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George S. Irving Dies: Tony-Winning Character Actor Was 94

Deadline logo Deadline 12/27/2016 Jeremy Gerard
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UPDATE 2 P.M. with more information.

George S. Irving, a fearless comic actor whose signature smile could turn into a smirk with the perfectly timed arch of an eyebrow, died December 26 in New York of natural causes. His death was confirmed to Deadline by his friend and sometime director David Staller. Born George Irving Shelasky in Springfield, Massachusetts, he was 94.

In 1973, Irving co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in a revised version of Irene, a 1919 rags-to-riches musical about a pretty city girl who helps flamboyant “Madame Lucy” (Irving) become a famous couturier. (The show also marked the Broadway debut of Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fisher, who died this morning.) The show earned Irving the Tony Award for best performance by a featured actor in a musical; Reynolds was nominated for best actress in a musical.

In recent years Irving, though officially retired, had performed many times with Project Shaw, a nonprofit run and directed by Staller that presented concert versions of works by the Irish playwright.

“I was determined to give him a final bow in September of 2015,” Staller told Deadline. “I’d created an adaptation of Chekhov’s short story, Swan Song, for him. He took the challenge. It’s the highlight for any of us who witnessed his brilliance. That includes the other 28 events he did for us.”

By 1973 Irving was already established as a veteran character actor, seen on television sitcoms such as Car 54, Where Are You?, The Patty Duke Show and All In The Family; he had a run on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope; and in countless off-Broadway shows along with hit musicals. He appeared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Can-Can, Bells Are Ringing, Me And My Girl (Tony nomination) and, replacing George Rose, as Major General Stanley in Joseph Papp’s 1981 revival of The Pirates Of Penzance that starred Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.

Irving was married to the actress Maria Karnilova, who created the role of Golde in Fiddler On The Roof, from 1948 until her death in 2001.

As a voice actor, Irving’s credits on animated shows included King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, Underdog, The Year Without A Santa Claus and A Miser Brothers’ Christmas. In the early 1970s he was familar as the face of White Owl cigars.

Irving performed a solo cabaret show in 2008 and that year received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre.

“No human being ever told a story with as much crackle, or filled the room with such delight,” Staller said. “He was incapable of speaking a line wrong. He had a gift for squeezing the most potent insight out of a role. As a man, he never had a harsh word to say about anyone. His heart was always open and ready to share. He will be missed beyond expression.”

He is survived by two children and three grandchildren.

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