interview, he said, "In the early years there were times when it was rough, times when I thought of packing it in, and then a job would open up, and it would lead to another and another and another, until I had a career and a life."

Val Avery (Sebouh Der Abrahamian), actor: born Philadelphia 14 July 1924; married 1953 Margot Stevenson (one daughter); died New York City 12 December 2009.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
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

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game