Utilitarian actor Lonny Chapman remains one of those highly familiar character faces to which you can’t quite place the name. While he appeared in over 30 films and well over 300 TV programs over a five-decade career, the theater remained his first and foremost passion and for which he is best remembered. From 1973 until his death 34 years later, he was artistic director of the Group Repertory Theatre (GRT), a North Hollywood non-profit acting organization for which he also served as producer, writer, director and actor. It was a place to which scores and scores of L.A.-based actors would, and did, call “home”. The facility, which is still running today, was renamed the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre (LCGRT) in 1999 in loving tribute.
He was born Lon Leonard Chapman on October 1, 1920, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but grew up in the city of Joplin, Missouri. His interest in acting started while fairly young. Following his graduations from Joplin High School (1938) and Joplin Junior College (1940), the athletically-inclined Lonny attended the University of Oklahoma on a track scholarship. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, interrupted his college studies, joining the Marines the very next day. He saw major action in the South Pacific, including Guadalcanal. During his 5-year tour of duty, he contracted malaria; frequent recurrences would plague him the rest of his life. The track star returned to his Oklahoma college following war duty and graduated with a BFA in Drama in 1947.
While at college Lonny became best friends with actor Dennis Weaver, who was also a talented track-and-field athlete and fellow drama student. The two young hopefuls hitchhiked together to New York City where they began their respective careers. Within a year (1948) Lonny was appearing as “Wiley” in the Chicago company of “Mister Roberts”, directed by Joshua Logan. The year after that, he made his Broadway debut in “The Closing Door”, directed by Lee Strasberg. During this time, he also established strong ties with the prestigious Group Theatre and Actors Studio. It was at the Actors Studio that he forged lifelong friendships with director Mark Rydell, and character actors Martin Landau, R.G. Armstrong, Pat Hingle and Logan Ramsey, among others.
Arguably, the peak of Lonny’s early stage career occurred in 1950, when he co-starred in the award-winning drama “Come Back, Little Sheba”, William Inge’s first play to be produced on Broadway. Art imitated life in this case as Lonny portrayed the second lead role of “Turk”, a college student and star athlete. Coincidentally, friend Dennis Weaver became his understudy and eventually took over the role. Starring Tony winners Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer, only Ms. Booth went on to recreate her role in the film version for which she won the Oscar. Lonny, who had yet to make a movie, was replaced by the already-established Richard Jaeckel as “Turk” in the film version.
Lonny continued to solidify his reputation on Broadway with “The Chase” (1952), produced and directed by José Ferrer and starring Actors Studio exponents Kim Stanley and Kim Hunter; “Whistler’s Grandmother” (1952), co-starring Josephine Hull; “The Ladies of the Corridor” (1953), directed by renowned “Group Theatre” member Harold Clurman; and the Horton Foote-penned “The Traveling Lady” (1954), again starring Ms. Stanley. Elsewhere, he earned excellent notices as “Tom” opposite Franchot Tone’s “Joe” in a revival of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” and as the “Gentleman Caller” in the first national tour of “The Glass Menagerie” starring Helen Hayes. By this time, Lonny had begun appearing on early TV, making his debut in an episode of Captain Video and His Cartoon Rangers (1956). His first film was a featured role in the tuneful Doris Day/Frank Sinatra drama Young at Heart (1954) in which he shared secondary scenes with Elisabeth Fraser. Actor Studio preeminent Elia Kazan took a strong liking to Lonny as an actor and looked for no one else to play the role of “Roy”, the auto mechanic, in the classic John Steinbeck film East of Eden (1955), which catapulted James Dean to cult status. Kazan then gave Lonny a plum role in his film Baby Doll (1956).
In the late 1950s, Chapman began to show promise as a mover and shaker in the theater. In 1959, and for eight seasons following, he and co-founder Curt Conway devoted their summer seasons to the Cecilwood Theatre in Fishkill, New York, where he directed over 80 productions and performed in nearly thirty. Those up-and-comers who received their Equity union card under his guidance included Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. As a playwright, Lonny saw two of his own works produced off-Broadway — “The Buffalo Skinner” and “Cry of the Raindrop”.
Lonny migrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s in order to pursue film and TV roles and, along with Martin Landau, helped form the West branch of the Actors Studio out there. His gritty look, trademark dusky voice, earnest demeanor and solid Midwest upbringing was his meal ticket for getting Hollywood work. Tailor-made for earthy, blue-collar roles, he was most at home playing unpretentious folk. One would be hard-pressed to see him donning tie and tails in highly elegant settings when he obviously appeared more at home in a plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves or, at the most, a tweed sport coat with loose tie. He provided stark authenticity to a number of westerns, crimers and small-town dramas. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), he portrayed the concerned diner operator who tends to Tippi Hedren’s head wound after her first gull attack. He subsequently played a secondary but pivotal role in director/friend Mark Rydell’s picture The Reivers (1969) set in Mississippi with Steve McQueen, and also one of Sally Field’s chauvinistic bosses in the down-home drama Norma Rae (1979). He showed remarkable versatility with a top, change-of-pace supporting part in the early Woody Allen comedy classic Take the Money and Run (1969).
In 1973, he formed the Group Repertory Theatre and served as its first and only artistic director (until his death). Under his strong leadership, the non-profit organization staged over 350 productions, 45 of which were world premieres of original works. Sean Penn and Jennifer Tilly are former members of the company.
Quite visible on TV, he appeared to good advantage in prime-time programming. Headlining one TV series that never got firmly off the ground, The Investigator (1958), in which he played a private detective, he also co-starred with William Shatner and Jessica Walter in the “Law and Order” precursor For the People (1965). During the 60s, 70s and 80s, the gruff, bushy-browed actor could always be spotted somewhere on a topnotch crime show (Perry Mason (1957), The Defenders (1961) (recurring role), Judd for the Defense (1967), Mission: Impossible (1966), Mannix (1967), Ironside (1967), Quincy M.E. (1976), Matlock (1986)). He was given just as much footage sitting tall in the saddle in various western series (Laredo (1965), The Rifleman (1958), The Virginian (1962), Bonanza (1959)). He also appeared more than a few times on Gunsmoke (1955) and McCloud (1970), which starred his good friend Dennis Weaver. One particular highlight was his patriarchal role in an above-par TV-movie adaptation of The Rainmaker (1982) co-starring Tommy Lee Jones and Tuesday Weld.
A modest, down-to-earth kind of guy with a generous heart and spirit who preferred not to call attention to himself, Chapman was a sturdy film and TV presence over the years playing a hefty number of heroes, villains, boss types and confidantes. Although he worked consistently throughout the years, he never found the one role that might have moved him up the pecking order and propel him to the very top of the character echelon. In the twilight of his film career, he showed eerie countenance in his elderly watchman role in Nightwatch (1997), and last graced the screen as an octogenarian in Reindeer Games (2000), directed by John Frankenheimer and The Hunted (2003), directed by William Friedkin.
The last few years of his life were marred by failing health and the increasingly frail actor had to eventually be placed in a Sherman Oaks (California) care facility. He died there of complications from pneumonia and heart disease a little more than a week after his 87th birthday, on October 12, 2007. He was survived by his steadfast wife (of nearly 65 years), the former Erma Dean Gibbons, and their son Wyley Dean.