Richard Allen “Dick” Dysart, an American actor, has found success and fulfillment in many areas of theater, film and television over the six decades since the 1950′s. He may be most widely known for his performance as “Leland McKenzie” in the NBC dramatic series L.A. Law, yet his achievements have also included having been among the pioneers of both off-Broadway theater – notably with the Circle-in-the-Square Theater and the American Conservatory Theater – and television drama, including the early, groundbreaking CBS dramatic series, Camera Three. He has starred in dozens of films, and played character roles in several hundred movies and TV shows. Nominated for an Emmy four times, he won in 1992 as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, for his work on L.A. Law.
Dick was born March 30, 1929 in Boston and raised Maine. During the first grade he was ill for an extended period, during which he could do little more than listen to the radio. In his own words, “that radio changed my whole life.” So, while still in high school he got a job in radio, while also flexing his first theatrical muscles in the infamous annual performance event, Chizzle Wizzle.
He studied communication and theater at Emerson College. He enjoyed it, but by the middle of his junior year he was ready to see more of the world. So in 1951 he enlisted for a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. Though he was a good marksman, he was assigned to the Officer Personnel Office. In the first year and a half, he was bounced to various bases around the country, until he figured out how to transfer to a more cosmopolitan locale: Washington, D.C. There at the Office of Special Investi¬gation he spent the remainder of his service. Working downtown, he was able to pick up some college credits at George Washington University, enabling him subsequently to finish up at Emerson College in less than a year.
Before his senior year at Emerson, he got to perform in the college’s summer stock theater company,
on Martha’s Vineyard. It was intensive training, doing one play after another. And by his own admission, it kept him from enjoying beer too much. After graduating in 1955, he stayed on at Emerson to earn a Master of Science in Speech Communication – a degree program that was flexible enough to allow him to continue doing plays.
Finishing his studies in 1956, Dick was living in Beacon Hill and a bit at a loss as to what to do next. With some goading from friends, he decided on the spur of the moment to go to New York City. By that evening he was on a train with a one-way ticket and $85 in his pocket. When he next woke up, it was dawn in Grand Central Station.
He landed on his feet, barely, with a job as a clerk on the overnight shift at a trucking company and a rent-by-the-week room in a Puerto Rican boarding house. But he wasn’t doing theater. So he jumped when the opportunity arose to do more summer stock theater on Martha’s Vineyard. There, he got a job as the night clerk in an old hotel, which didn’t require much work, since there would be no new guests after the last ferry each evening. He filled his nights sometimes by playing cards, but mostly just reading, including the entire works of Thomas Wolfe. At the end of this summer of quietude and perspective, he went back to New York. This time he was ready for it.
Autumn 1957 found Dick busy, living on 76th street in Manhattan, manning the phones at the Sterling Employment Agency, while working part-time in the box office at the Circle in the Square Theater. He could see Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh as many times as he wanted, and he did. So when the theater suddenly needed an understudy for the role of Larry Slade, he was ready to go. Making $35 a week, he was right there on stage just as the Off-Broadway movement was beginning to blossom. The O’Neill play, directed by Jose Quintero and starring Jason Robards, was a long-running hit. Dick got to play in it twelve times, enough to join the Actors’ Equity Association.
Gradually, he began to find work in television, in its early years. He was well-suited for live theater-type programs, including You Were There, an historical drama hosted by Walter Cronkite, in which he played Benedict Arnold, and Camera Three, a program dedicated to “serious drama.”
In 1958, he was cast in three plays directed by Jose Quintero at the Circle in the Square. In Children of Darkness by Edwin Justus Mayer, he worked with Colleen Dewhurst and the man who would become his friend and drinking buddy, George C. Scott (who would later infamously win but reject the Oscar for his role as Patton). Then it was The Quare Fellow, the first play by Irish playwright Brendan Behan. Next he was cast as Howie Newsome, the Milkman in Thorton Wilder’s Our Town. Halfway through a run of 337 performances, Dick took over as the Stage Manager, a major part – the same year that Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for the play. At the age of 29, he was starting to make a splash.
