|Subject: Actor Christopher Pray
Dies at 72
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Date Posted: Saturday, February 16, 12:27:55pm
Christopher Pray, SF improv comic and ‘Buster and Me’ puppeteer dies at age 72
Christopher Pray, a San Francisco improv comic and puppeteer who voiced the character Buster on the local children’s program “Buster and Me,” has died after a battle with leukemia. He was 72.
Pray had some roles in notable films, including a scene in “Dirty Harry” and an appearance along with the Buster puppet in the 1993 Robin Williams movie “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
But he was best known for his memorable contributions to local comedy and children’s television. Pray was an improvisational comedian in 1970s groups including the Pitschel Players and The Committee, which strongly influenced the San Francisco comedy boom of the late 1970s and 1980s. And “Buster and Me,” a before-its-time program that explored topics including racism, divorce and world peace, was seen in original episodes and reruns on KRON-TV for almost 20 years, beginning in 1977.
Robin Goodrow, who starred in “Buster and Me,” said Pray had an unpredictability and a love of performing, which extended well beyond the set. Goodrow remembers one time they were near Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Pray was resting in the back of a limousine being used for a “Buster and Me” fantasy sequence, when a stranger pulled up and asked for directions to the San Francisco Zoo.
“And suddenly Buster popped up in the window and he gave the guy directions,” Goodrow remembered. “‘You go over here, you make a right, you go around the corner and make a left. Say ‘Hi’ to my monkey friends when you get there!’ … We just laughed about that for so long. That’s one of my favorite memories.”
A San Francisco native, Pray briefly worked as a teacher, but wanted a career as an actor. He appeared in “The Candidate” with Robert Redford in 1972 and “American Graffiti” in 1973. He was the “tunnel hoodlum” in “Dirty Harry” in 1971.
As an improv comic, he performed in the influential Pitschel Players and National Theatre of the Deranged, with characters including The Beatnik Poet. Fellow improv comic Diane Amos said he made other comedians better, and could handle any comedy “fastball” that was thrown at him. He could compose poetry on stage, in real time.
“He was dedicated enough to improv to always go with the flow, and he had a big enough ego to make it his own,” Amos said.
After a couple of disillusioning years in Hollywood, Pray moved back to San Francisco in the mid-1970s, and started work with his close friend Jon Fromer, a producer and folk musician who was hired by KRON-TV to create local children’s programming along with Christina Metcalfe.
Pray found a place to explore his own complexities with “Buster and Me,” starring Goodrow as a single San Francisco business owner who adopted two monkeys performed by Goodrow and Pray, along with Buster’s friend Russell performed by John Gilkerson. In a 2003 interview with The Chronicle, Pray said the show’s ultra-low budget and pressure from outside groups for enriching children’s programming gave the “Buster and Me” writers a lot of freedom to explore challenging topics.
“They left us alone because they didn’t have a lot of worries about money,” Pray said. “They didn’t have any sponsors, so we got a tremendous amount of leeway.”
Pray’s Buster character was smart and funny, but prone to speak too frankly and get in trouble. The actor’s friends said that was reflective of the man behind the monkey, who could be difficult to work with, but had an incredible heart and sense of justice.
“As his producer he was hard, he was really tough,” said Christina Metcalfe, who produced “Buster and Me.” “There were times I wanted to strangle him. But there was also this really sweet side. … He was a special guy.”
Along with Goodrow, Pray wrote for the show, including an episode where Buster’s orangutan friend Russell declares that he’s been designated as “gifted and talented,” and Buster has to discover what’s special about himself.
“Buster and Me” won a National Association of Television Program Executives Iris Award for that episode, at the time the only national award for local television programming, naming it the best local children’s show in America.
“I always thought bringing Christopher and I together, was like Mr. Rogers meets Lenny Bruce,” Goodrow said. “My sweetness and Chris’s darker sensibilities made the show so powerful and real. One without the other wouldn’t work as well.”
After “Buster and Me” stopped making original episodes, Pray was recruited to appear in “Mrs. Doubtfire” with Williams, who Pray knew from the improv comedy scene. Buster was recast as the monkey puppet Kovacs, who ends up working with Williams, as Doubtfire, in a children’s television program.
“It was really wonderful,” Pray told The Chronicle of the experience. “That was the closest Buster ever came to being Robert De Niro.”
Memorial services are pending. Pray, who lived in a ranch in Fairfield in recent years, was surrounded by family and friends at the end.
“I think he had an unhappy childhood. He never felt like he was loved,” Metcalfe said. “Actually, these last two weeks when he was dying proved to him that he was much loved. Everyone fought with him, and everyone loved him.”
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