OBITUARIES: Severn Darden;

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Severn Darden

and the Compass Improvisational Theatre revolutionised the art of comedy in America.

Forty years ago, Darden drove from New York to Chicago in his Rolls-Royce Phantom One to take up his first job with the Compass, borrowing the money to buy the petrol from the actress Diane Cilento. The Compass players at that time included Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, and Shelly Berman. They had started out by appearing at the University of Chicago, before moving to a warehouse, which they turned into a cabaret. In 1963 the Compass company travelled to London for a short season at the Comedy Theatre.

Darden was the scion of a wealthy New Orleans family whose life on stage and off was the source of many colourful anecdotes of Dada-esque behaviour. "He was the symbol of the Old South, risen again. He was all dignity," wrote Janet Coleman, in her history of the Compass. "He had an extraordinary power. He would say and do things that left people truly paralysed. Once, dressed in evening clothes, he and a black actor friend entered the . . . elitist Stork Club. 'Where can we piss?' he shouted at the maitre d'. After capturing the attention of the room, he and his friend moved towards the loo. No one at the Stork Club could top that stunning line."

Darden's most famous role with the Compass was the mad Professor Walter von der Vogelwide who explained that "philosophers can tell you millions of things that 'thought' isn't, and they can't tell you what it is. And that bugs them." As the Professor, he would introduce a lecture on metaphysics and then proceed to talk about anything from the evolution of Attic figureware from the second century to the role of prehistoric animals in the upper atmosphere. "There is no such thing as talking up to an audience. An obscure or erudite reference was as funny to them as a low one," he claimed.

When the Compass lost its original approach, Darden took his peculiar flair for character parts to Hollywood, where it really flourished. He became a comedy character actor, playing mad psychiatrists, psychotic losers, thwarted lovers, and power-mad generals. His most interesting characterisations were in movies like The President's Analyst (1967), Luv (1967), Vanishing Point (1971), Cisco Pike (1971), The War Between Men and Women (1972), Who Fears the Devil (1974), In God We Trust (1980) and Planet of the Apes (1968). Always at war with the rigid demands of the Hollywood establishment, he soon earned a reputation for being "difficult" and demand for his services eventually dried up.

After a triple heart bypass, he lived in semi-retirement in Los Angeles, occasionally teaching classes in improvisational theatre, and appearing in avant-garde plays in New York. In 1992 he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he died.

Jay Landesman

Severn Teackle Darden, actor: born New Orleans 9 November 1929; married three times; died Santa Fe, New Mexico 26 May 1995.

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