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In Appreciation of Robert Prosky

Robertprosky With the passing of Harold Pinter, Eartha Kitt, Van Johnson, and the various year-end lookbacks at those who have left us, there is one show business figure whose death has gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle. Veteran character actor Robert Prosky died on Dec. 10 and, as Arthur Miller said of Willy Loman--a character Prosky played at the Arena Theatre in Washington, DC--"Attention must be paid." (I pray Proksy will be included in the posthumous montages at the Oscars, Emmy and the SAG Awards and I intend to write several angry letters if he is overlooked.)

Prosky grew up across the street from my grandparents in Philadelphia. He worked in his father's small grocery store but always wanted to act. He found steady employment at the Arena Stage and whenever he appeared in a small role on TV, my grandparents would always let me know about it and we'd watch. I remember he played several tiny parts in TV movies about the Civil War and an imagined World War III as well as one scene in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles. I first saw him in a large part in a video production of Zalman or The Madness of God on the series Theatre in America. He played a Soviet official in conflict with a rabbi and it was a powerful performance. 

Then in the early 1980s, he was cast as a big-time crook in Michael Mann's feature Thief opposite James Caan. This launched his career as a highly visible character actor in movies and on TV. His best-known role was the wise and eccentric Sgt. Stan Jablonski on NBC's quirkly police drama Hill Street Blues. He was perfectly believable as the old desk cop who sends the officers out every morning with the catchphrase "Do it to them before they do it to you" and the admonition to dress warmly and eat a good breakfast. He would return to the stage frequently, garnering Tony nominations for Glengarry Glen Ross and A Walk in the Woods. He also made a memorable contribution to the Broadway production of Michael Frayn's Democracy as a wily old German politician who relishes being everyone's "wicked old uncle."   

I interviewed him for Theatre Week Magazine while he was starring in A Walk in the Woods and he told me about two of his sons Andy and John who were just starting out as actors. His last stage performance was in Arthur Miller's The Price. He played the old furniture dealer with Andy and John as estranged brothers. My family and I went to see the show at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre (the production also played in Cape May and later at Theatre J in DC) and we spoke briefly with him afterwards. He remembered my grandparents, dad, and uncles.

In an interview with Back Stage's Andrew Salomon a year ago during the Philadelphia run of The Price, he said "I'm lukcy as hell. But I'm also pretty good." He was right on both counts.

Pictured: Robert Prosky, Leisa Mather, Andy Prosky and John Prosky in The Price at the Cape May Stage (2006) 

--David Sheward   

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