Obituary: John Beal

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John Beal was described by the noted critic Brooks Atkinson as "one of the best actors in [American] theatre". He specialised in portraying characters of sensitivity and sincerity, but he also had a droll sense of humour and dark good looks. Though never a major film star, his work commanded respect and his long and prolific career embraced theatre, film, radio and television.

Born James Alexander Bliedung in Joplin, Missouri, in 1909, he studied commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, but was more attracted to the arts, studying painting, drawing and acting. He made his stage debut in 1930 as Mephistopheles in a university production of a musical, John Faust PhD, and the same year appeared in several professional productions in Pennsylvania.

His first Broadway assignment was as an understudy in That's Gratitude (1930), but his first major role was in a satire on radio, Wild Waves (1932). Beal later stated, "It was my first leading role on Broadway and I owe it all to Albert Hackett. The producers wanted him to play the part of the young man, but he wanted to quit acting and be a writer. He turned down the role but said he had seen an actor at the Provincetown Playhouse who could play the part." As a meek clerk who has a fine baritone voice but can only sing under the guise of another identity, Beal received excellent reviews, though the show ran only 25 performances.

Beal's next Broadway show, Another Language (1932) was an enormous hit. The first play by Rose Franken, it was a fine study of a middle-class family - four sons and their wives dominated by a tyrannical matriarch. Just one of the wives (Dorothy Stickney in a role turned down by Helen Hayes), a sculptor who speaks "another language" and refects the close- mindedness of the rest of the family, rebels and she finds a kindred spirit in her 21-year-old nephew Jerry (Beal), whose desire to become an architect is frowned on by the rest of the family. Brooks Atkinson called the play "subtle, beautiful and tender" and the cast was uniformly praised.

When it was filmed by MGM the following year, Helen Hayes played Stella and Beal recreated his stage role. (Several years later he played the part again on radio, with Bette Davis as Stella.) It was the sort of role to which Beal brought great sincerity and conviction, and the following year he starred opposite Katharine Hepburn in The Little Minister, J.M. Barrie's tale of a gypsy wench who falls in love with the sober minister (Beal) of a Scottish village.

Beal appeared with Hepburn again in Break of Hearts (1934), though his role was secondary to Charles Boyer, and he had another solemn part as an earnest schoolmaster in love with a naive country girl in M'Liss (1936). In the powerful drama We Who Are About To Die (1937), based on the true story of David Lamson, who spent 13 months in prison before being reprieved days before his execution, he gave a convincing depiction of the condemned innocent.

His film vehicles, though, were becoming less important, and he divided his time between Hollywood and Broadway. He had another hit play with She Loves Me Not (1933), Howard Lindsay's comedy about a night-club dancer who witnesses a gangland slaying and hides out in a boys' university dormitory. Atkinson described it as "enormously funny knockabout antic, acted to the last guffaw by a capital company". When filmed by Paramount, Bing Crosby had Beal's role.

In the film version of The Cat and the Canary (1939) starring Bob Hope, Beal was one of several shady characters, and he accepted a supporting role in Lewis Milestone's film tribute to Norwegian resistance fighers, Edge of Darkness (1943), because "I was delighted after having done a string of `B' movies to be asked to be in an important `A' again, but my part wasn't really that big. And I wasn't happy about playing a Quisling either, even though he somewhat redeems himself at the end with a spontaneous act of bravery."

During the filming Beal did a drawing of the character actor Roman Bohnen which now hangs in the Museum of the City of New York. The Second World War saw Beal directing and narrating training films for the Air Force, though he never directed features.

Later films included Disney's So Dear To My Heart (1949, as the narrator), Lewis Allen's Chicago Deadline (1949), the comedy-mystery Remains to be Seen (1953), The Vampire (1957), and That Night! (1959), a grim but gripping melodrama in which he starred as a businessman who has a heart attack.

In the theatre he frequently became a replacement lead, taking over from Elliott Nugent in Voice of the Turtle (1943), William Eythe in Lend an Ear (1949) and John Forsythe in Teahouse of the August Moon (1953). In 1959 his off-Broadway performances in Our Town and Long Day's Journey into Night received great acclaim - in the latter, he was hailed by the critic Emery Lewis as "the most significant actor in New York".

In 1962 he starred with Joseph Cotton and Patricia Medina in Calculated Risk, which opened on the eve of a newspaper strike. The play, lacking publicity, was about to close when Cotton was offered a job in a television commercial and asked for screen time instead of a fee. He spent his allocated time plugging the show and built it into a hit - one of the first demonstrations of television's use to Broadway as a means of exploitation.

John Beal was prolific on both radio and television, appearing in many live drama programmes of the Fifties, including the original production of Twelve Angry Men (1954). Later shows in which he guest-starred include Kojak, The Waltons and The Streets of San Francisco, and he starred for many years in the daytime serial Another World. His last film was Sydney Pollack's The Firm (1993). In 1934 he married the actress Helen Craig (who created the starring stage role in Johnny Belinda) and they had two daughters.

Tom Vallance

James Alexander Bliedung, actor: born Joplin, Missouri 13 August 1909; married 1934 Helen Craig (deceased; two daughters); died Santa Cruz, California 26 April 1997.

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