Val Avery: Character actor best known for his work with John Cassavetes
Thursday 11 February 2010
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.
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