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Hume Cronyn - An Actor's Actor


One of the world's most beloved and respected actors, Hume Cronyn, has died of prostate cancer at his home in Connecticut. Cronyn was 91 years old.

Hume Cronyn was an actor's actor; that is, a perfectionist with a great range of talent that enabled him to give memorable performances in a wide variety of roles. Everything from Shakespeare's Hamlet to Steven Spielberg's Batteries Not Included. Acting was more than a career to Cronyn, it was his life; a life he shared for more than half a century with his wife and equally-famed actress, Jessica Tandy. They were married from 1942 until her death in 1994, and were one of Broadway's leading husband-wife theatrical teams.

A small wiry man, Cronyn nevertheless was a dynamo on stage, endowed with apparent endless energy. He was a perfectionist who studied and fretted over his roles until they became crystal clear to him and, through him, to his audiences as well. On a television interview once, he explained how he learned to create his characters.

"It's not only drawing on your own experience, and your own emotional makeup, but also on your observation and awareness of a great many other people who are the colors in your palette," he said.

Hume Cronyn was born in London, Ontario, on July 18, 1911. His father was one of Canada's most prominent businessmen and a member of Parliament, and his mother was an heiress to the Labatt brewery fortune. But as he recalled in a television interview in 1991, Cronyn's childhood was not a happy time for him.

"I think I grew up in a rather lonely fashion," he said. "I had a reasonably active imagination so I would play all sorts of games which were not unrelated to theatrical improvisations. And I found that inner life of the imagination a lot more fun than the reality of my daily bread."

After a brief stint at McGill University in Montreal, Cronyn headed for New York in the early 1930s to study acting. It was the famous theater director George Abbott who gave Cronyn his first break in Three Men and a Horse in 1935. He married Jessica Tandy in 1942, and two years later Cronyn was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film The Seventh Cross. He won a Tony for his Broadway performance as Polonius in the 1964 production of Hamlet, with Richard Burton in the lead.

When he and his wife, Jessica Tandy, starred together, as they did often, they were as great as any theatrical pair in history. Two of their biggest hits were The Gin Game and Foxfire, both long-running Broadway shows. The couple also appeared together in many motion pictures, including the Steven Spielberg film, Batteries Not Included, about New York tenement occupants threatened with eviction who are aided by tiny creatures from another planet. Also, the big box office success Cocoon, a story of old folks in a Florida retirement community who discover a veritable fountain of youth in a neighboring swimming pool.

Into his seventies, Cronyn found the energy to maintain his high standards; he published his autobiography in 1991, entitled, A Terrible Liar. Nevertheless, he couldn't deny that age was taking its toll.

"I don't brood," he said. "I think about getting old, but there isn't one day in my life that I don't resent it with a terrible and, I hope, rather healthy fury. Because I battle against it all the time. I mean, my eyesight is lousy and getting worse, and I get up in the morning and I feel like a bent hairpin and I don't like finding that as I get out of a car I stoop."

Although Hume Cronyn was never a matinee idol or a Hollywood star in the popular sense of the term, he was of a rarer breed, a highly respected, well-known craftsman who filled theaters time and time again with audiences who held him in awe. Perhaps because, while he took his profession very seriously indeed, he never held himself too high or let his deserved fame color his sense of humor.

"We've already been interviewed for our obituaries," said Hume Cronyn. "Interviewed for our obituaries! We're getting awards for survival, for still being vertical. That's all right. I'll take those."

In 1994, the couple received dual Tony Awards for lifetime achievement. His other awards included a Kennedy Center Honor, the National Medal of Arts and election to the Theater Hall of Fame.

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