In 1961, Circle in the Square’s 10th year anniversary season, Dick was cast as an understudy in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, in which he got to work with director William Ball. By all accounts, it was a marvelous production. Then a friend offered him a role in another play; it was in a less refined venue but at least he’d get to be on stage every night. Director Ball told him that if he left he would not likely work in town again. But Dick went anyway. It turned out to be not such a marvelous production – in fact, the theater had rats dying and decomposing within its walls. The audience was not pleased, and perfume did not help.
Fortunately, Dick soon found more prestigious work, with the McCarter Theatre, a professional repertory company on the campus of Princeton University, where he appeared in two plays by George Bernard Shaw and reprised his role as the Stage Manager in Wilder’s Our Town. Fortune reunited him with Director Bill Ball for a revival of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, first at the Fred Miller Theater in Milwaukee, then at the Martinique Theatre in NYC, where in 1963 the play won an Outer Critics Circle award and three Obie Awards, including Best Production.
Soon he was invited to join the touring company of A Man for all Seasons, playing alongside Charleton Heston, charging up and down the East Coast, and on to Chicago and Detroit. Dick was playing in Milwaukee when President Kennedy was shot; he watched the whole ceremony unfold on a small TV in his room above the bar next to the theater.
In 1965, Bill Ball invited Dick to join the American Conservatory Theater, a newly formed combination of repertory theater and training conservatory. Over the next two years ACT moved around from Pittsburgh to Connecticut, then to Ravinia, Illinois and on to Stanford University, with the actors performing in multiple plays, in repertory. Dick’s work in theater was expanding, literally across the country. ACT settled in San Francisco in 1966, and in the next year alone they put on 17 different plays. Dick played the iconic characters of Willy Loman, Gloucester, Captain Cat, Uncle Vanya, and the father in Six Characters – all in one season.
Broadway beckoned in 1967, with Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes, directed by Mike Nichols. Dick played the part of Horace Giddens throughout all 100 performances, alongside Anne Bancroft and E.G. Marshall. Throughout the 1960’s he continued working in prestigious productions on and off Broadway, culminating in the impressive feat of giving precisely 500 performances as The Coach in That Championship Season on Broadway, between 1972 and 1974.
Over the previous decade, Dick had been working increasingly in film and television, often in small character parts that were nonetheless crucial to the story. For instance, he came out to San Francisco in 1968 to play just one day as the Motel Clerk in Petulia. And in 1971 he was in The Hospital, with his friend George C. Scott. Now, by 1974, with movie roles coming more consistently – in that year alone he appeared in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The Terminal Man, and The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder (produced by Hugh Hefner) – he decided to move to the West Coast for good, to North Hollywood (at first). During his Broadway run he had met and married his second wife, Louise, but they didn’t see eye-to-eye on the move West, and soon he was single again.
In the late 70’s and the early 80’s, he worked ever more consistently in film and television, appearing in such movies as The Hindenburg, Meteor, Prophesy, John Carpenter’s the Thing, and Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, and TV shows such as Maude, Columbo, and Lou Grant. One of his most acclaimed film roles was as Doctor Allenby in Being There, with Peter Sellars, directed by Hal Ashby. He became known for playing authority figures; and indeed he played both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower – several times each, in different movies. He was doing well enough that in 1981 he could afford to buy a little house in Santa Monica.
In the mid 80′s, two of the most important things in his life happened in quick succession: he met his wife-to-be, artist Kathryn Jacobi in 1985, and in 1986 he was cast as Leland McKenzie in the TV series L.A. Law. In marrying Kathy, Dick finally met his match – and the third time has proven to be “a charm.” Meanwhile, the TV show was a major hit, running for eight seasons and winning 39 Golden Globe Awards (out of 122 nominations). At the center of the ongoing series, Dick’s character was the strong force that held together an evolving cast of hundreds: he was one of only five actors to have appeared in all 171 episodes.
Dick and Kathy bought and renovated a second home in British Columbia in 1991, where they had elk in the yard and plenty of friendly neighbors. They maintained that place until 2006, when the “commute” from Santa Monica got to be too much. Since then, Dick has been content not to work too much, preferring to live a cozy home life with Kathy and their standard poodle, Hash. Dick remains quite happy not waiting for the phone to ring.