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Subject: Actor Alvin Epstein


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Dies at 93
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Date Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 12:43:26pm

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https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/11/obituaries/alvin-epstein-dead.html

Alvin Epstein, a classical stage actor and director who appeared in the Broadway premiere of “Waiting for Godot” and went on to become widely known for his mastery of that and other plays by Samuel Beckett, died on Monday in Newton, Mass. He was 93.

His cousin Rachel Bratt said the cause was pneumonia.

In a field not known for consistent employment, Mr. Epstein seemed never to stop working. His résumé from his years at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., alone includes more than 50 productions.

He was a founding member of that company as well as the Yale Repertory Theater and was long affiliated with nonprofit and regional theater.

Mr. Epstein’s acting career ranged across the Greeks, Shakespeare, Pirandello and the occasional musical, but Beckett was always at its core. He played the slave Lucky, who delivers a 700-word monologue, in the first Broadway staging of “Godot,” Beckett’s groundbreaking existentialist work.

He also had the distinction of playing all three male roles in Beckett’s “Endgame”: Clov, the servant, in the American premiere in 1958; Hamm, Clov’s tyrannical blind master, in a 1984 Off Broadway production that he also directed, at the Samuel Beckett Theater; and Hamm’s aged father, Nagg, who lives in a garbage can, performed at the Irish Repertory Theater in Manhattan in 2005 and again, a month before Mr. Epstein’s 83rd birthday, in 2008, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called Mr. Epstein’s Nagg at the Irish Rep “exquisite,” and three years later hailed his reprise of the role at BAM, alongside John Turturro and Elaine Stritch.

“Mr. Epstein’s braying, babyish voice, his gumming mouth and sly, scornful looks at his son, are hilarious,” Mr. Isherwood wrote. “Nor will I soon forget the arresting piteousness of those bony white fingers spidering skittishly along the rim of the garbage can as Nagg pleads for a sugarplum” — which never arrives.

(The agility of those fingers may have derived from Mr. Epstein’s work with the French master mime Marcel Marceau, more than half a century before.)

Although Mr. Epstein never met Beckett — he did talk to him by telephone — he came to know that playwright through his words. “Alvin knows the material so well, it gives him the confidence — the courage, really — to do what’s right,” Charlotte Moore, who directed "Endgame" at the Irish Rep, said in an interview with The Times in 2005. "He doesn’t hit anything with a hammer, because he doesn’t have to."

Mr. Epstein was born on May 14, 1925, in the Bronx to Harry and Goldie (Rudnick) Epstein. His father was a physician, his mother a homemaker.

The wiry Mr. Epstein “grew up as a pudgy, not-athletic-and-aware-of-it Bronx boy,” he told New York magazine in 2006. He attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan before enrolling in Queens College, planning to major in music. World War II and the theater intervened.

A gift for his 18th birthday — a 1919 book, “The Theatre — Advancing,’’ by the critic, actor and director Edward Gordon Craig — “opened my eyes,’’ Mr. Epstein said in an interview in 1984.

Theater became his passion. He carried his theater books with him, he said, even while serving in an Army field artillery unit in Germany in World War II.

After the war he studied dance with Martha Graham for a year in New York before moving on to study mime in Paris, where he met Marceau.

Back in New York, in 1955, Mr. Epstein went to the box office to buy a ticket for Marceau’s first United States engagement, and instead found himself onstage that night; Marceau had been looking for him to join the production after a French assistant could not obtain a visa. Mr. Epstein went with the show to Broadway and later on tour.


“Godot” came along the next year. Mr. Epstein was cast as Lucky in the first Broadway production of the play, directed by Herbert Berghof and starring Bert Lahr (as Estragon) and E. G. Marshall (as Vladimir), at the John Golden Theater. (The play had had its famously rocky American debut weeks earlier, before an audience of mostly bored tourists, at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami.)

Four decades later, Mr. Epstein played Estragon at the American Repertory Theater.

In the 1960s he was a founding member and associate director of the Yale Repertory Theater under Robert Brustein. In New Haven, Mr. Epstein directed many productions and performed in dozens, including “The Frogs,” the Stephen Sondheim musical drawn from Aristophanes and memorably performed in the Yale swimming pool in 1974, with a cast that also included Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and the playwright Christopher Durang.

Mr. Epstein in the title role of “King Lear” with Sarah Newhouse, left, as Cordelia and Jennie Israel as Goneril at the La MaMa Annex in 2006.CreditCarol Rosegg
Mr. Epstein became artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1977 but left in his second season. Soon after, when Mr. Brustein decamped from Yale to establish the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, Mr. Epstein rejoined him.

Mr. Epstein directed the American Rep’s inaugural production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in 1980, with a cast led by Mark Linn-Baker as a snarling, animal-like Puck and the dancer Carmen de Lavallade as a graceful Titania. He directed more than 20 other productions there and acted in more than 50.

His less classical stage roles included that of the celebrated acting teacher Lee Strasberg in Mr. Brustein’s 1998 biographical play, “Nobody Dies on Friday,” at the American Rep, and of Morrie Schwartz, the relentlessly life-affirming professor with Lou Gehrig’s disease. in Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” based on Mr. Albom’s book, produced at the Off Broadway Minetta Lane Theater in 2002.

The musicals in which Mr. Epstein appeared included the Broadway production of the 1962 Richard Rodgers musical “No Strings,” starring Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley, and the short-lived 1989 Broadway production of “The Threepenny Opera,” in which he played Mr. Peachum to Sting’s Mack the Knife. Mr. Epstein had long been associated with the music of that work’s composer, Kurt Weill. He and Martha Schlamme performed their “Kurt Weill Cabaret” in the United States and Israel from 1968 until her death in 1985.

Mr. Epstein also provided the voice of the Bookseller in the Disney animated film “Beauty and the Beast”; had a role on the daytime drama “The Doctors” in 1981; and, like most New York actors, made appearances on the television crime drama “Law & Order.”

Mr. Epstein lived in Weston, Mass. His sister, Sandra Epstein, and a stepsister, Claire Stein, are his immediate survivors.

In 2006, Mr. Epstein scaled a theatrical mountain in the title role of “King Lear,” in a production seen in Boston and then off Broadway. The critic Jeremy McCarter, in New York magazine, called Mr. Epstein’s performance “a triumph of classical acting.”

Fifty years before, he had been playing the Fool to Orson Welles’s Lear at City Center when an injury forced Welles into a wheelchair.

“He had staged a lot of the play with me hugging his ankles,” Mr. Epstein told New York magazine. “Now I was hugging the wheels of his chair.

“Theatrical life,” he added, “is an absurdity.”

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