He won theater’s top prize for his performance in “The Invention of Love,” one of numerous Broadway roles.
Richard Easton, whose frequent appearances on Broadway across 50 years included a Tony-winning turn as the poet A.E. Housman in Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love,” died on Dec. 2 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
Jonathan Walker, executor of his estate, said the cause was congestive heart failure.
Mr. Easton also appeared on television and in films; his movie credits included “Henry V” (1989) and “Dead Again” (1991), both directed by Kenneth Branagh, with whom he had acted on the stage in England. But he was first and foremost a stage actor, turning in memorable performances in both classical and modern fare, aided by a vocal dexterity that might find him booming in one scene, comically sputtering in another.
“He was a wonder,” Ethan Hawke, who was cast with him in several plays, said by email, “and like many other young actors, I quickly became a disciple. His intelligence, wit, experience, honesty — and his voice — rendered him a commanding presence in our lives.”
One of Mr. Easton’s most famous moments onstage, though, was of a kind no actor wants. During a preview performance of Part 1 of Mr. Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in October 2006, he collapsed in midperformance, the result of an arrhythmia. Mr. Hawke and Martha Plimpton were onstage, their characters having just received a tongue-lashing from Mr. Easton, who was playing their father.
“I said, ‘This is my last word,’ and I took two steps towards the wings, one, two, and crashed like a tree in the forest,” Mr. Easton recalled in a 2010 video made for Lincoln Center Theater.
“Ethan has always been grateful to me because he had the opportunity to say the immortal line ‘Is there a doctor in the house?,’” Mr. Easton continued. “And I said to him afterwards: ‘Are you kidding? On the Upper West Side of New York City, is there a doctor in the house? Of course there’s a doctor in the house.’”
Several audience members did indeed step forward, Mr. Hawke recalled, although he said it was a member of the stage crew who initially administered crucial CPR.
The play’s formal opening was delayed three weeks, until Nov. 27. The production was the first part of “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy. Parts 2 and 3 opened soon after, and the plays ran in repertory. Mr. Easton, newly fitted with a pacemaker, was in all three.
Jack O’Brien, who directed Mr. Easton in “The Coast of Utopia” and many other productions, including “The Invention of Love” in 2001, shared a list of practical advice for young actors that Mr. Easton had drawn up years ago when they worked together at the Old Globe in San Diego and Mr. Easton taught at the University of San Diego.
One Easton rule advised, “When it comes to a coin-toss (which it does, most of the time!) to decide casting between one actor and another, ‘Very good actor but rather difficult’ will lose out, nine-point-six times out of ten, to ‘Pretty good and really very, very nice!’”
Mr. O’Brien, in a telephone interview, added, “There’s a generation of young men and women indebted to Richard, not only for his friendship but for professional specifics.”
John Richard Easton was born on March 22, 1933, in Montreal. His father, Leonard, was an engineer, and his mother, Mary Louisa (Withington) Easton, was a homemaker.
No immediate family members survive.
Mr. Easton began acting as a teenager, working with a children’s theater and the semiprofessional Montreal Repertory Theater, commanding attention despite his youth.
One play he was cast in was “The Rivals” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in which he played the squire Bob Acres. (Christopher Plummer, another young actor working his way toward stardom, was also in that production.) Some 55 years later, in 2004, Mr. Easton would be in “The Rivals” again, in a different role, that of Sir Anthony Absolute; this time the production was on Broadway.
“Mr. Easton’s alternately blustery and delicate rendering of Sir Anthony’s outraged dignity and wounded pride is priceless,” Charles Isherwood wrote in his review in The New York Times.
But Broadway was still a ways in the future. At 17 he moved to Ottawa to work in a repertory company that put on 33 plays in 35 weeks, a crash course in all things theatrical. In 1953 he performed with the company of the newly created Stratford Festival in Ontario, then won a scholarship to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He worked in England for two years, at one point playing opposite one of his heroes, John Gielgud, in “King Lear.”
He returned to Canada, then signed on with the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., where John Houseman was artistic director. (Mr. Easton was later able to say that he had worked at all three Stratfords: in Ontario and Connecticut and at Stratford-upon-Avon in England.) In 1957 Mr. Houseman took “Measure for Measure,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “The Duchess of Malfi” to Broadway; Mr. Easton was in all three, his first Broadway credits.
He appeared regularly on Broadway for the rest of the 1950s, throughout the ’60s and into the early ’70s, in plays that included “Pantagleize” (1967), “The Misanthrope” (1968) and “Hamlet” (1969). He spent much of the ’70s back in England, where he was part of the cast of “The Brothers,” a BBC drama that ran from 1972 to 1976.
He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1980s and stayed for four years before joining Mr. Branagh’s breakaway theatrical troupe, Renaissance Theater. Then came a decade in San Diego, working with Mr. O’Brien.
It was Mr. O’Brien who lured Mr. Easton back to Broadway after an absence of almost 30 years for “The Invention of Love.” And it was Mr. O’Brien who gave him his final Broadway credit, in a 2013 “Macbeth” that starred Mr. Hawke.
Mr. O’Brien said that Mr. Easton’s health was in decline at that point and that he had envisioned him in a tiny part, just enough to give him a token final Broadway appearance. He remembered offering Mr. Easton the role over the phone.
“There was a long pause,” Mr. O’Brien said, “and then he said, ‘I should think Duncan, wouldn’t you?’”
Duncan is a much bigger part, and it was the one Mr. Easton went on to play.
Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.