by Tim Treanor
Robert Prosky, a veteran character actor who created some of the most indelible characters ever seen on the Washington stage, died Monday afternoon, Dec 8th, as a result of complications from emergency heart surgery. He was five days short of his seventy-eighth birthday.
Prosky was a successful and sought-after screen and television actor, and was probably most broadly known for his standing role as Sgt. Stan Jablonski in TV’s Hill Street Blues. But it was as a stage actor that Prosky had his most profound impact. He originated the role of Shelly Levene in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984, and received a Tony nomination. His second nomination came four years later, for his work as the genial Soviet negotiator Andrei Botvinnik in A Walk in the Woods.
Washington theatergoers remember his many performances in Washington. Speaking for Arena Stage, Zelda Fichandler remembers “Bob came to Arena Stage in 1958 with two suitcases and an eight-week commitment to play the sheriff in The Front Page. He was very funny, and true. He left 23 years later, having been a leading member of the acting company in 126 roles, growing into such demanding incarnations as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, which I had the pleasure of directing, and Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo.”
His more recent work was still powerful. DC Theatre Scene’s Ronnie Ruff, reviewing Prosky’s 2006 performance in Arena’s Awake and Sing, directed by Ms. Fichandler, observed that “[t]his is the return of Robert Prosky to the DC stage and he does a great job of living up to his long and talented acting career. Dynamic and full of verve, Prosky walks the stage with measured confidence delivering a speech at the beginning of the second act that was brilliant….”
Two years later, it was Rosalind Lacy’s turn to be impressed: “Robert Prosky delivers Solomon’s wisdom like a roguish Old Testament King Solomon…His performance keeps us off-guard and on the edge of our seats.”
Lacy was referring to Prosky’s performance in Theatre J’s The Price, which he worked with his two actor sons, Andrew and John. Lacy called the familial collaboration “effortless, natural acting”. It was the last show Robert Prosky performed in the Washington area.
For that performance, the three Prosky men recorded an interview with Joel Markowitz, in which their love for acting, for Washington theater, and for family shines through. You can listen in here.
Prosky was born Robert Joseph Porzuczek in Philadelphia, the son of a grocer, Joseph Porzuczek, and his wife Helen. After acquiring an economics degree from Temple University, Prosky won a televised talent contest. Arena Stage was his next stop, and over the years he undertook over 130 roles with this seminal regional theater. He made his Broadway debut in 1972, in Michael Weller’s Moonchildren; and since then appeared in half-a-dozen productions on the Great White Way.
Prosky’s first film role was as a mob boss in 1981’s Thief. He went on to do twenty-four more films – the most recent of which, The Skeptic, is due for release next year. In addition to Hill Street Blues, Prosky had a recurring TV role in the attempted comedy Veronica’s Closet. He was offered the role of the bartender in Cheers but turned it down, later remarking that he was glad he had done so. The thought of being stuck in a television role for 6 ½ years, he said, sent chills down his spine.
He was generally considered an easygoing man, but he could occasionally get his dander up. In 2003, he wrote a scathing letter to the Washington Post, directed at its theater critic, Peter Marks. “I have returned from films and Broadway to do what I believe to have been two very good plays that were beautifully produced at Arena,” he wrote. “Theater in Washington has advanced greatly both in quantity and above all in artistic quality since my first days at Arena. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for your paper’s theater critic.”
According to Fichandler, Prosky was preparing for his next role at Arena Stage at the time of his death.
Prosky is survived by Ida Hove, his wife of forty-eight years, and his three sons, Stephan, Andrew and John.