Leonardo Cimino: Actor whose career spanned 60 years

Gavin Gaughan
Sunday 15 April 2012 13:53 BST

Leonardo Cimino epitomised the sort of character actor it is impossible to imagine as having been young.

Coming to the screen after a lifetime on the Broadway and off-Broadway stages, Cimino had a diminutive, stooped frame and a long, thin face, with a penetrating stare. Despite his physical frailty, he remained durable, with over 60 years in the profession. His was a singular presence: sometimes sinister, sometimes humane.

He was born in Manhattan to Italian parents, his father a tailor. In a sense, Cimino never left New York, his background guaranteeing casting as high-ranking members of the Mafia, urban ethnic types and clerics. He studied the violin at the Julliard before becoming drawn to acting.

His sister Maria was a librarian, in the children's department of the south-west Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. By 1929, her brother was staging puppet shows for children there, the audience's enjoyment striking a chord with library assistant Pura Belpre, subsequently a puppeteer herself, children's author and oral storyteller.

In the Second World War he served in the army and was part of the second wave in the Normandy landings. Back in the city, he studied acting, directing and modern dance at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Reputedly, it was while attending one of Martha Graham's dance classes that a chance meeting with actor and director Jose Ferrer led to Cimino's Broadway debut, in 1946 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, supporting Ferrer in his most famous role, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Ferrer retained him for a season at the City Center in 1948, which included Volpone and The Insect Comedy. At the end of 1947, at the Maxine Eliott Theatre, he was "Second Sacristan" in the NY production of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, starring, and adapted by, Charles Laughton, and directed by Joseph Losey. In The Liar (1950), an off-Broadway musical, one of his fellow supporting actors was a young Walter Matthau.

Cimino had the title role in Vincent (Cricket Theatre, 1959), advertised as "Van Gogh vs Gauguin". His performance as the servant Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov (1957-58), at the Gate Theatre on Second Avenue, earned him a Village Voice Obie Award. He played the Indian magistrate Mr Das in the Broadway transfer of "Binkie" Beaumont's production of A Passage To India (Ambassador Theatre, 1962).

For Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1975 he was the unfortunate Egeon in The Comedy Of Errors, which had two unexpected Shakespeareans in Danny De Vito and Ted Danson. Eleven years later, at the Newman Theater and under the same auspices, he was Polonius to Kevin Kline's Hamlet.

Among his earliest television appearances was The Phil Silvers Show (1959), as a Mexican bandit who steals Bilko and his chums' clothes, in an episode co-written by Neil Simon. He did six episodes of Naked City (1958-63), made and set in New York, as were (mostly) Kojak (1974, 1976), The Equaliser (1986, 1989), and Law And Order (1996, 2000).

As Woody Allen's therapist in Stardust Memories (1980) he got to address the audience, declaring he had diagnosed Allen with Ozymandias Melancholia. David Lynch's version of Dune (1984), had him as an effusive doctor tending to the monstrous Baron Harkonnen. He was a red herring in The Monster Squad (1987), as a forbidding German recluse, eventually revealed to be a former concentration camp inmate, before adding to the Italian-American atmosphere in Moonstruck (1987). The right-wing critic Michael Medved was appalled by Monsignor (1982), including Cimino as an "shrivelled, anorexic Pope".

The absurd TV science fiction saga V (1983) concerned an invasion of Earth by alien lizards. In these unlikelycircumstances, Cimino provided agenuine moment of emotional forceas a Holocaust survivor who explains the true meaning of the Victory sign. Waiters were another speciality – he served Marlon Brando in The Freshman (1990) and argued with Vince Vaughn in Made (2001). Years earlier, he had briefly taught at the New York High School for the Performing Arts, replacing Sidney Lumet. The fecund, versatile director used him in Q&A (1990), and as a disreputable jeweller in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), the last film for both of them.

Leonardo Anthony Cimino, actor: born Manhattan 4 November 1917; married Sharon Powers; died Woodstock, New York 3 March 2012.

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