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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,109

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This is the grave of Robert Prosky.

Born in 1930 in Philadelphia, Robert Porzuczek grew up in a working class Polish neighborhood. His father was a grocer. But as a teen, he got into acting and changed his name to something Americans could pronounce. Wonder how that acting choice was taken at home. Anyway, he got involved with the American Theatre Wing, which was a New York organization to put on plays for soldiers and support veterans upon their return through their art. Interesting idea, was not familiar with it before this. Prosky then went to Temple University and was drafted into the military. He was in Korea but then his father died and he was sent home on an economic hardship waiver to take care of his mother and younger siblings.

Prosky would never be a star. He was a That Guy. And I love some That Guys. These are the people who make the art of acting work. Otherwise, we would be sitting in the theater watching Clooney and Pitt in solo performances. For many years, he was a stage actor and must have made enough to get by. I don’t know too much about his stage performances. He started working in front of the camera only in 1971, when he was cast as Edwin Stanton in a TV movie called They’ve Killed President Lincoln! I don’t really know any of the other actors in that thing, but it was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Prosky was a big man with a craggy face. Perfect for That Guy. Also perfect for playing historical figures. His second TV bit was playing Winfield Scott, of all people, in one of the episodes of Appointment with Destiny, a three episode series narrated by Lorne Greene about the nineteenth century, from what I can figure out. Then he played Stanton again in a 1974 TV movie called Lincoln: Trial by Fire. I love the idea that producers were like, who can we get to play Stanton and decided “THERE’S ONLY ONE MAN FOR THE JOB–GET PROSKY ON THE LINE STAT!”

While still mostly known in the acting world for his theatre work, Prosky became a key player in American TV and film later in his life. He had a long-running role on Hill Street Blues. His cranky desk sergeant probably is his most iconic role in terms of what Americans remember about him. Tough role too, as he took it when Michael Conrad died during the series who played a similar character. He was actually offered the role of Coach on Cheers, but turned that down. Probably regretted that and he later guest starred on the show, though with that many episodes to fill, so did lots of people. He said that he didn’t want the role because it was a 7-year contract (I guess NBC was pretty sure this would be a successful series!) and the idea of playing the same character for 7 years was anathema to Prosky. Fair enough. He later was one of the stars of Veronica’s Closet.

Prosky’s film credits got pretty impressive at time went on. His first film appearance didn’t come until 1981, when he was cast by Michael Mann in Thief. It wasn’t that he didn’t want the work. He just didn’t get it before this. He was nearly 50 years old and now he had steady work in major films. He knew he was lucky too and talked about that later in his career. He appeared in Mrs. Doubtfire, The Natural, Hoffa, Broadcast News, Rudy, Dead Man Walking, and a lot of other quite prominent films. At the very least, he seemed to be choosy in his roles and not just taking whatever questionable offer came. Most of these are small roles, but he was often quite good in them.

Still, there’s no question that theatre was his first love. He was mostly based out of Washington, not New York or Los Angeles. This was his choice. So he was a leader in the theatre scene of that city. He was especially known for his work as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, which he played several times. He was also in the Broadway performances of the David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 1983, which of course was a sensation. But he wasn’t a big enough name to get the film role. Given the quality of that film and the fact that Jack Lemmon got the Shelley role, I think it’s OK. However, at the very least, the Guardian obituary for Prosky claimed his work in the role was far more convincing than Lemmon’s. For his work in Glengarry, he was nominated for a Tony. He also received a Tony nomination for A Walk in the Woods in 1988, where he played a Soviet disarmament negotiator. In fact, Prosky was a key guy in all sorts of spy-espionage-Cold War productions. He could play an aging cranky CIA agent or an aging cranky KGB agent with ease. And he did both. He had worked on Broadway occasionally through these years, including in Michael Weller’s Moonchildren in 1972 and Arthur Miller’s A View from a Bridge revival in 1984.

Prosky worked until pretty close to the end. His last film role was in the 2009 movie The Skeptic, which looks like a highly mediocre haunted house movie. Alas, he had already died by the time this was released. He had heart surgery in 2008 and it didn’t go well. He died that year, at the age of 77.

Robert Prosky is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to visit other nominees for the Tony Awards in 1984, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Philip Bosco is in Englewood, New Jersey and Gene Barry is in Culver City, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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