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Charles Kimbrough, Emmy-nominated Murphy Brown actor, dies at 86

Charles Kimbrough, Emmy-nominated Murphy Brown actor, dies at 86


Charles Kimbrough, who received an Emmy nomination for playing uptight anchorman Jim Dial on the sitcom Murphy Brown, one of many pretentious and comically stuffy characters he humanized for stage and screen, has died on January 11 at a hospital in Culver City, California. He was 86 years old.

His death, which was confirmed by SMS Talent, was first reported by The New York Times on Sunday. The agency did not share details about the cause.

Tall and handsome, with a patrician look and dark, curly hair, Mr Kimbrough was first known for his appearance in the Stephen Sondheim Musical Company in 1970, delivering a Tony-nominated performance as Harry, the recovering alcoholic who is completely ambivalent or sorry-grateful, as he says about his marriage.

Over the next half-century, it gave life to a parade of buttoned-down aristocrats, pompous executives and high-society men who wore their suits like armour.

He was the French painter Jules, a rival of pointillist master Georges Seurat, in Sondheims 1984 musical Sunday in the Park With George. He was the quiet diplomat in a 1985 revival of Nol Cowards Hay Fever. And he was the embodiment of a declining world of WASP privilege in Later Life, Sylvia, and other off-Broadway plays by AR Gurney.

Yet for many years he remained resentful of being pigeonholed.

Unfortunately, I’m really good at playing donkeys of one kind or another, he said the Wall Street Journal in 2012. I’ve always been a bit shy as an actor, and I guess that sometimes reads like emphasis. From the age of 30, I somehow gave an impression at an audition that mentally put them in a three-piece suit or put a briefcase in my hand.

If there was a stiff type role, he continued, the director would cheer up when I walked in. It wasn’t the answer I wanted. I was in anguish.

Mr. Kimbrough had what he described as something of an epiphany playing the stoic reporter Dial, a staple of Murphy Brown’s original 10 seasons. First shown on CBS in 1988, the series starred Candice Bergen as Brown, an avid investigative reporter on the fictional show FYI. She was joined by a comic set that included Joe Regalbuto as her friend Frank Fontana, Faith Ford as her perky colleague Corky Sherwood, and Grant Shaud as the show’s neurotic producer.

Discovering that suffocation isn’t boring, Mr. Kimbrough played Dial as a cocky reporter with heart and sensibility as well as a charming, incisive sense of right and wrong. I always knew the man was a villain, he says after learning about a character’s misdeeds. Anyone making phone calls from a booth in the men’s room is capable of anything.

He also drew inspiration from his Broadway musical experience, sitting down at the piano in one episode to play a thundering interpretation from Dont Get Around Much Anymore with loudly quirky backing from Bergen.

The show has won 18 Emmys and Mr. Kimbrough was nominated in 1990 for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. When the series was rebooted in 2018, he took over the role for a few episodes.

He brought it all: that wand pose, the grounding voice, the slicked back hair. He brought credibility to the character, said Murphy Brown creator Diane English in a 2007 interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

We didn’t want a Ted Baxter version like that, she continued, referring to the buffoonish news anchor played by Ted Knight on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We wanted the real deal, from the era of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow. Charlie brought all that weight, plus incredible comedic timing.

He also brought a stiff professionalism and earnestness that mystified his castmates. (In 1990, when a reporter asked Mr. Kimbrough which three words best described him, the actor answered with four: Takes himself too seriously.) His fellow actors told Entertainment Weekly that they spent more than two years gently caressing him on set.

We broke it, Ford said in the roundtable interview. Like a stallion, Shaud added.

In part, Mr. Kimbrough told the magazine, he was so intense because it had been more than two years since he had had a serious acting job and had never landed a major role at television. It’s a beautiful illusion now to think of all of us as terribly successful and talented people at the top of our profession, he said, but that’s hindsight. I had to pray for a job like this.

Charles Mayberry Kimbrough was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 23, 1936, and grew up in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois. Her mother was a pianist and her father was a salesman and brother to Emily Kimbrough, who co-wrote the hit memoir Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and later worked in Hollywood.

The theater was his life, Mr. Kimbrough recalls. She made me realize that I could be a part of it rather than staying on the sidelines. His enthusiasm was my example.

Mr. Kimbrough studied speech and acting at Indiana University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1958. Three years later he earned a master’s degree in directing at the time he considered it a more respectable profession than acting at the Yale School of Drama.

He performed for regional theater companies before making his Broadway debut in 1969 in Home Fires, a one-act play by John Guare. Production was short-lived, but it caught the eye of director and producer Harold Prince, who cast Mr. Kimbrough for his next project, Company.

A few years later, he and Prince worked together on a cover of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, for which he played the pedantic Dr. Pangloss.

Mr Kimbrough starred in 15 Broadway productions in all, including as a stand-in in 1978 opposite Betsy Palmer in Same Time, Next Year, Bernard Slades hit romantic comedy. He rarely acted in the cinema, but lent his voice to the gargoyle Victor whose character was sultry, naturally in the Disney animated film The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1996).

His first marriage, to Yale Drama School graduate Mary Jane Wilson, ended in divorce. Around the same time, in 1990, he starred in a San Diego production of the Gurneys play Love Letters, with Beth Howland. She had appeared with him on Company, playing the frantic bride Amy, and starred as a scatterbrained waitress on the sitcom Alice. They married in 2002. She died in 2015.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, John Kimbrough; one daughter-in-law, Holly Howland; a sister; and a granddaughter.

Mr Kimbrough said Murphy Brown’s success helped sustain his relatively less lucrative stage career, including roles on Broadway as a snappy butler in the 2009 comedy Accent on Youth; a suitor for Lily Rabe in a 2010 production of The Merchant of Venice; and, in his Broadway swan song, an overbearing psychiatrist in a 2012 revival of Harvey, starring Jim Parsons as a man who says he befriended a giant invisible rabbit.

Yet he was never entirely comfortable with his television fame.

Having a job where everyone smiled at me and waved at me when I arrived on the studio lot and valets parked my car, having that kind of success made me very superstitious, he told the Journal. It was like the circus act where the guy has his assistant handing him the chairs and he gets higher and higher and the stack gets more and more shaky. That’s how I felt about my chain of good fortune. I didn’t get over it.




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